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Inside the Plunket controversy: Why volunteers are up in arms

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Sweeping restructuring at Plunket is radically changing the 111-year-old organisation so it can focus more on the needs of the wider community. But not everyone is happy about the changes, least of all its volunteers. 

A mother pushes a buggy fitted with a plastic rain shield out of the gates of Plunket’s crèche on Wellington’s Karori Rd. It’s pick-up time in one of the country’s biggest suburbs, and the weather is bleak: grey and drizzling.

Vanessa Kirkham flicks the windscreen wipers on and off, waiting for 1.30pm when she will collect two-year-old son Jackson. For two mornings a week, Jackson comes to the crèche high on Wellington’s hills. His sister, Lily, who is almost five, also came to this crèche before she went to kindergarten.

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The gloomy weather reflects Kirkham’s mood. On a Friday in early March, 35 crèche families received an email that shocked them: Plunket was to close the centre in seven weeks, saying it could see no future for the facility. It was also transferring the rooms that had been built – on gifted land – by locals in the 1940s to head office.

Kirkham, a member of the crèche committee, and other parents revolted, called in lawyers and demanded an explanation. “The way it was handled was quite appalling,” she says.

The closure is now out for community consultation, but Plunket’s plans in Karori are part of sweeping restructuring that will radically change the charity that was set up by Dr Truby King 111 years ago. Plunket’s controversial strategy, which covers 2016 to 2021, is titled, “The journey towards generational change”. Six months into being a national organisation, Plunket is also under fire over its head-office spending: specifically, in the past financial year, 11 senior managers were each paid more than $180,000, almost $2 million was spent on consultants and $1.4 million on marketing.

Proud parents Jacinda Ardern and partner Clarke Gayford with their daughter Neve. The PM has already met her Plunket nurse. Photo/Getty Images

Most New Zealanders have been raised with their growth charts recorded in a Plunket book, and, more recently, electronically. Plunket sees at least 90% of all newborns, focusing on their first 1000 days of life.

It is a national organisation that does not discriminate. Even the Prime Minister’s baby, Neve Te Aroha, will be cared for by Plunket. Before Neve’s birth, Jacinda Ardern met her local Plunket nurse at a community morning tea, according to the PM’s spokeswoman.

In its strategy document, Plunket says that it intends to continue running its nursing service over the next 100 years, but the organisation needs to “adapt, collaborate and innovate”.

“We know that to truly make the difference of a lifetime, we need to work towards generational change,” it says in its plan to make Plunket “a modern, relevant and responsive organisation”.

It adds that family, whānau and communities are changing. The organisation’s funders are looking for measurable outcomes, and a greater return on investment. Royal New Zealand Plunket Trust chairwoman Christine Lake says a single, cohesive national organisation is critical to the organisation’s future.

The bit that troubles some communities is that, as part of this restructuring, Plunket shifted from an area-board model – boards overseeing hundreds of different branches manned by armies of volunteers – to a national charitable trust. Branches have been dissolved as part of this move to head office.

Plunket also began transferring assets from communities to its head office on Wellington’s Mercer St: $52 million in assets and bank accounts over two years. However, local groups argue the properties and land don’t belong to Plunket, as in some cases they were gifted, and communities fundraised to build or maintain them.

From left, Vanessa Kirkham with son Jackson Martin (2½), and Rachael Skilton with sons Leo (4) and Charlie (2½). Photo/Hagen Hopkins

A handful of vocal communities are outraged at what they call an “asset grab”: those in Karori, Upper Hutt, Waikato, Greymouth, and also in Culverden and Waiau, in Canterbury.

Since her daughter Lily began at Karori’s Plunket crèche three years ago, Kirkham has spent countless hours fundraising for $50,000 that was earmarked for the Plunket building renovation. When the branch was dissolved and the assets were transferred, head office also took control of their bank account.

Says Kirkham: “It’s understandable that Plunket wanted to get some national focus on this, but it’s totally unacceptable to be going behind the backs of volunteers.”

Rachael Skilton, whose child is about to start at the crèche, found head office was in breach of its trust deed, as the Plunket committee wasn’t consulted. Karori parents got in the lawyers. With the backing of MPs Nicola Willis and Grant Robertson, a petition signed by 3000 locals forced Plunket to put the crèche’s future out for consultation, leaving the service open for two terms.

“We tried to stop this. We did some searching and it wasn’t difficult to come across other communities where this had happened,” Skilton says.

She says Karori’s Plunket land was donated in the 1940s, and locals fundraised to build the rooms. Over the years, volunteers have staged cake stalls and other community fundraising efforts to collect $50,000 that they set aside to renovate the building.

Plunket argued that the crèche accommodated only 14 children a session and the rooms were no longer suitable without renovation, so the service was no longer viable.

Skilton, a communications consultant, pulls out financial reports from Plunket’s website. “This is a major asset grab. Plunket is a fully funded organisation. What are they doing with all that money?

“Plunket seems to have drifted far from the values of its founders. The families and children out there seem to be paying a high price for what could be Plunket’s bloated corporate office,” says Skilton.

Karori’s Plunket parents are concerned about the wider picture: that the organisation’s logic is that other areas need services, too, which those local areas don’t have the volunteers or the fundraising to meet. However, they argue that Karori Plunket needs every cent the locals have raised. “Karori is hardly affluent,” says Skilton. “At the crèche, we have 19 different nationalities, parents working full-time, and Plunket doesn’t understand our community. We don’t begrudge anyone who needs these services.

“Plunket has a basis of really hardworking parents and volunteers and it seems to be simply disregarding that. It’s wanting to bulldoze through that in order to reach some plan that has been thought of at head office.”

Plunket chief executive Amanda Malu. Photo/Lindsay Keats

Local ownership

In the mid-1950s, Minnie and Sam Maxwell gave a block of land to the Hurunui branch of Plunket for new rooms in Culverden in north Canterbury. Locals then fundraised to build the facilities, which opened in 1959.

The same generosity has occurred in other communities. In a letter to Culverden Plunket, the couple’s four children – Judy Green, Anne Beaven, Jim and Bruce Maxwell – argued that their parents would want Plunket to stay in local ownership, as it had been maintained by local fundraising over the years. They wrote: “It would be a shame if control of the land and building is now lost to the Culverden community.”

However, that happened in 2014, when the titles were transferred to Plunket’s Canterbury area board and, more recently, to head office.

Brona Youngman, the former president of Culverden Plunket, fought to keep the rooms in local ownership, bringing in lawyers. About $15,000 in the branch bank account also disappeared and was sent to head office. “We have been told we need to apply if we require any money. In most cases, this money had been sitting there for when we needed it. We have now lost all control of that money and we are told to fundraise if we need anything.”

With children aged four and two and another on the way, she is fed up with Plunket and won’t be volunteering again. “I can’t believe the bureaucracy has come in.”

In Greymouth, Plunket volunteers argue they raised $80,000 they couldn’t access, resigning in protest. In Pirongia, locals raised $25,000 for a playground. The money went to head office and locals said if they didn’t get their playground, they’d seek legal advice. Plunket recently confirmed the playground will now go ahead, as it was a tagged project.

In Upper Hutt – where one former committee member told the Listener she won’t have anything more to do with Plunket – Pak’nSave sponsored the Plunket rooms.

Says Plunket chief executive Amanda Malu: “I find this an interesting issue to discuss. The buildings remain in Upper Hutt or where they were. The purpose they were fundraised for was for Plunket and that hasn’t changed. The ownership is still in the name of Plunket, we just have a different governance structure. I understand that local enthusiasm and the fundraising efforts that have been made in local areas, and we totally respect that. But, honestly, it is just going to take time for people to understand and adjust to the new structure.”

In 2007, at the time of Plunket’s centenary, about 10,000 volunteers fundraised. Over the past 11 years, the numbers have fallen away, and the organisation’s head office now has about 1400 volunteers registered in its online portal.

The fear among critics is that Plunket now risks losing grassroots support, and being seen as a faceless bureaucracy in Wellington’s CBD.

Plunket’s community and development manager Clare Green, parenting programme manager Rochelle Cave and community support team leader Lucy Afemui. Photo/Rebekah Robinson

The head office is on the third floor of a high rise in central Wellington. In the reception area, two oversized powder-blue Plunket teddies dominate a couple of couches. Malu and other head office managers address the Plunket community from these couches, posting videos on Plunket’s website.

Of Ngāi Tahu descent, Malu has been with Plunket since 2014, when she took on the role of chief marketing officer. The decision to restructure into a national organisation was made in November 2016. By June that year, some of the 18 areas had already dissolved – Northland, Waitematā, Counties Manukau, Waikato, Lakes, Manawatu, Wellington/Wairarapa, and West Coast, with their $17 million of assets. Malu, who became chief executive in September 2016, says some of those places had few volunteers and no board.

Says Malu: “In the past, the area society structure worked quite well. We had a good number of volunteers evenly spread, and people who were up for taking on the roles of president, being on a board, and so on. In 2014, we were starting to see some of the cracks beginning to appear. Some areas were struggling to get members and they couldn’t get people willing to be volunteers.”

“The model wasn’t fit for purpose”, and there were growing inequities. Areas such as Rotorua and West Coast were without Plunket community services – co-ordinated coffee groups (like a dating service for new parents and their newborns), supported play groups, parenting workshops and support for new migrants, breastfeeding, sleep and post-natal depression.

Plunket nurses still visited babies and infants and ran clinics, but extra community services were hotchpotch, depending on where people lived.

Although reorganisation wasn’t universally welcomed, Malu says there was robust discussion and it was passed by a majority vote.

Last year, the assets and bank accounts began to be transferred. “Inheriting a property portfolio of 400 buildings is a bit of a mixed bag,” Malu says.

She seems reluctant to promise to keep current buildings. However, Plunket has pledged to consult communities if it wants to sell or change them, and it won’t spend proceeds on general operating costs.

“In some cases, we have buildings that are not fit for purpose. That could be everything from being in a community where the people are no longer drawn to, or where the families are not living now. We have to be where families can get to us. At the front and centre of all this is, what do families need from us?”

It’s only now that Plunket has a national view of what services are where and a better idea of the needs of families that it can finally spot gaps, says Malu. “It also gives us the opportunity to address inequity issues.”

She defends what critics say is a bloated head office, saying some senior managers took a pay cut to work for Plunket, and the spend on consultants and change managers can’t be done on the cheap. She says the near-doubling marketing budget last year was partly because of two new fundraising campaigns, and one-off expenses such as car seats for families in need.

The days of volunteers swinging buckets on street corners on a single day for Plunket are over. Plunket’s modernised approach is exemplified by its online “Raise a Bundle” campaign, where individuals and businesses can either make a donation or seek support for a cause to meet its $6 million fundraising goal.

On the site, amid fundraising pages from companies such as Z Energy and Vodafone, Malu has a fundraising page – each time she buys a coffee, she will match the price with a donation, and along with other gifts, she has so far raised $1000; chairwoman Lake has also collected $780 from her fundraising efforts.

A Manurewa parenting programme.

Deprived regions

Last July, when Plunket took control of the assets of eight area boards, it beefed up its net assets by $27.05 million. The area board for Gisborne and Wairoa  – one of the more deprived regions of the group – was one that it absorbed.

Real estate agent Wendy Reeves has lived in Gisborne for 28 years. A Plunket volunteer throughout that time, she joined the charity when she arrived from Italy as a solo mother with two young children.

Since she first stepped into the Plunket rooms with her sister-in-law, who was on the committee at the time, Reeves has been on the Plunket board. She was the branch president, and oversaw fundraising efforts.

She was never a keen baker, but she was proud of the baby-photo competition her branch ran every year, which helped bring in extra money to refurbish buildings and buy cars for the nurses. Raised by a mother who was a Karitane nurse, Reeves can’t say enough about the important role local Plunket nurses play in Gisborne.

“They are among the very few people who can go into homes where a mum is not on guard. If the social worker turns up, the neighbours see them going in. Plunket is a wraparound service.”

Reeves is reluctant to criticise the organisation she has given her heart and soul to over the years, but says this: “If something ain’t broke, don’t change it. I won’t say what I deeply feel, but I feel that they have unravelled a core part of Plunket’s soul.

“The head office corporate model doesn’t work for Plunket. Every individual area has its own needs.”

Although Reeves is still a volunteer, she is saddened that her local branch has dissolved. Will she fundraise? “I’ll never fundraise for an empty pool. Volunteers like to have a tangible goal and to work towards the start and finish of it.

“Plunket was set up by volunteers. Volunteers are the heart and soul of the organisation. They have disenfranchised the volunteers.”

In 2007, when Plunket held its centenary, Gisborne was one of 600 branches dotted around the country. In a book to mark the occasion, I Was a Plunket Baby: 100 years of the Royal New Zealand Plunket Society, author Jim Sullivan wrote: “One of Plunket’s greatest strengths has been its branch system. There is practically no town, suburb, village or country district which has not had, at some time, a Plunket branch or sub-branch.”

Rochelle Cave. Photo/Rebekah Robinson

Additional services

By the time of amalgamation, Gisborne was thriving, but Counties Manukau was not. If there are winners and losers in the restructuring story, South Auckland triumphs.

Rochelle Cave is the Plunket co-ordinator of a parenting project in Manurewa that she says wouldn’t have happened under the old structure.

She says Counties Manukau missed out on many additional services that other communities got through local fundraising, such as parenting programmes, migrant support and play groups. Without a strong volunteer base, she says, “the disparity was massive and it was a real challenge to provide services as we didn’t have the resources”.

She has recently successfully applied for external funding for two new services – an infant massage service, and a parenting programme for under-fives.

“We couldn’t do that before when we were lots of tiny little groups. Now Plunket can apply for funding as a regional funder. It’s a new approach that is really exciting.”

Cave has been a Plunket employee for 12 years. “I understand how some communities feel upset, but it’s great to hear how connected they are to Plunket. We definitely could have told this other side of the story better, to show how potentially those areas are helping these other communities, too.”

Plunket lists other examples of deprived communities getting new services that weren’t available in the past, such as supported Plunket playgroups in Flaxmere, Whangarei, Papakura, Manurewa, Gisborne, Whanganui and Porirua. Under the Ministry of Education contract, Plunket head office provides support to keep them running.

“Getting the seven supported playgroups up and running was only possible once Plunket had consolidated. Prior to transition, we didn’t have the capability to look at needs across the country and apply for contracts of this type,” says a Plunket spokesperson.

Malu adds that, despite fears that fundraising will disappear into an empty pool, community fundraising campaigns for local services will stay. The 400-odd Plunket groups around the country will be able to come up with local “business plans”, and these will be pooled into a national business plan decided by the Plunket board. “Any funds raised locally above and beyond those projects goes towards supporting communities that are less able to fundraise.

“The beauty of this is that we will see a consolidated approach and a national view. We can address urgent work using the might of the organisation.”

Malu thinks this is ultimately what New Zealanders want and what the country stands for. “We hope that New Zealand is capable of looking beyond our own borders to the needs of the wider community.

“We need to give it time. Hand on heart, people will start to see benefits. I understand that this kind of change is hard to wrap your head around when you’ve been quietly working away in your community and you feel like a national organisation is now involved.”

Plunket has consulted 300 parents and families in Karori and is holding 11 workshops to find out what locals want. As Karori parents wait for independent consultants to begin considering the future of their crèche and building, Skilton says: “What the whole thing smacks of to us is the corporatisation of communities. They’ve taken this much-loved 100-year-old brand and morphed it into a marketing company.”

This article was first published in the July 7, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.