I was asked to join the board of directors of the Cape Winelands Biosphere Reserve (CWBR) in July 2014.
An honour indeed; or so I thought. This area encompasses one of the most beautiful regions anywhere in the world. It embraces more opportunities than challenges. It has — by virtue of its inhabitants, landowners and institutions — access to more brains, entrepreneurial spirit, drive and personal wealth than you’ll find almost anywhere in the world.
I resigned from the board in August 2015, believing that I could not continue being part of a board of directors that was not providing any competent direction and oversight, and was not, in my opinion, meeting its legal responsibilities.
In my 13 months as a director, we never saw a single financial statement, even of the most rudimentary kind. In January 2015, when management shortcomings became critical (because an AGM was scheduled for May 2015) a bookkeeper was appointed to prepare the books. By August 2015, when I left, there was still nothing to show and AGMs planned for December 2015 and January 2016 never materialised, with difficulties in receiving an audit cited for the delays. As far as I know, the CWBR Company received between R650,000 and R1 million in local government funding during 2015 and an unspecified amount from private & foreign donors.
Just before I joined the board, the CWBR had won six Green Flag awards from provincial premier Helen Zille. When I was helping finalise the previous year’s Annual Report for publication, I needed to understand the projects the Biosphere was engaged in. (The 2013/14 Annual Report was never published — Wessel Rabbets, the director responsible for the Company’s finances and administration, said it related to a period before he became a director and was therefore not interested in it.)
It became apparent to me that several of the Biosphere’s projects were not in fact projects at all, but were little more than a discussion or two over drinks. They were certainly good ideas, but certainly not projects, and as such devalued the whole Green Flag project — a potential embarrassment.
This started a long debate on what is and what is not a project. Eventually it was agreed that every Biosphere project needed to have its own business plan, with key performance indicators, and an income/expenditure budget that was approved by the board.
In my 13 months, the board never approved a single business plan, and it was not for want of asking.
When I joined the board, I also asked what the Company’s core business was.
Since it has no assets, no legislated authority and very few resources, surely the focus should be to inform, inspire and educate? So surely its primary focus must be as a marketing company? I put this to the chairman who said he didn’t have time to respond and forwarded it to a CapeNature official.
This sort of proposition doesn’t go down well with people who see themselves as conservationists!
Eventually the board agreed to hold a Strategic Planning session — in December 2014. It was facilitated by Wessel Rabbets, the director responsible for the Company’s finances and administration. The following was agreed to by the board:
To innovatively achieve a balance between human development and nature in the Cape Winelands Biosphere Reserve.
To achieve our vision by:
- Starting Conversations;
- Influencing Decision Makers;
- Inspire, Inform & Educate Open Society; and
- Promoting Best Practice.
The Strategic Plan was never completed (during my tenure) but there was enough in it to motivate for the appointment of a Marketing/Communications/Fundraising/Membership manager to support Mark Heistein, the CEO and only person on the payroll (after Heidi Muller resigned from the board and as a marketing consultant).
Since the chairman felt that a secretary could fulfill these functions, I was asked to prepare a job description, which I did. The only director to respond felt that this would be usurping the CEO’s role.
It was apparent that the other directors didn’t have a clue about the resources the company needed, which was completely unfair on the CEO. Just too much was being expected of him. From before I even joined the board and repeatedly since, Mark made it clear that he knows nothing about marketing and his formal communication skills are lacking.
My patience with Wessel Rabbets snapped in the middle of 2015. Apart from rarely attending board meetings, he had at the outset promised clean and effective administration and financial management — which I don’t believe he delivered on. I believe he should have been replaced, a view the chairman and CEO were well aware of.
There were requests from one creditor for payment which dragged on for almost a year. Another, after asking for goods purchased to be returned, resorted to appealing to a related organisation asking them to pay CWBR’s bill. It was only after appealing to the chairman that they did get paid, and only after responses from the CEO saying that the matter “had been sorted”, when it clearly had not been.
In January 2016 when I started putting down notes for this story, I went to see if there was any new “News” on CWBR’s website. It was offline for non-payment of the annual domain registration fee. The domain (capewinelandsbiosphere.co.za) was terminated at the end of February and, as of the morning of March 2, is available to anybody on a first-come first-served basis!
I hope they get their website sorted out soon so they can publish their 2014/15 Annual Report and financial statements.
In the Chairman’s Report of the incomplete 2014/15 Annual Report that I saw in May 2015, there was an implied criticism of my marketing portfolio: “Very little of our achievements has reached the news media.” The fact is that CWBR achieved very little during the 2014/15 financial year.
And when around 6,000 trees were planted in the following financial year outside Stellenbosch, it was impossible to plan any PR around the event. Even the chairman expressed dismay that he hadn’t been asked to speak at a function to announce the event.
Do the Winelands Biosphere’s achievements pass the “So what” test when so many achievements elsewhere are taking place?
The Cape Wine Auction, held for the second time in 2016, raises funds for education in the winelands. In 2015 it raised R10 million; in 2016 it was R15 million.
At Platbos Forest Reserve, Africa’s Southernmost Forest near Gansbaai, you’ll find an indigenous forest with trees that are over 1000 years old. Platbos is not reliant on any local government funding but lots of individual donors and volunteers: they’ve planted 30,204 new trees as of February 2016!
I was asked to tackle three tasks as a paid consultant after I resigned. One was cancelled half way through and CWBR was billed for costs to that point. One, a business plan, was completed and submitted, and paid for. When I asked some time later whether they were proceeding with it, I was flabbergasted to be told by the chairman that it was not what they wanted. Surely one engages with someone to make sure you get what you paid for? I had followed the CEO’s brief. Will CWBR’s 2015/16 audit show these items as fruitless and wasteful expenditure?
So what’s the point of this story? One goes through all sorts of experiences in life and if one doesn’t learn from them, they will have been little more than a waste of time.
It’s clear in my mind that the CWBR company simply doesn’t work. So I hope this story will stir debate.
When I asked “Who owns the CWBR company?” I was told that the directors do. Does this mean that they are answerable only to themselves? Surely this needs to be reviewed?
NGOs like the CWBR cannot be an old boys’ club or mutual admiration society. They need to have a far wider constituency. Local government funding should only kick in after the company has (say) 500 or 1000 members, preferably paid-up and contributing to the organisation’s costs. They should be member-based organisations where members have a sense of ownership and benefit.
Paid-up members will hold the company more accountable and will introduce a far better dynamic when it comes to appointing directors. At present, the CEO’s suggestions for new board members are usually endorsed by the board. Strengthening the board must be a priority.
Since the CWBR started receiving provincial government funding in the middle of 2015, more onerous reporting has been required by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning (DEADP) (which oversees biosphere reserves in the Western Cape). Better reporting is a good thing, but mindless bureaucratic formats — where meetings attended count more than achievements — will chase any competent director away. Bureaucracy trumps Vision at the DEADP as far as biosphere reserves are concerned.