From for-profit to for-purpose: A CEO’s Reflections

It’s a question I find myself answering on a regular basis – after so long in the corporate world, why move to the Third Sector?

It’s a question I asked myself just six months ago. There were two things that struck me:

1. “Charity” as I knew it had well and truly moved on

The traditional model of private sector donations enabling non-profit service delivery was no longer meeting the needs of either beneficiaries or corporates.

2. Skill-sets are highly transferable

There was an overlap of skills and competencies between the participatory, human-centered approach embraced by leading for-purpose agencies, and the design thinking approach of the corporate world.

Having seen first-hand the social impact of off-shoring on communities from my years in the technology industry, and having been inspired by the outcomes CSR collaborations like United Way and Fuji Xerox were achieving, I was already contemplating how I could best “give back”. With insight into how I could translate my skills and experience into impact, I decided to dedicate the next period of my career on becoming an advocate for communities and social change.

It was their unique approach that first drew me to United Way Australia. There are over 600,000 not-for-profits in Australia, with a combined income over $134 billion – equivalent of 8.3 per cent of Australia’s GDP. Despite massive investments of energy and money, the sector has not resolved many social issues; in fact, many entrenched issues are becoming increasingly more complex and difficult to improve.

Duplication is also rife. In one school United Way works with in Greater Western Sydney, we identified 31 transition-to-work programs run by 31 different organisations, and yet local youth unemployment rates have not improved.

I joined United Way Australia because they take a different approach, believing no one organisation can solve social disadvantage. We work together as collaborators with communities, business, service providers, funders and government to create positive change.

Like many businesses, we focus on the end user (in our case the community), using tools like Community Conversations to ensure our work is designed to deliver on the aspirations of the communities we serve. We aim to give back the power to communities by designing and delivering programs with them, with increasing evidence showing that such collaborative and place-based design initiatives have the most impact over time.

In my six months at United Way I’ve already seen the impact of our “whole of system” approach in communities experiencing disadvantage. Working together, and bringing innovation and evidence-based practice to our collaborations, we’re achieving greater engagement, focus on impact, and the creativity and flexibility to better meet community needs.

I have certainly had to adjust to the limitations of working in the non-profit space, particularly as it relates to resourcing. The intense scrutiny on limited funding, and the expectation to direct every available dollar to programs in the field needs to be carefully balanced with the need to invest in the professionalism and capability of for-purpose organisations. However, I’m fortunate to have a team of talented professionals that seek creative, efficient ways to achieve their goals on limited resources, as well the support of corporate partners who lend us their skills and services pro-bono or at cost so we can direct more of our resources to community impact.

My advice to those looking to make the jump to the for-purpose sector would be:

1. Think carefully

Where do you believe you can make the best contribution, and how will you ensure there is alignment of values?

2. Manage your expectations around results measurement

Measuring outcomes and social impact is not a quarter by quarter exercise, but it’s something we need to plan for and invest in to remain accountable to both community and donors.

3. Hone your stakeholder engagement skills

Collaboration with other like-minded organisations is the key to success. Our sector shouldn’t have competitors, but rather an army of partners well-organised to create change.

About the author

Clayton Noble joined United Way Australia as CEO in March 2017, following an extensive career in the first two sectors. He spent 16 years in the RAAF before moving to executive roles with companies including Fuji Xerox, Dell, BAX Global and Coles Myer.

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