Forging a Path for Those in Need
22 September 2014 at 12:37 pm
A career as a journalist exposed Paul Power to the Not for Profit world and today he is one of the best known CEOs in the sector.
Power has been Chief Executive Officer of the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA), the national umbrella body for 200 agencies working with refugees and asylum seekers, since 2006.
He leads the organisation’s policy development and public education on refugee issues and its advocacy with the Australian Government, international networks and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
He chairs or co-chairs RCOA’s member networks on asylum policy, refugee settlement issues and international refugee policy. Since 2008, he has served as a member of the Australian Government’s Refugee Resettlement Advisory Council. In 2011-12, he was Co-chair and NGO Focal Point for the global Working Group on Resettlement and the Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement.
Power is this week’s Changemaker.
What are you currently working on in your organisation?
The Refugee Council of Australia is a small umbrella body for NGOs which find themselves in the middle of one of the most difficult and complex policy debates in Australia. We are working simultaneously on many things, including: ensuring that we are able to understand and respond to the policy concerns raised by our members; strengthening our links with like-minded NGOs in neighbouring countries, particularly in South-
East Asia and the Pacific; expanding our community education initiatives, particularly our program in schools; and building stronger public fundraising strategies following the Federal Government’s recent decision to remove our organisation’s core funding.
What drew you to the Not for Profit sector?
Looking back, I realise that my interest in the work of voluntary agencies came from my parents, who were involved as volunteers in a wide variety of organisations for decades. In my late teens, I started to do the same.
My first career was in newspaper journalism but my greater interest was in the work of the organisations I was involved in voluntarily, like the St Vincent de Paul Society which combined practical responses to immediate need with an interest in the need for social change to address poverty. When I realised that my experience in the media provided with me with opportunities to work full-time in the Not for Profit sector, I jumped at the opportunity.
How long have you been working in the Not for Profit sector?
21 years in a paid capacity but my voluntary involvement goes back more than 30 years.
What was your first job in the Not for Profit sector?
Communications Officer for Australian Catholic Relief (now Caritas Australia).
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
Creating opportunities for people who have been refugees themselves to speak. It is all too easy for policy experts to dominate discussions about refugee policy but the people who are best equipped to speak on the issues are people who have lived through the bitter experience of being a refugee. So many times I have seen audiences of all kinds – people at public events, through the media, in schools, at international gatherings of United Nations officials and NGO leaders – deeply moved and impressed by presentations given by refugee community representatives. Enabling people to tell their personal stories is the best way to counter the constant political spin and misinformation in Australia’s refugee policy debate.
What has been the most challenging part of your work? And how do you overcome that?
The complexity and variety of the issues and strategies I’m required to think about every week. It is impossible for one person to be able to keep on top of everything: complex legal issues relating to asylum policy, social policy challenges for refugees settling in Australia, understanding global refugee policy issues, developing strategies for political lobbying and campaign, managing funding relationships, fundraising strategies, complying with national and state laws relevant to a small NGO. Fortunately for me, I am surrounded by impressive people, on the RCOA staff and board and people who give us excellent advice (often pro bono).
The issues seem to become more complex each year and the only way to cope is for me to delegate to people who know the particular issues better than I do.
What do you like best about working in your current organisation?
The amount of support we get from the public is amazing. While I am constantly aware that we need to do much more, our organisation receives a constant flow of compliments and expressions of support for the work that we do. Many Australians feel their political leaders are taking no notice of their concerns about the direction of national refugee policy but appreciate the fact that there are organisations like ours doing our best to promote constructive and fairer alternatives. The most moving expressions of appreciation come from asylum seekers and refugees who feel that decision makers are not interested in listening to them but remind me of the importance of strong and independent voices from the NGO sector.
I’m always being asked …
“Given how tough things are for NGOs working with asylum seekers and refugees, how do you keep going?”
My answer is that I focus on the support we receive from so many people – practical help, financial support and expressions of encouragement – and I reflect on the situations of people who are desperately trying to seek protection from persecution. When I do this, I realise that there is no way that we can possibly think of giving up and that, while we face our own struggles as an organisation, these are nothing compared to the struggles our organisation was formed to speak up for.