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Acclimatising to the Top Job

23 January 2015 at 10:48 am
Xavier Smerdon
At just 32-years-old, Amanda McKenzie is the first CEO of the Climate Council, an organisation that captivated the country when it was born out of the scrapping of the Climate Commission. McKenzie is this week’s Changemaker. She spoke with Xavier Smerdon.

Xavier Smerdon | 23 January 2015 at 10:48 am


Acclimatising to the Top Job
23 January 2015 at 10:48 am

At just 32-years-old, Amanda McKenzie is the first CEO of the Climate Council, an organisation that captivated the country when it was born out of the scrapping of the Climate Commission. McKenzie is this week’s Changemaker. She spoke with Xavier Smerdon.

When she was 20-years-old McKenzie established her first Not for Profit, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.

Since then she has worked to put climate change on the public agenda.

She shared some of the challenges of fighting for the issue in the current political climate.

How long have you been at the Climate Council for?

I’ve been at the organisation since it started in September 2013.

The story of the Climate Council is that when the Climate Commission was abolished we then started this organisation.

I’d been at working at the Climate Commission as a senior communications adviser.

I studied Arts and Law at university and I always had an intention of becoming a human rights lawyer and to work particularly on refugee issues.

But then once I got to know a bit more about climate change in about 2005 and 2006 I got really worried about it and I realised pretty quickly this was going to be a human catastrophe as much as it would be an environmental catastrophe.

I started an organisation with a friend of mine called the Australian Youth Climate Coalition and that was really about how to engage young people on this issue.

That organisation now has 100,000 members around Australia and I was national director there for four years.

What are some of the daily challenges you face at the Climate Council?

We have a very ambitious program and we have a smaller staff so the biggest challenge is to just get a lot done with a little.

There’s always those questions about are we really prioritising as effectively as we can and are we using our resources in the best way we can.

But also, given that we have got a relatively small space, how do we get the maximum bang for our buck.

Are you completely funded by donations?

Yes. We don’t have DGR (Deductible Gift Recipient) status. We’ve applied but it’s been in the process for almost one year now.

We have really worked on securing our organisation with small donations from the public, so we have over 2000 people that give regularly that sustain the bulk of our organisation.

We launched with a crowdfunder and within the first day we’d raised over $500,000 and then within another we’d raised over $1 million from roughly 15,000 to 20,000 people all just giving $30 or $20.

We didn’t have a donation over $5000 and even then that was only one. Most of the donations were well under $1000.

Are you still working on that basis of relying on donations and how do you manage to plan ahead?

As I said, we now have 2000 of those people who gave in the first instance giving regularly and that’s our main focus, to expand our regular giving program and we encourage people to give weekly or monthly.

We also then regularly survey the people that are committing to us to make sure that we’re meeting their interests as well.

It’s quite a community organisation. People that donate are called founding friends because they founded us and made all this possible. We’re immensely grateful to them and they inherently part of our projects.

What are you working on at the moment at the organisation?

One of our focuses is to communicate extreme weather to the public and climate change is often quite an intangible issue and something that seems like a future problem.

But when you look at extreme weather events you can see that there’s already an impact that climate change is having right now. It’s very tangible, real and impacting people right now.

We’ve been focussed over the Summer on communicating around bushfires, heatwaves, cyclones and other extreme weather events that happen in Australia.

We need to make sure that people understand the links to climate change. We just had the third hottest year on record in Australia for instance. In January we were communicating that climate change is making hot weather more frequent and more severe and heatwaves are becoming hotter, longer and they’re happening more often.

How difficult is it to do your work in a country where some members of the Government are climate change skeptics?

It is a very challenging political space and in our view climate change is not an issue that should be placed down ideological lines. There’s nothing inherently left or right about climate change, it’s just a big problem that the world faces and in Australia the impact will be severe.What we try and do is keep out of the politics and make sure whoever is communicating on climate change, whoever wants access to information, that they have access to accurate information.

We communicate with both the major parties and all the minor parties and try and make sure that they have an evidentiary base to progress their arguments.

Whether they take that up or not is another question and something they may choose to do.

So in the future if a Government is elected that wants to re-establish the Climate Commission, do you think your organisation would take on that role, or do you see your current structure continuing into the future?

I think there’s been a real advantage to working outside the Government. I think we were independant as a Climate Commission but there is a greater perception of independence when you’re outside of Government.

We’ve been able to expand the type of work that we do because we’re not working in a bureaucracy. We’re able to be quicker, nimbler and to respond to events better.

In Government it was very difficult to have an effective social media presence but now within just over a year we have over 100,000 people that are fans of us on facebook.

We’re looking to do a lot more globally in terms of producing effective communications content.

Those are the types of things we wouldn’t have been able to do in Government.  

What is the most rewarding part of your work?

My motivation is that I think that the climate crisis is the biggest issue that we face and I want to make as much of a difference to addressing that as I can.

I think that this platform that we’ve built as a climate platform means that we have huge media reach, we have huge social media reach and I’m really excited about our capacity to make change.

That’s what gets me up in the morning and motivates me to keep going.

Being so young yourself, what advice would you have for other young people that wanted to get involved in a certain cause?

What I’ve learned through the work that I’ve done setting up two new Not for Profits from scratch is that you can do a lot more than you think.

I think most people tend to underestimate themselves. They tend to think about how small they are and the fact that they are only one person.

As one person you can actually do a lot and if you get out there and have a go that’s the only way that you can test that proposition.

I’d encourage young people to take risks, to try new things and to follow their passion relentlessly.

There are opportunities and, even if they’re not immediately obvious, you can create them for yourselves.

Did you find it was difficult to get people to take you seriously or was that never really a problem?

That’s never really been an issue for me.

I think that we live in quite an egalitarian society and although there can be discrimination towards young people, and sometimes as a woman I’ve felt discrimination, I think that while people may have been surprised that I am a CEO, as soon as you open your mouth and you get into a discussion about the pertinent issues they will take you seriously.

Where do you think that your sense of wanting to make change came from?

I think it was partly parents. My parents were always very involved in the community and they always felt like if you live in the community you have an obligation to be part of that and contribute to it.

Also the school I went to was very passionate about social justice.

I think those two influences were really important.

You mentioned it briefly before, but what inspires you?

I think the most frustrating about something like climate change is in some ways it’s really slow going to get outcomes but I think that if you look at the bigger global picture you can see enormous change on the way, particularly with energy systems.

I think I’m just excited about the large scale change that we can already see and the capacity for humanity to tackle a challenge that in some ways we might have thought is beyond our capacity.

Xavier Smerdon  |  Journalist  |  @XavierSmerdon

Xavier Smerdon is a journalist specialising in the Not for Profit sector. He writes breaking and investigative news articles.

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