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Fairbridge - Lessons in Leadership

17 September 2013 at 10:40 am
Staff Reporter
Westpac’s Social Sector Banking team speaks to Mark Anderson, CEO of Fairbridge Western Australia Inc (“Fairbridge”) about the leadership lessons he has gathered from over 30 years of experience working in the community sector in Western Australia in this occasional series.

Staff Reporter | 17 September 2013 at 10:40 am


Fairbridge - Lessons in Leadership
17 September 2013 at 10:40 am

Westpac’s Social Sector Banking team speaks to Mark Anderson, CEO of Fairbridge Western Australia Inc (“Fairbridge”) about the leadership lessons he has gathered from over 30 years of experience working in the community sector in Western Australia in this occasional series.

Fairbridge is a major youth development charity and the only one in Australian that owns and operates an entire national heritage-listed town being Fairbridge Village.  

Fairbridge offers a large variety of work and social development programs to help young people reach their full potential and sustain long-term positive change in their lives.

Mark Anderson began working as a development officer at Fairbridge in 1996. Back then, the Village was facing closure and running at a huge operational deficit. After 12 months of what Mark describes as solid planning – feasibility studies, forecasting, seeking specialist advice – the village re-launched with a focused purpose, revitalised infrastructure and a group of energised people.

Sixteen years later, and now the CEO of Fairbridge, Anderson says the organisation is only now achieving what it envisioned all those years ago. Like planting a seed and watching it grow, Anderson takes immense pride in the award-winning Fairbridge and the fruit it has come to bear.

Here Mark Anderson offers the lessons he has learned over 30 years in the community sector.

Create the Future Now

Dare to dream. Put in time and effort at the beginning of your journey to map the pathway towards achieving your social mission. Be clear about why you exist, what your values are and the positive difference to the community you will demonstrate.  Know what type of world you want to live in and then work to create that world.

From a near-derelict town site with eight buildings boarded up and not safe to enter, attracting just 5,000 visitors each year, heritage-listed Fairbridge now draws 220,000 visitors annually to its holiday camps, wedding and conference venues, registered training courses, adventure activities, historical tours and holiday accommodation.

A large upfront investment for infrastructure took foresight and courage, but without it, the organisation would have struggled to scale its operations for growth.

By June 30, 2014 Fairbridge plans to pay back its long term debt of over $1 million and is now recognised in Western Australia and nationally by both government and industry for the outcomes it achieves with young people.

With a major focus on building its social enterprise Fairbridge is no longer dictated to by government policy tied to funding but instead talks about partnering with government as it works to meet community need.

Learn from history, what worked and what didn’t, then look to the future. Like the Chinese you need to be thinking and planning 20-50 years ahead, not on the normal 3-4 years based on a term of government. But don’t be alarmed by the big job ahead of you – break it down into bite-sized tasks and take one step at a time.

Harness Your People Power

Passionate people are not hard to find in the not-for-profit sector. Create opportunities for your people to be heard and feel valued, and then build on common ground to create your shared mission.  As the leader of your organisation, you can’t have all the answers; value differing opinions as opportunities to see issues from others’ perspective.

Your Board should be a strong resource and not viewed as a rubber stamp and legal necessity.

The executive should draw from – their skills, experience and expertise and combine to build the capacity of the organisation, set a high standard for due diligence, and enable action.

Measure and Evaluate Your Social Impact

Feel-good stories are nice, but they are not enough to sustain investor interest. Investors – they may be donors, grant-makers, members, or customers – want to know that their investment is making a real difference.

In 2012 Fairbridge was awarded a $50,000 Westpac Foundation catalyst grant, in part, to design and implement a research and evaluation framework to collect information about what works and doesn’t work in their programmes.

The new knowledge base allows the organisation to build on their history of success as they continue to improve their model to meet the needs of their community.

And evaluation means that Fairbridge will be able to communicate its long-term impact on young people in Western Australia, five years after young people have exited from their programs.

Best Practice Starts with You

In many ways, Fairbridge is its own role model. A champion for the placement of disadvantaged young people into mainstream employment, Fairbridge has created opportunities for youth employment in its own social enterprises ventures.

Of the 100+ staff, 40 per cent are previously unemployed youth, 30 per cent are Aboriginal, and 10 per cent are young people with a disability. Now, when Fairbridge approaches an employer for a work placement, it can demonstrate the value of youth employment.

Work in Partnership

Identify who has the resources and shared values to create the positive change you seek. Then determine how you can create value for each other. For example, when talking to government about policy directions, Fairbridge talks in economics: the cost of programmes verses the social cost of doing nothing. It gets the attention of the politicians, and illustrates how the organisation can help the government to meet its social mandate.

Arguing economic rationalism and being able to demonstrate the real costs of doing nothing is far more effective today than arguing social justice.

When partnering with business, it is not about going to business cap in hand asking for money. Fairbridge understands it can provide real value to an organisation to achieve its corporate social responsibility goals, and in turn, asks partners to help grow its network in the business sector.

Through the broad range of social enterprise activities Fairbridge can also offer business services to meet their business outcomes and therefore cause related marketing becomes a very effective tool in attracting business to use the services and facilities on offer.

Be cautious about launching into the social sector if your idea is not unique or is without a point of difference. Think about enhancing the work of an existing Not for Profit by partnering with them. Your combined efforts could provide a holistic solution to a social problem.

Challenge Yourself to Adapt or Move On

Know your strengths and passion and build the organisation so that it is not reliant on you. You need to be willing to identify when it is time to hand the reins to someone else Some leaders will be particularly skilled during the start of a grassroots movement; other leaders will be best suited to a growth phase.

Take time to reflect at different points in the organisation’s growth and development to assess if you are the right person to move into the next phase. Revise your way of working to meet the growing needs of your organisation, and if you aren’t willing to adapt, move on.

Gather Inspiration

As a leader, remind yourself of why you do what you do. Do not lose sight of your core mission.

You do not hold all the wisdom, and if you are willing to listen, others around you can teach and inspire you. You might find inspiration from notable world leaders, or you might find inspiration right in front of you – the people that your organisation helps, who start with little, accept the hand up they have been given, then pay it forward.

Be gracious. Be willing to listen. Look for the good in others and the world. And dream big!

For more information aboutthe Westpac Foundation and a full list of grant opportunities and eligibility criteria, visit

Westpac’s customised range of banking solutions to suit Not for Profit organisations, charities, associations as well as single-interest and community groups visit

Staff Reporter  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews

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