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EVOLVING CHAIR: Helping the World’s Most Disadvantaged Children

8 July 2014 at 10:36 am
Staff Reporter
A desire to help the less fortunate led John Stewart to his work on Not for Profit boards. Stewart is now Chairman of UNICEF Australia and shares his insights in this month’s Evolving Chair.

Staff Reporter | 8 July 2014 at 10:36 am


EVOLVING CHAIR: Helping the World’s Most Disadvantaged Children
8 July 2014 at 10:36 am


John Stewart

A desire to help the less fortunate led John Stewart to his work on Not for Profit boards. Stewart is now Chairman of UNICEF Australia and shares his insights in this month’s Evolving Chair.

Stewart has been an independent non-executive director of the UNICEF Australia Board since April 2005 and was made Board chairman in February.  

He is also a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia and the Australian Institute of Company Directors.  

Presently, he is the Managing Director of a large business process outsourcing company and a director of private companies in the chemical and management consulting sectors.

What is your organisation and what is the board structure?

The Australian Committee for UNICEF Limited.

We are a company limited by guarantee, funded wholly by the voluntary contributions of everyday Australians, businesses, foundations and governments.

The UNICEF Australia Board is entirely voluntary and made up of people with a range of skills and experience able to help meet the organisation’s governance requirements, its fundraising targets and advocacy role for the world’s most marginalised and disadvantaged children.

The UNICEF Australia Board meets six times a year as a full Board and has a small committee structure for audit, nomination and the review of international programs.

What attracts you to a Not for Profit or for-profit board?

A desire to help those less fortunate than myself and my family and a sense that some of the skills I might have gained from my working career can be used to help others.

It is also refreshing to be in an environment where profit is not the main motivation and to be challenged by issues where successful outcomes are measured by improving opportunities in life for other people.

What is the biggest challenge your board has had to overcome?  

In a governance sense, it was most definitely the successful creation of a national committee from the original individual state committees.

In our day to day operations the greatest challenge continues to be meeting our obligation to the world’s most disadvantaged children. In the 25th year of the Convention on the Rights of the Child the challenges for an organisation like UNICEF remain significant.

What are your board’s current priorities/goals?

Sadly, our immediate, short-term priorities are the children Australia has in detention as a consequence of our approach to refugees. As mentioned, it is the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and in Australia, these children, in Australia’s care, are being denied their right to play, their right to an education and to have access to the same rights and opportunities as ordinary Australian children, let alone their rights as children under the UN Convention.

Secondly, and perhaps again reflecting the mood of the times, is the reduction in Australia’s foreign aid commitments and the proposed changes in the nature of our overseas development aid. The change in commitment will see money diverted from the sort of projects UNICEF knows will save children’s lives

Is gender balance an issue for your board? Do you prioritise it?

As an organisation that focuses on rights, it is crucial we have a balance of men and women. UNICEF, of course, is focused on the rights of children and as a natural extension of that we have a strong focus on girls and mothers.

We currently have a majority of women on our board and all our board members bring a commitment to raising the voice of young people and a commitment to social justice.

What is your board’s ultimate goal?

UNICEF worldwide is working towards a day when no children, anywhere in the world die from preventable disease. It is an ambitious and challenging goal but UNICEF has saved more children’s lives than any other humanitarian organisation.

In Australia, our role is ensure that the broad Australian public, our governments and our corporations, play their role in helping UNICEF achieve its aims and that they too can Believe In Zero.

What has been the highlight of your work with this board?

Firstly, the people I have had the privilege to work with on the Board, in UNICEF Australia and in the broader UNICEF international family. There is a compassion, capacity and commitment among them that is not regularly encountered in the rest of my working life.

Secondly, I have been fortunate to visit Mozambique and Thailand to see UNICEF’s work in the field. It was gratifying to see the connection between the work UNICEF Australia undertakes and the effect on children’s lives in those two countries. The outcomes were tangible, long term and effective and it gave me renewed confidence that the time I give to UNICEF is worthwhile.

What are the key sector issues that are being discussed at board level?

As mentioned earlier, Australia’s commitment and approach to foreign aid.

Qantas, Ikea, MMG and Starwood are really leading the way in corporate social responsibility in Australia with their commitment to UNICEF. It is a concern, however, that some of Australia’s major business names, whose activities extend beyond Australia’s borders, are not yet showing that same commitment to action for the benefits of all.

A co-ordinated approach from some of Australia’s richest corporations that saw funds being directed to programs that improve the health, education and welfare of our region’s children would, in my opinion, provide benefits to us all, including their shareholders.

Does your board believe collaboration between organisations within your area is important?

Collaboration and co-operation between organisations is vital and it is a core principle of UNICEF’s approach in the field. UNICEF will often provide resources to the organisation best placed to deliver the greatest outcome for the children.

That sort of co-operation should extend to our fundraising and advocacy work in Australia, in our approach to government, to the corporate sector and to those individuals who may be better able to contribute from their own resources.

What’s your advice on:


Proper governance of our organisation is an obligation we have to the international UNICEF family and to the children we purport to help. A failure in our governance may affect our ability to undertake our work with, in UNICEF’s case, possibly tragic outcomes.

Our supporters trust us to ensure their money is used to advance the interests of children – it’s a big responsibility that we take very, very seriously. Poor governance would be an abuse of that trust.


We undertake a very careful process in selecting new Board directors. We are a voluntary board so people who join us are not taking the role for a financial reward. We have to get the right mix of skills, maintain our collegiate atmosphere and get people who have the time to commit to the organisation. Continuing to get the director recruitment right is vital to being effective as a board.

Risk management?

Being a director is all about the management of risk.  I learned long ago that if an organisation is performing well, it is to the credit of the management team. If an organisation is failing it is the fault of the directors.

Risks have to be understood, avoided where possible and planned for if not.

Board members raising money?

To be successful in the charity sector you need to generate predictable and repeatable sources of revenue. One-off contributions from single donations, while always appreciated, do not allow longer term planning and commitments to be undertaken.

A more useful role for Board members is, I think, being part of the introduction and proposal process for the fundraising team. Board directors can use their contacts but they should also be using their capability, knowledge and life experience to help the management team gain access to potential long-term supporters of the organisation.

The Board’s relationship with the Chief Executive Officer?

It is, of course, the most important relationship the Board needs to maintain. There must be a high level of confidence in the CEO, something I am pleased to say exists within UNICEF Australia. There has to be very clear and fulsome communications both ways.

The CEO must be able to seek the advice of the Board and, when appropriate, individual board members. The Board must give the CEO every chance of success in his or her role but the Board is not there to manage on a day to day basis.

Sustainable business/organisation models?

As mentioned earlier, the organisation can only be sustained if predictable and repeatable sources of revenue can be generated, that must be the first step. Secondly the ratio of expenses to contributions to the beneficiaries of the organisations work must be measured. It cannot cost more to raise the funds than is generally incurred by other like minded organisations in the sector

And finally, the organisation must be run well. Strong corporate governance, effective management and accurate and timely reporting are basic requirements if an organisation wants to be around for the long term. Good intentions alone are not enough.

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