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From Diplomat to Refugee Crusader

26 May 2014 at 10:44 am
Staff Reporter
Former diplomat Naomi Steer worked in politics and the trade union movement before she made the leap into the Not for Profit sector to become the founding National Director for UNHCR Australia. Steer is this week’s Changemaker.

Staff Reporter | 26 May 2014 at 10:44 am


From Diplomat to Refugee Crusader
26 May 2014 at 10:44 am

Former diplomat Naomi Steer worked in politics and the trade union movement before she made the leap into the Not for Profit sector to become the founding National Director for UNHCR Australia. Steer is this week’s Changemaker.

For the past 14 years, Steer has headed UNHCR in Australia, a Not for Profit dedicated to providing life-changing humanitarian support to refugees and other displaced and stateless people who are supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR or the UN Refugee Agency).

In her role, Steer set up UNHCR’s Australian fundraising operations, which has led her to travel to many refugee situations in countries including Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, East Timor, Chad and Uganda to listen to and record the stories of refugees.

Prior to that, Steer started her career as a diplomat with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – her first posting was to the United Nations in New York and later India.

Over her career she’s gained experience in international relations, human rights, industrial relations and communications.

Steer also has a Bachelor of Arts (with Honors in Political Science) and a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) from the University of New South Wales, and is a graduate of the Harvard University Executive program.

What are you currently working on in your organisation?

I am developing a new campaign connecting Australian women to refugee women as part of a global movement spearheaded by UNHCR’s Special Envoy Angelina Jolie to protect women and girls in conflict zones.

What drew you to the Not for Profit sector?

I specifically wanted to work with the UN Refugee Agency to engage Australians in supporting refugees, which I think is one of the most pressing humanitarian issues of our time and with more than half of refugees being women and children it is very much an issue for women.

How long have you been working in the Not for Profit sector?

I have worked all my life in the public sector or for Not for Profits, starting out as a diplomat with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with my first posting to the UN in New York and then India.

This was followed by a career change into politics and the trade union movement where I worked for the actors, journalists and theatre workers union, and then again another big career change heading up Australia for UNHCR, which I have done for the last 14 years.

What was your first job in the Not for Profit sector?

My first job in the philanthropic sector is my current job. UNHCR employed me first as a consultant to set up Australia for UNHCR which is one of a number of fundraising partners for UNHCR globally, and then they appointed me as the very first National Director for the organisation.

What is the most rewarding part of your work?

Absolutely the most rewarding part is seeing how Australian support literally transforms lives.

I have been in many emergency situations such as the Horn of Africa famine and have seen the impact our funds make from simple things like plastic sheeting for shelter, or the wonder survival food “plumpy nut” that saves malnourished children.

What has been the most challenging part of your work? 

On a personal level when I talk to refugees and hear the terrible things they have gone through, sometimes there is nothing I can do but listen.

When I found everything a bit overwhelming a few years ago I started doing a lot of exercise and got really fit and ended up climbing up Mt Kenya as a fundraising challenge, raising $10,000 for our Safe Refugee Mother  and Baby Program.

On a day to day level it is currently managing our very rapid growth with a relatively small Senior Management team and many new staff.

A huge support has been my Deputy Director Debra O’Neill, we have worked together for 13 years and have very different but complementary skills.

She has a great sense of humour and laughs at all my jokes which helps. I also have an excellent Board who have provided invaluable pro bono support and expert advice.

What do you like best about working in your current organisation?

I love the variety of work and the very real engagement and connection we have to refugees.

Nearly a third of my employees are refugees themselves so it’s a cause we live in our daily working lives. I also think the philanthropic space is incredibly energetic and positive.

I consider my greatest achievement to be …

Helping build Australia for UNHCR from a small one-room office with no donors and no income, to a successful organisation which recently reached its $100 million milestone, making us the third largest private sector donor to UNHCR globally, and the 19th largest donor to UNHCR overall – ahead of many governments and foundations.

Favourite saying …

If you don’t ask, you won’t get.

I’m always being asked …

How I got my job?

What are you reading/watching/listening to at the moment?  

I have just finished reading Nelson Mandela’s collection of writing and musings, Conversations with Myself, which was given to me by a friend and journalist from Kenya who covered Mandela’s funeral. It is funny, wise and inspirational.

Through your work, what is your ultimate dream?

To know that all refugee men, women and children are able to live in safety with dignity and independence.

My greatest challenge is …

Being patient.

School taught me …

Don’t be afraid to lead.

What does a typical day for you involve?

In a typical day, I’ll wake up and check my emails and news services to see if there is anything I need to respond to.  

I may do an early morning interview for radio or TV. I have two teenage children and I make sure they get off to school then I do some drafting of stories and articles. Some mornings my first stop will be my French class at the Alliance Francaise (UNHCR globally is a bilingual organisation).

When I arrive at work I’m often busy with meetings – I have regular catch-ups with my Deputy Director, our Face-to-Face Fundraising Team Managers from across Australia, as well as my Communications Director and Events Manager about upcoming events and media engagements.

I’m in regular contact with our Chairman John Denton, usually about upcoming Board meetings. And at the moment I’m planning a mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, so I’m busy making preparations for that with the help of my colleagues over there.

I sit on the Board of First State Super (the third largest super fund in Australia), so I get invited to lots of industry events – most recently I was the guest speaker at the Women and Superannuation lunch.

I usually finish work at about 7pm, and then go home and cook dinner with my husband and children who all help, and we watch SBS, ABC news and Al Jazeera together.

I sometimes have a 9pm global webex with my UNHCR colleagues in London or Rome. I try to be in bed about 11.30pm.

What (or who) inspires you?

Young Women inspire me everywhere with their determination, fearlessness and optimism.

I look forward to my 17-year-old daughter’s generation taking over the reigns and changing the world for good.

Where do you feel your passion for good came from?

I come from a family that was always involved in some charity work or community service.

At an early age my sisters and I were knocking on doors for the Red Shield Appeal or pestering neighbours to buy Girl Guides biscuits.

I was taught by Mercy nuns who not only emphasised the importance of social justice but the role that young women could play in making a better world and that is something I have actively looked for in all my jobs.

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