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CHOICE voting member briefings 2021

December 2021 Board briefing

We're pleased to be writing to you with our final Board briefing for 2021.

If you missed our Consumer Forum and Annual General Meeting a few weeks ago, this briefing includes an update on the issues that were discussed. We also held our final Board meeting for the year, where the key items of business were:

  • a meeting with ASIC Commissioners
  • consumer interest in sustainable and ethical choices
  • principles for ethical use of artificial intelligence
  • our first Reconciliation Action Plan.

Consumer Forum and AGM

Thank you to the almost 100 voting members who joined us online on Thursday 25 November. This was the best attendance we've had at these events in some years, which made for some great conversation.

At the Consumer Forum before the AGM, CHOICE staff presented on:

  • our new work on misuse of data in ways that harms consumers
  • amplifying CHOICE's impact through crowdsourcing and crowdfunding with consumers
  • helping consumers to make sustainable and ethical choices.

We were thrilled with the range of questions and comments and, in particular, the strong support for our new priority of doing more to help consumers who want to make sustainable and ethical choices. We were also pleased to be able to report that since the end of the financial year, CHOICE membership has continued to grow, breaking through 200,000.

Our AGM had a particularly busy agenda, as it included resolutions to appoint a new auditor and to change our constitution to allow the Board to formally appoint co-chairs. We were pleased to see both of these resolutions approved with strong support.

Our Company Secretary, Sarah Coombs, reported on the outcome of our Board election, which saw existing directors Fiona Guthrie, Ben Naparstek and Samantha Challinor elected unopposed. We also reported that the Board had recently co-opted Jamie Pride as an additional director, to complement the skills of other directors. Read more about Jamie Pride's background.

The rest of this Board briefing provides an update on the issues covered at our Board meeting, which was held the day before our AGM.

Meeting with ASIC Commissioners

Each year we meet with Commissioners from the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, and this occurred as part of our Board meeting on 24 November. This annual discussion provides an opportunity to exchange views on the key areas of current and emerging risks to consumers in the financial system.

As ASIC has recently been through a change of leadership, we were pleased to meet new ASIC Chair Joe Longo and Deputy Chair Sarah Court and hear their thoughts on ASIC's role and approach to consumer protection.

We know that businesses aren't shy about telling ASIC what they think about its work, so we really welcome the opportunity to contribute to ASIC's thinking about its priorities.

Consumer interest in sustainable and ethical choices

In line with the commitment in our new strategy to do more to help consumers who want to make sustainable and ethical choices, we invited social researcher Rebecca Huntley to present some of her research to the Board. Over the past few years, Rebecca has undertaken deep research into community attitudes to climate change. As part of this, she has gathered data on the degree to which different groups of people are currently making environmentally friendly choices and the areas where people are looking for more information from trusted sources.

Rebecca's presentation emphasised to us that there are some big opportunities to help people make informed decisions about issues such as renewable energy, sustainable finance and environmentally friendly transport.

CHOICE has already done some great work in some of these areas – for example, through our work on household solar and on greener alternatives to products such as cling wrap. The management team is now working through Rebecca's research and some of CHOICE's own analysis to identify where we might be able to do more to meet this growing area of consumer interest.

Principles for ethical use of artificial intelligence

As more and more of the services we use are being powered by artificial intelligence (AI), CHOICE has been closely watching developments around the risks of AI and the need for strong ethical principles to guide its use.

When used well, AI can benefit consumers, such as by identifying emails that are likely to be scams. When used poorly, it can result in discrimination, such as treating people of a particular age group or cultural background in a different way.

CHOICE will soon start using AI in a small way in our interactions with members and other consumers. This will involve using software to automate some of the information that is presented on some pages of our website. This might mean, for example, that a CHOICE member (who is familiar with the organisation) sees different links to what a non-member sees (who may not know as much about CHOICE).

If this is successful, it should mean that visitors to choice.com.au will see information that is more relevant to their needs. We think this is a low-risk application of AI, but we feel it's important to set some clear guidelines before we start using AI in this way.

The management team presented a set of draft ethical principles, which the Board spent some time discussing. These are intended to ensure that we only use AI in ways that benefit consumers, and that we are transparent when we do. The draft principles will be revised based on the Board's feedback and published in the near future. We would particularly welcome any questions or feedback you might have on this issue.

Reconciliation Action Plan

While CHOICE has done some valuable work to improve protection for consumers from First Nations communities, this isn't currently part of a formal Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). If you're not familiar with the idea of a RAP, there is some excellent information on the Reconciliation Australia website.

Developing our first RAP is an important foundational step in our new strategy. It will ensure that we're thinking carefully about where we can have an impact and going about it in a way that respects the role of First Nations communities.

At this meeting, the Board spent some time discussing why reconciliation matters to CHOICE and how we might have the greatest impact. We recognised that our purpose is to work for fair, just and safe markets that meet the needs of Australian consumers, and that there is clear evidence that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are often the target of unfair and predatory business practices. Investigating unfair practices and working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations to improve consumer protection is therefore core to our purpose.

This was just the Board's first discussion about our RAP. We hope that our initial RAP will be submitted to Reconciliation Australia for feedback in early 2022.

We'll be back in touch after the Board's first meeting in early 2022.

We would like to thank you for your support throughout 2021. The messages of encouragement and generous donations from members have inspired us all to keep going through some challenging times. Most importantly, your support has helped us to achieve some big wins for consumers. We look forward to working with you to achieve even more in 2022.

Until then, we wish you and those close to you a safe and happy summer. Please feel free to email us at anitaandrobert@choice.com.au with any feedback or questions.

Regards


Board_Leadership_team_portraits_and_signatures_half

Anita Tang and Robert Southerton

Board leadership team


CHOICE has been championing your consumer rights since 1959. Fiercely independent and proudly nonprofit, your membership makes this possible. You can further support CHOICE by making a donation.


October 2021 Board briefing

We hope that wherever in Australia you live or the specifics of the COVID-19 situation in your location, you are keeping well. These are undoubtedly challenging times for those who live in locked down areas and for everyone who is separated from loved ones due to public health measures. Like many, we're taking heart in the fact that the increased speed of the vaccine rollout provides hope of greater protection from COVID-19.

And like many organisations, the pandemic context has not only changed the way we work, but also created some new challenges for consumers and for us as an organisation. These were part of the context for our deliberations when we met via videoconference on 27 September. Our discussions at this meeting included: 

  • our operations and performance in the financial year to date
  • plans for the Board election and AGM
  • our 2020–21 audited financial statements
  • the Board's role in workplace health and safety.

Update on CHOICE's operations and performance

Given that many people have experienced financial hardship as a result of COVID, a lot of our work has focused on fair treatment of people in hardship. Our recent investigations into the landlord insurance industry are an excellent example. In partnership with the WEstjustice community legal centre in Melbourne, we've highlighted a series of cases where insurers have hit tenants with large bills for damage to rental properties, some time after they have moved out and despite a lack of evidence that they caused the damage. 

Several insurers quickly dropped claims after being challenged by CHOICE – with a total value of more than $200,000 to date – including $78,000 for a couple who are CHOICE members. Besides helping achieve these outcomes for individuals, we've written to the corporate regulator ASIC to seek action against insurers that have acted unfairly.

You will no doubt be pleased to hear that our focus on continuing to help people through the challenges that we have all faced in recent months has helped us continue to boost CHOICE membership, which has grown to more than 199,000 since our last update.

Within CHOICE, the management team has been preparing for a gradual return of some staff to our building after more than three months of working from home. This has included drafting a vaccination policy in consultation with staff, which will require employees who undertake higher risk activities to be fully vaccinated. By the time you read this briefing, we will have restarted some product testing in our laboratories in Sydney. While our testing staff have found creative ways to test products and help consumers while working from home, those who are returning to our labs are glad to be getting back to what they love doing.

Board election

Each year, three out of nine positions on the Board are up for election. At our July meeting we appointed a Nominations Committee and in August we called for nominations. At this Board meeting, we received an update from the Company Secretary and Nominations Committee on arrangements for the potential Board election. 

Since the Board meeting, several candidates have withdrawn their nominations. This means that the other candidates will be elected unopposed, with no election required. The Company Secretary will provide a report on the election outcomes at the AGM.

Annual General Meeting

As this was our last meeting before our AGM, we were required to approve the final arrangements for the meeting. Earlier in the year, we had hoped to hold a 'hybrid' AGM, allowing some people to attend in person in Sydney and others to attend virtually. But given the constantly changing situation with COVID and public health regulations, and in the interests of being as accessible as possible to everyone, we have now decided to hold this year's AGM entirely online, as we did last year. We received positive feedback on the quality of last year's AGM, especially from members who live outside Sydney, and hope to do an even better job this year.

We also approved two important resolutions for you to consider at this year's AGM:

  • Changes to our constitution: Having informally trialled a co-chairing arrangement this year, we're proposing a change that would allow (but not require) the Board to formally appoint co-chairs in the future. We're also proposing a few other changes to the constitution, to remove redundant clauses and update it to reflect changes in the law.
  • Change of auditor: As Pitcher Partners has been our auditor since 2015, earlier this year we initiated a review of audit arrangements as part of good governance practice. Having sought expressions of interest from a range of firms, we will be recommending the appointment of HLB Mann Judd with effect from the end of the AGM.

The notice of AGM will include an explanatory note with more information on each of these proposed resolutions, but please feel free to email us at anitaandrobert@choice.com.au if you have any questions.

As with previous years, we'll be holding a forum for voting members immediately before the AGM, with presentations from staff and the opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback. 

Audited financial statements

The Board was also required to approve our audited financial statements for 2020–21.

The audited statements confirm the preliminary results that we reported in our last Board briefing, showing that CHOICE managed to grow membership and total revenue despite challenging circumstances, helping us to return to surplus after four years of planned deficits. The statements include more detailed commentary about the factors that contributed to these results.

We also received a report from our current auditors, Pitcher Partners, on the overall audit process and their review of controls at CHOICE. This was a very positive report, with the auditors identifying no significant errors or issues of concern.

You'll receive a link to the audited financial statements with the notice of AGM.

The Board's role in workplace health and safety

As directors, we are responsible for ensuring that CHOICE has appropriate practices to support workplace health and safety. As well as receiving a detailed report on WHS at each Board meeting, we occasionally devote some time to refreshing our knowledge about our legal responsibilities.

CHOICE staff and our specialist WHS adviser presented at this meeting, using several scenarios to tease out potential risks to staff and the role of the Board in preventing and responding to injuries. We were pleased to recognise the broad manner in which CHOICE thinks about safety and wellbeing, to encompass not only physical injury but also psychological injury and mental wellbeing.

Our next Board meeting is on 24 November, followed by our online member forum and AGM on 25 November. We hope to see you there. In the meantime, please feel free to email us at anitaandrobert@choice.com.au with any feedback or questions.

Regards


Board_Leadership_team_portraits_and_signatures_half

Anita Tang and Robert Southerton

Board leadership team


CHOICE has been championing your consumer rights since 1959. Fiercely independent and proudly nonprofit, your membership makes this possible. You can further support CHOICE by making a donation.


Since we last wrote to you, many of our members have been affected by COVID-19 lockdowns in different parts of the country. We're very conscious that these impact people in many different ways some have lost jobs or income, some are struggling with homeschooling children, while others are unable to visit sick or elderly family members. We hope that wherever you are, you are keeping safe and well. If you have any thoughts on how CHOICE can better help consumers through this period, please let us know. 

If you are one of the over 800 voting members whose application was approved at our recent Board meeting, welcome! As a Board, we're committed to transparency in our governance, so you will receive an update like this after each Board meeting. 

We met via video conference on 26 July and besides approving these new voting members, discussed: 

  • the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns 
  • CHOICE's performance during 2020-21 
  • our impact priorities for the next year 
  • an upgrade to our content management system 
  • preparations for the Board election and AGM 

Impact of COVID-19 lockdowns 

At the time of our meeting, people in parts of three states were in lockdown. Greater Sydney continues to be in lockdown and snap lockdowns are becoming more common across the country in response to the Delta strain of COVID-19. Our CEO, Alan Kirkland, provided an update on how CHOICE is responding. 

As CHOICE is based in Sydney, the lockdown has a particular impact on our operations. We have closed our building, including our testing labs, with all staff working from home. That means that our testers are once again being creative, using the time out of our labs to test products from home or work on other projects. We found in 2020 that we were able to continue helping consumers despite an interruption to our normal operations and are confident that we can do it again. 

We understand, however, that working from home is difficult for many people, including those who live alone or have children they need to care for or assist with home schooling. We were pleased to hear about the range of things the organisation is doing to provide flexibility to staff and support their wellbeing. 

Performance through 2020–21 

As this was the first meeting of the new financial year, we received a range of reports assessing the organisation's performance through the last year. 

The Board was impressed with what the organisation was able to achieve in volatile and unexpected circumstances. While we'll report in more detail in the annual review that we'll send you in the lead-up to our AGM, to give you a sneak peek: 

  • membership grew by over 17,000 (almost 10%) across the year 
  • visits to choice.com.au grew 4% across the year and was as much as 12% higher in some peak months 
  • we helped to secure some important wins on behalf of consumers, in areas as diverse as reliability of hand sanitiser labelling, bushfire insurance and superannuation. 

Importantly, these results were driven by a lot of creativity and flexibility on the part of CHOICE staff, who identified and responded to new issues through the year as the conditions created by COVID-19 continued to change. 

We also received a preliminary report on financial results. Our audit is currently underway but we can confidently say that growth in membership drove significant growth in revenue, helping us to deliver a surplus, as promised to members at last year's AGM. This is an important result, as we had intended to return the budget to surplus after several years of investment in the organisation through planned deficits. 

We also took this opportunity to conduct our annual review of the CEO's performance. The Board is of the view that Alan has done an excellent job in steering the organisation through the challenges of COVID-19 and beyond. The past year has seen significant disruptions and uncertainty and he has done well in leading CHOICE, particularly in maintaining a focused workforce and seizing opportunities to have important impact on consumer issues relevant to the pandemic. 

Impact priorities 

Each year our Campaigns team goes through a rigorous process of analysing opportunities for CHOICE to have an impact on behalf of consumers, through advocating for changes to legislation or industry practices. We received a presentation on the proposed priorities for 2021-22, which include: 

  • Misuse of data: As part of our new strategy, we have decided to invest in driving changes in some areas that are important to consumers but new to CHOICE. The first of these is the way that large businesses use consumers' data in ways that cause harm. Look out for more on this issue in the coming months. 
  • Fair banking: We want to secure the remaining reforms recommended by the banking royal commission, including a compensation scheme for people who would otherwise miss out. We will also continue to work with other consumer groups to stop the government's attempt to scrap safe lending laws. 
  • Better quality products: We will use current inquiries into a Right to Repair and water efficiency labelling to push for reforms that make products more durable and sustainable. 
  • Climate and insurance: As the increased frequency and severity of natural disasters pushes up the cost of insurance, many people are being locked out of the market. We want to work with other organisations on solutions that can provide people with greater peace of mind and financial security. 
  • Travel: As our recent report on travel rights during COVID-19 demonstrated, there are major gaps in protections for people whose travel arrangements are cancelled. We will push governments and industry to improve consumer rights and customer service. 

In all of these areas, we'll have a particular focus on the experiences of disadvantaged or vulnerable consumers. We'll also continue to push for reforms in some of our traditional areas like product safety, unfair contract terms and unfair trading practices as opportunities arise. During the year, we also plan to start scoping some potential future priorities, such as aged care. 

If you are not already part of our community of campaign supporters who help us to push for change in these areas, you can sign up.

Content management system upgrade 

The Board was asked to approve funding for a large technology project - an upgrade to our content management system. This is the key system that allows us to organise and publish the content that you read on our website. The current system is based on software that will reach the end of its useful life at the end of 2022, so needs to be replaced. 

The Board was happy to approve this, noting that it is a large and complex project, expected to take around 18 months to complete. The end product should be technology that's better able to help us to help consumers and campaign for change. 

Board election and AGM 

We made a range of decisions to set up the process for this year's AGM and Board elections. You should have recently received a preliminary notice of our AGM on 25 November. At this stage we plan to hold a hybrid event, with the opportunity to attend face-to-face in Sydney or online. That will of course depend on the nature of public health restrictions and advice in Sydney at the time. 

The preliminary notice of AGM also includes a call for nominations to the Board. There are three positions to be filled in this year's election, and the three directors who currently fill those positions have indicated that they intend to nominate for re-election. Under our constitution, the Board is required to identify specific skill gaps that should be priorities for the election. Having been through a detailed process of assessing skills on the Board, the priorities for this year's election are: 

  • financial strategy, oversight and risk management 
  • high-level strategic and commercial operations 
  • membership and subscriptions 
  • digital content, products and services. 

Further information on these skills and the nomination process is available by contacting our Company Secretary, Sarah Coombs at companysec@choice.com.au

We also decided to propose a constitutional change to the AGM, to allow the Board to appoint co-chairs. While, since November 2020, the two of us have been sharing the role of leading the Board, the current constitution requires us to be appointed as Chair and Deputy Chair rather than as formal co-chairs. The Board sees value in allowing a more formal co-chairing arrangement from time to time, so has requested advice on how to draft some changes to the constitution for members to consider at the AGM. 

What's next 

The Board next meets in late September, so we'll be back in touch after that. In the meantime, please feel free to email us at anitaandrobert@choice.com.au with any questions or feedback. 

Regards 

Board_Leadership_team_portraits_and_signatures_half

Anita Tang and Robert Southerton

Board leadership team


CHOICE has been championing your consumer rights since 1959. Fiercely independent and proudly nonprofit, your membership makes this possible. You can further support CHOICE by making a donation.


June 2021 Board briefing

It's hard to believe that we're already approaching the middle of 2021! The year to date has been mixed for many, and our thoughts are with all those affected by the current COVID situation in Victoria. We hope everyone is staying safe and well across the country.

The Board held a full-day meeting on 24 May, where the major items on our agenda were:

  • an update on performance in the current financial year
  • our new three-year strategy
  • our budget for next year
  • cash bonuses for executive staff
  • preparations for the Board election.

Performance in the current financial year

We are pleased to report that our membership has continued to grow since our last update. We now have more than 194,000 members, an increase of over 2000 since March. While membership has been growing more slowly through May we expect to see some further growth through the June sales period, and to finish the financial year with a healthy level of year-on-year growth.

While our other sources of revenue have suffered due to COVID-19, the growth in membership means that we are on track to finish the year with a small surplus in our financial accounts. That will be consistent with the commitment we have made to voting members to return the budget to surplus after several years of large deficits that enabled us to invest in growing the capabilities the organisation needs to remain sustainable.

We have also achieved some great successes in our impact work over the past few months, with our work on bushfire insurance a highlight. You may recall that during the 'Black Summer' bushfires in early 2020, CHOICE found a number of unfair exclusions on bushfire cover in home and contents insurance policies. We recently checked again, and approached insurers that had failed to fix the problem over the past year. Some responded but some still resisted, so we published their names as a warning to consumers. This shamed the laggards into action and, as a result, all home and contents insurance policies now have acceptable definitions of bushfire damage. 

Our new three-year strategy

Since we last communicated to you in early May about the work on our new strategy, we've received feedback from some of you, and the management team has tested the strategy with staff. We had our final discussion about the strategy at this Board meeting and were pleased to approve it.

The new strategy commits us to three key outcomes over the next three years:

1. We drive big changes and more people know us for it

Building upon our success in recent years, we want to drive change in new areas of importance for consumers. We'll do this by doing what CHOICE does best – putting together the best mix of experts with skills in research, investigative journalism and campaigning, to identify where consumers are experiencing harm, and to campaign for reform. In doing this, we want to work with people like you, as well as with partner organisations that share similar values to ours. Our campaigns team has done some excellent work to analyse some of the new issues we could work on, and we look forward to sharing the first of these with you in the next few months.

We'll also want to continue to respond to issues that emerge and require a rapid response – as we did with bushfire insurance – and to talk more about the changes we achieve for consumers, so more people know about this part of our work.

2. Our membership is larger and more engaged

Having seen how we've been able to grow membership during the COVID-19 pandemic, we now want to take that further. To do this, we plan to create new ways of helping members, so as to attract new people to CHOICE and broaden the ways in which we assist current members. This will include doing more to meet the needs of the growing number of people who seek sustainable options when buying products and services.

We also want more of our members to be actively engaged in CHOICE, so we'll be focusing on encouraging people to do more with us more often, whether that's participating in our campaigns, helping other members via our online community, or helping us to research problems as part of crowd-sourced investigations.

When we consulted on our earlier thinking in this area, some of you asked whether this meant we'd be stopping product testing, so it's important to say that's not our intention. We want to keep doing the things that members value but we also recognise that there are now important issues that affect consumers beyond products where we need to fight for fair, just and safe markets. 

3. We are an organisation that people want to join and work for

We want CHOICE to role model the sorts of changes we want to see in the world. This area of the strategy will involve building a more diverse and inclusive team and workplace, so that we're able to attract and retain the best people and meet the needs of an increasingly diverse Australian community. It will also involve focusing on how we build teams within the organisation that can collaborate to drive better outcomes for consumers. Finally, we'll apply an ethical and sustainable lens to the way we operate, which will include being open and ethical about the way in which we handle people's data, taking further action to reduce our carbon emissions, and thinking about how to expand our positive social impact.

Underpinning all of these strategies, we'll continue to make sure that our operations are effective and efficient, so that we're making the best use of our resources.

As well as approving the strategy, we've set a range of targets to measure our impact for consumers, people's engagement with CHOICE, our financial sustainability and our social and environmental performance. We'll be reporting on progress against these targets during the life of the strategy.

We're excited to see what our people can achieve under this new strategy, so thanks to those of you who provided the feedback that helped us to refine it.

Our budget for next year

We have approved a budget for 2021–22 that supports the first year of the strategy. We expect to continue to grow membership – although not quite as rapidly as we have over the past year. We're also hoping to continue to grow revenue from our CHOICE Recommended scheme, which recognises high-quality products, and donations from members who feel inspired to contribute a little more to support our work.  

We'll keep most expenses close to what they have been this year but will increase expenditure on data and cybersecurity, so that we can better understand how people are engaging with CHOICE while ensuring that the personal data we collect is stored safely. We'll also provide a pay rise to our staff to recognise increases in cost of living. They were very patient while we froze salaries in 2020, given our uncertainty about the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on CHOICE.

Overall, we expect to deliver another small surplus by June 2022. 

Decision on cash bonuses for executive staff

For the last decade or so, CHOICE has provided small cash bonuses – to a maximum of 10% of salary – to a small number of management roles. The decision to introduce this approach pre-dates the current Board members and management team, and the practice has been less common under our current CEO. Given broader debates in recent years about the value, impact and appropriateness of bonuses, we felt it important to revisit whether CHOICE should be providing cash bonuses as part of its remuneration system.

We spent some time discussing this issue at the meeting, noting that there is no good source of evidence on good practice in not-for-profit organisations, and that the research on the effectiveness of bonuses in general is contested.

Given the diversity of backgrounds of directors, there were a range of views explored. We noted that we offer competitive salaries and attract senior people who are motivated by the purpose of the organisation. Given the absence of broader evidence about the value of cash bonuses or comparators from similar organisations, and considerations around the practical and ethical issues relating to cash bonuses, we decided that executive bonuses aren't an appropriate or necessary remuneration practice for CHOICE for now, so we'll be phasing out the few that remain. We are encouraging the CEO to continue to work with staff to identify the best ways to reward and recognise high performance at all levels within the organisation.

Preparations for the Board election

Under our constitution, we're required to let voting members know the skills that the Board considers to be priorities in the Board election process when we call for nominations each year. As the first step in this process, we identify the overall set of skills required to provide effective governance of the organisation, which provides the basis for a detailed audit of the skills of existing directors. We spent some time at this meeting discussing these skills and considering them in the light of our new three-year strategy. We'll let you know which of those have been identified as high priorities in our next update, which will come around the same time as the call for nominations.

What's next?

We're next meeting in late July to review our performance in 2020–21 and check on how the management team is going with the early stages of delivering the new strategy. We're also hoping to be able to use that gathering to hold a farewell dinner for our former Chair, Sandra Davey, which wasn't possible last year due to travel restrictions. I'm sure those of you who remember Sandra's updates during time as Chair will be glad to know that we're doing this.

We'll be back in touch in early August, but in the meantime please feel free to email us at anitaandrobert@choice.com.au with any feedback or questions.

Regards


Board_Leadership_team_portraits_and_signatures_half

Anita Tang and Robert Southerton

Board leadership team


CHOICE has been championing your consumer rights since 1959. Fiercely independent and proudly nonprofit, your membership makes this possible. You can further support CHOICE by making a donation.


Anita Board thumbRobert Board thumb

If you're on the eastern seaboard, we hope that you have come through the recent rains and flooding okay. These events have certainly highlighted the importance of some of the work CHOICE is doing to make insurance for extreme weather events easier to understand and more accessible.

The Board met – thankfully on a sunny day – on 26 March. This meeting was a joint Board and management strategy workshop, where we discussed some of the major opportunities and challenges facing CHOICE and how we should respond to them over the next three years. This was the next step in a series of discussions that will ultimately lead to a new three-year strategy for the organisation.

Opportunities and threats facing CHOICE

The management team had prepared some analysis of key trends in our external environment likely to affect consumers and CHOICE. This built on some of the scenario planning that we discussed at our previous Board meeting, which considered the impact of factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, the growth of big data and shifting government attitudes to regulation. Drawing upon this information, we discussed the key opportunities and threats facing the organisation, and our key strengths and weaknesses in responding to them.

We discussed the most important of these, which included:

  • the need to ensure that members receive ongoing value from their relationship with CHOICE, whether that's through our testing, editorial work or campaigns
  • the importance of differentiating CHOICE from product review businesses through focusing more on helping consumers in services markets and emphasising our unique role as a consumer advocacy organisation
  • the growing use of data by businesses, which is rapidly changing the way consumers experience products and services
  • the rise of interest in consumers making values-based decisions (for example sustainable and ethical)
  • the opportunity to further grow CHOICE's membership base, given the growth we have seen over the past year
  • the risk that CHOICE's financial success is too closely tied to the health of the household goods market
  • the importance of our purpose as a pro-consumer organisation, which sets us apart from for-profit businesses that compare goods and services.

Strategic goals for CHOICE

We then discussed the key goals that should form the basis of our next three-year strategy. While we haven't settled on the final wording at this stage in the process, we agreed that our strategy will be built around:

1. Growing our impact

This will involve tackling some big reform priorities, with a willingness to pursue them over two to three years if that's what it takes. Some of these will need to be new issues, to ensure that CHOICE remains relevant to changing markets and the most pressing needs of consumers. 

Learning from our success in recent years, it will also involve throwing the right mix of skills at problems – including campaigning, data analysis, testing and investigative journalism, depending on the issue. In some areas, we'll also look for partnerships with other organisations that can complement our skills and knowledge.

While working on longer term priorities, we also want to build upon the 'rapid response' capability that has allowed us to respond to key moments or crisis needs around issues such as insurers not providing adequate cover for bushfire damage, or businesses selling ineffective hand sanitiser.

2. Improving our sustainability

We believe the key to our sustainability needs to be growing membership and engagement with our members beyond a subscription model. 

In recent years, we have been concerned about being over-reliant on membership fees as a source of income given that many membership organisations are struggling to grow membership. The experience of the last 18 months and in particular the rapid growth in membership through the pandemic has, however, taught us that we can grow membership if we're offering something that people value.

Over the next three years, we aim to grow membership by offering new ways to help consumers and by growing the ways in which members are involved in our work – whether that's supporting our campaigns, responding to surveys, helping us with investigations or indeed becoming voting members. 

Ultimately, this should not only help to secure our financial sustainability – by attracting more people and encouraging them to stay with us – it also enables our  goal of growing our impact. 

3. CHOICE as an organisational role model

Given CHOICE's role as a values-driven, nonprofit organisation, we think it's important for our strategy to ensure that we are the type of organisation we want to see in the world. We therefore expect a third goal of the strategy to focus on how CHOICE role models good behaviour, in terms of how we engage with consumers, how we treat their data, the sort of workplace we provide for our staff, and the impact that we have on our community and the environment.

In the next stage of the process, we'll be thinking more about what each of these key goals mean in detail, and the likely priorities for the first year of the new strategy.

We would welcome your feedback at this stage. In particular, we'd be interested to know whether there are other key threats or opportunities that you think we should be responding to over the next three to five years.

We're holding a short meeting via video conference in late April, then our next full meeting in late May will approve the new three-year strategy and our budget and priorities for next year. 

We'll be back in touch after those meetings, but in the meantime please feel free to email us at anitaandrobert@choice.com.au with any feedback or questions.

Regards


Board_Leadership_team_portraits_and_signatures_half

Anita Tang and Robert Southerton

Board leadership team


CHOICE has been championing your consumer rights since 1959. Fiercely independent and proudly nonprofit, your membership makes this possible. You can further support CHOICE by making a donation.


Anita Board thumbRobert Board thumb

Welcome to our first Board briefing of 2021.

After a year of meeting online, we were thrilled to be able to hold our first face-to-face Board meeting in 12 months on 26 February. While, like everybody else, we have learned how to work well together through virtual meetings, we all enjoyed the opportunity to get together in person. We hope to be able to do this for most of our Board meetings in 2021.

Our meeting included:

  • welcoming new directors
  • election of officers
  • appointing Board committees
  • an update on performance
  • our future strategy.

Welcoming new directors

We were pleased to welcome three directors to their first meeting. Fiona Jolly and Kat George were elected in the ballot held before last year's Annual General Meeting. Fiona is an experienced non-executive director and senior executive, with a background in food and advertising regulation. Kat has a strong background in consumer protection and human rights policy, and currently works at the Essential Services Commission of Victoria. You can read more about their background on the CHOICE website

The other new director to join us was Samantha Challinor, who was appointed to a casual vacancy on the Board and as Chair of our Finance, Risk and Audit Committee, as reported in our last Board briefing.

Fiona, Kat and Samantha are all enthusiastic members of CHOICE and bring a diverse range of skills and backgrounds. They are already making valuable contributions to our work.

Election of officers

Under our Constitution, we are required to appoint the officers of the Board at the first meeting of each calendar year.

We were pleased to be confirmed as Chair and Deputy Chair and CHOICE employee Sarah Coombs, from whom you will have received emails from time to time, was reappointed as Company Secretary.

Appointing Board Committees

The Board has four committees, covering:

  • Finance, Risk and Audit
  • Governance and Culture
  • Impact and Engagement
  • Commercial Sustainability.

We revised the composition of these committees to make sure that each has the right mix of skills and perspectives, as well as appointing our new Board members to them.

Update on performance

As we've now passed the halfway point of the financial year, we received a range of reports on how the organisation was going.

We were pleased to recognise some important reforms that CHOICE helped to achieve in December – a range of changes to financial services laws recommended by the banking royal commission – including a ban on 'hawking' of insurance and superannuation products – and a new standard for button batteries.

The risks around button batteries were highlighted in an Australian Story program on 15 February, featuring two amazing woman – Allison Rees and Andrew Shoesmith – whom CHOICE has supported to tell their stories of losing children due to button batteries. The new standard will go a long way towards preventing similar tragedies in the future.

We were also pleased to receive an update on growth in membership. CHOICE's membership has grown by more than 15,000 in the past 12 months, taking it to more than 192,000 as at the date of the meeting. This is in many ways a reflection of the work we have done to improve the experience of membership and to make sure that we have been campaigning and producing information on the most important issues for consumers, especially over the past 12 months.

Because membership is CHOICE's key source of revenue, the strong membership results put us on track to end the year with a surplus after several years of planned deficits, as reported at the AGM.

Our future strategy

Approving the organisation's strategy is an important role of the Board. Our current strategy ends on 30 June 2021 and developing a new strategy is an important priority for the next few months. We devoted a large part of this meeting to the first stage of discussions about our next strategy.

This included an examination of CHOICE's performance over the past three to five years, based on detailed analysis provided by management. This allowed us to reflect on what factors have driven improvements and where we need to do better.

We also spent some time discussing some future scenarios that had been developed by the management team. These were based on some key external trends or 'drivers' that are likely to have a significant impact on CHOICE and consumer rights over the next five years. This was a complex discussion that involved looking at the interplay between factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the growth of businesses that hold large amounts of consumer data, government pressure to deregulate markets, and the increasing impacts of climate change.

The purpose of this exercise was to understand how the environment we operate in may change, and what we need to do to make sure that CHOICE is able to respond to these types of changes.

These were just initial discussions but they helped us to start to identify some of the key issues that we need to consider in our next strategy. We'll be taking these discussions further in our next few meetings.

The Board will be meeting again in late March for an all-day workshop exclusively devoted to our strategy. We look forward to sharing some of our thinking about CHOICE's priorities for the next three years and inviting your feedback.

In the meantime, if you have any feedback or questions, please feel free to email us at anitaandrobert@choice.com.au.

Regards


Board_Leadership_team_portraits_and_signatures_half

Anita Tang and Robert Southerton

Board leadership team


See CHOICE voting member briefings from 2020