A change in power

While all agreed that changes were needed and worked hard to implement them, not every adjustment was welcome. Modifying the function and structure of the Board – from the former JAC arrangement to the new Board of Directors model – also changed the distribution of power, especially in regards to decision-making, taking it away from the VAC/GMHC volunteers and giving it to the Board. ‘And that was a big problem’, argues Kevin Guiney, ‘because there were so many volunteers [and they] were the core right back at the beginning’.25

From the very inception of the VAAC in 1983, volunteers were integral. Until 1985, the organisation was solely made up of volunteers. While paid staff members began to come onboard with an increase in government funding, they continued to remain far outnumbered by volunteers. Staff held management and leadership roles, but ultimately, the control of the organisation lay with its volunteers. Without volunteers there would have been no Support Program, no Education Program and in short, no VAC/GMHC. ‘The staff were there to support the volunteers’, explains inaugural President Phil Carswell, ‘no questions asked’.26 Although this arrangement had caused some tensions over the years, the involvement of the community in the running of the organisation had remained central. And yet the review fundamentally changed the structure of the organisation. From then on, the volunteers supported the staff, who – as well as managing the day-to-day activities of the organisation – also stood in control of making the major decisions and steering the future directions of the VAC/GMHC.

Communication between volunteers and staff was strained and broke down completely at times during this transition. Louise Naughton-Smith is a long-time volunteer at the VAC/GMHC, joining around 1989. She reflects that while relationships between staff and volunteers today are much changed and much more collegiate and friendly, ‘there was a time when there was no engagement with the top of the management … which I thought was very sad, which was unfortunate’.27 In spite of this, however, relationships did improve over time as the organisation settled into its new structure. ‘It took a long, long time for that to really take effect’, remembers Guiney.28

As a result of the review and the restructure, many of the program convenors decided that they no longer needed their own committees – committees that were staffed, organised and run by volunteers. Under the new structure, staff who operated these programs reported directly to the Executive Director and the Board of Directors, as opposed to also reporting to their own committees. David Menadue comments that this ‘changed the structure and people would say it professionalised the organisation’.29

Support was the biggest area of resistance to these new changes. The volunteers who had worked so hard and so passionately with the Area Support Groups and clients felt let down and undervalued by the shift from volunteer-run to staff-run programs. Long-time Support Manager Vikki King commented on this when reflecting on the fifteenth anniversary of the Support Program in 1999:

Support was the only program that had not fallen into line and adopted the staffing and management hierarchy. To do so was seen to sacrifice the essence of the program, that being people living with HIV/AIDS, volunteers and community development.30

The VAC/GMHC remained unique among other HIV/AIDS organisations because it continued to act with one voice and give the power to the community in deciding how to act and what to do. And while the power structure changed, volunteers have remained an integral part of the organisation. Without them, argues Naughton-Smith,

… we would be an organisation like other organisations. Nothing wrong with that, but I believe we wouldn’t have the connection/communication to the community we have and which is so vital in providing the services to this specific community.31

To Fairfield AIDS Memorial Garden Vignette


Volunteers 1

Volunteers 2

From the very inception of the VAAC in 1983, volunteers were integral to the organisation. Some of the many hundreds of volunteers to have dedicated time and energy over the past thirty years.