SDECC – Sydney Drug Education & Counselling Centre
Have you always worked in the NFP/For Purpose sector? What inspired you to join the sector, and what do you find most rewarding about it?
I have always worked in the NFP sector, apart from a brief stint in retail. I was only 21 years old when I got my first job in the sector, so I’m not sure how well developed my ideas about my career were to be honest! I had had my own challenges with my mental health in adolescence, and so I was personally invested in the mental health system. I also grew up in a family where social justice and politics were discussed a lot, and so I understood that there is a lot of unfairness in the world. It just seemed natural to me to want to help other people. I started out in various case work and counselling roles, and then went into leadership after about ten years.
What I find most rewarding about working in this sector is hearing people stories. Everyone is so different, and human beings are so adaptable and resilient. People often come for support when they are in crisis, but there is so much more to every person than their current set of circumstances. Therefore, the work is process of collaboration with the person to find out who they are and what they want and need. It’s a real privilege to be allowed to enter someone’s life and be trusted to support them, and I’ve always valued that.
What is the greatest challenge you have experienced as a leader in the NFP sector?
Resourcing… the non-profit sector has a lot less money than other sectors. This means that most aspects of the work are restricted by availability of funds. This has an impact on every area of operating, from the amount of support available to clients of services, to what we can pay our employees, to what kinds of office spaces and equipment we have access to, and what additional projects we can involve ourselves in. I’ve seen a push across the sector in the last ten years of trying to get NGOs to have the lowest operating costs possible, but this doesn’t produce the best outcomes. I’m all for responsible use of taxpayer funds, but for good service delivery employees need to be well supported through training, supervision and renumeration, and there needs to be sufficient management structures to ensure high quality systems and processes. Without high enough resourcing, too much pressure is put on employees, which then leads to burnout and turnover. The whole sector struggles with this.
What do you see as the critical to leadership and the future of the sector?
I think the future of the sector will be about remaining focused on the communities and people we exist to support. As the NFP sector takes more and more from the business world, much of which is useful, there is a real danger of corporatising the work we do. We can easily start to talk about the people we support as KPI’s, to talk about things in terms of maximising viability or making sound business decisions or beating the competition. In truth, our sector exists for one purpose- to help vulnerable people, or prevent vulnerabilities from occurring in the first place. In leadership, I’ve experienced that it’s easy to get disconnected from this fact, and instead just get focused on meeting contractual obligations- numbers in, numbers out. It’s essential that we stay connected to the voices and experiences of the people who make up those numbers and understand the reasons people need support, what their experiences of this system are, what we can do to make it easier or simpler for them. I’m fortunate to work in the Northern Sydney Region now, where NFPs and funders cooperate well together and want to ensure that no one goes without a service they need. Senior managers are generally aiming to be on the same page and prioritise cooperation. It’s been a great experience in seeing what the future can be like if we really keep clients at the front of our decision making, and collaboratively advocate on social issues that matter to our communities.
If you could mentor someone who is just starting out in your field, what advice would you give them?
The most important thing in this work is keeping your clients at the front of every decision. Become clear about what is going to help you to deliver the best support- what training and support do you need to be and do your best? If you don’t know, how will you learn and who will help you? It takes time to feel comfortable with the kinds of complexities that arise, so asking for guidance and suggestions from more experienced people is essential.
If you’re starting out in leadership, my advice would be to remain connected and centre your organisational systems and thinking around who your service exists to support. All conversations and decisions should come back to what will result in the best outcomes for those who use our services. Sometimes my own work doesn’t appear to be particularly relevant to clients, but it motivates me to remember that empowering and investing in our teams, managing the finances effectively, and making sure we meet our funding obligations is all being done to enable people to receive the best possible care and support. Also, as a leader you will need support – the work can be isolating at times. Build networks and invest in your professional development as it will be essential to your longevity and effectiveness.