Community leaders give advice on resolving conflict within volunteer organisations

Lock the Nambucca Valley has been a successful anti-mining campaign staffed entirely by volunteers.

COMMUNITY activism is a popular pastime for many Australians.

Over the past decade, thousands of community activist groups have come together over various causes from the environment to Covid measures, mining operations, river health and intensive farming practices to name but a few.

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In the Nambucca Valley many of these groups, made up of volunteers, have united, often over a common local issue, to lobby local, state, federal governments or just their fellow community members into changing their ways.

Many of these organisations begin with a public meeting and some evolve into something official, forming a charity or registering as an “incorporated association”, as has the recently established Nambucca Environment Network Inc., a group which has come together to lobby the cause for more regulation of intensive blueberry farming in the Nambucca Valley.

Inevitably, after the initial excitement of members discovering each other and a common cause, these fledgling organisations sometimes begin to suffer from personality differences, politics and in-fighting.

Many groups end up self-destructing or becoming ineffective at achieving their goals because of tensions between group members.

“People see fighting and think it’s going to be stressful as a member of a particular group, so they don’t join in,” Georgette Allen of the Nambucca Valley Conservation Association (NVCA) told NOTA.

NVCA has been operating and achieving its aims for over 40 years and has taken on many causes under its umbrella over the decades.

One of NVCA’s projects recently reported on by this paper was Lock the Nambucca Valley (LNV), a subgroup which actively campaigns against mining in the area.

Georgette has some advice for those who would like to start up a community action group.

“Don’t think you have to stand alone.

“See who is already doing what, because there may already be a group of people working on a similar cause.”

She credits a genuine love and care for each other amongst the core group members as the secret to a group’s longevity.

“I have to remind myself that people are very passionate about the issue and even if I don’t like what they are doing, I tell myself that at least they are doing something,” she said.

Marion Syrat of Bowraville has also had vast experience with community organisations.

“These groups are all populated by volunteers,” she told NOTA.

“If we were paid employees, there would be respect for the boss and the rules,” Marion explained.

“People often don’t have the skills to do what they volunteer for, but they volunteer either because of their ego or because nobody else will do it.

“For example, to become incorporated, you will legally have to nominate someone to be director and nobody else might want to do it,” she said.

Once organisations register as “incorporated associations” in NSW they must agree to abide by terms set out by the Department of Fair Trading.

They have yearly reporting obligations and membership must consist of at least five persons, one of whom agrees to be a director for the group.

The members also agree to adopt a “constitution”.

The Department of Fair Trading provides a model constitution which can be modified but is assumed to have been adopted if the members of the incorporated association don’t come up with their own.

This constitution is legally binding and becoming incorporated means the organisation assumes an identity of its own and can be sued, can open a bank account or own property.

An agreed set of rules and core values, such as can be found in a constitution or a code of conduct, was cited by many of the people NOTA spoke to who are active in community groups.

One professional with years of experience in this field is Nambucca Valley Council’s Mayor of 20 years, Rhonda Hoban OAM.

Before being elected to Council, Rhonda herself was a community activist, lobbying the council over which she would one day preside.

She has some advice for those who would like to make changes in their community.

“Put forward your ideas calmly and respectfully.

“Use logic and evidence to convince others of your idea,” she told NOTA.

“Never use aggression or bullying to get your point across or you risk alienating those you are trying to persuade and losing the support of those who agree with you,” she added.

She has seen conflicts between elected councillors in the past and acknowledges the passion many people feel for certain projects.

“But if you didn’t put forward a good enough argument to change people’s minds, it’s not their failing, it’s yours,” she said.

One successful community activist with a different point of view is the outspoken Frank Partridge VC Military Museum President, Blue Manning.

“I’ve had a lot of conflict over the years,” he told NOTA.

“At the end of the day it’s my way or the highway.”

At times he has had trouble convincing others that what he dreams of can be achieved, but rather than wait for their approval he says he has simply marched up to State MPs and powerbrokers to make his case.

“A lot of people just shook their heads and said: ‘It can’t be done’.

“But I didn’t listen to them,” he said of how the old Nambucca Valley Council chambers in Bowraville came to be the location of the museum.

He said the same thing happened when he wanted to get street signs on the major roads directing visitors to the museum, but he didn’t let it dissuade him.

In the end, the signs went up.

“It is becoming increasingly difficult for willing people to volunteer because of the bureaucracy and personal responsibility that now comes with such roles – and yet, volunteers are the lifeblood of the community,” Mayor Hoban told NOTA.


The Frank Partridge VC Military Museum is housed in what used to be the council chambers in Bowraville.

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