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EVOLVING CHAIR: The Chair’s Dogged Determination

28 July 2015 at 2:31 pm
Xavier Smerdon
Seeing firsthand the impact Assistance Dogs have on the lives of people with disabilities and their families keeps Sydney corporate lawyer Rowan McDonald an engaged board chairman. McDonald is featured in this month’s Evolving Chair.

Xavier Smerdon | 28 July 2015 at 2:31 pm


EVOLVING CHAIR: The Chair’s Dogged Determination
28 July 2015 at 2:31 pm

Seeing firsthand the impact Assistance Dogs have on the lives of people with disabilities and their families keeps Sydney corporate lawyer Rowan McDonald an engaged board chairman. McDonald is featured in this month’s Evolving Chair.

Rowan McDonald became a director of Assistance Dogs Australia in 2005 and was elected President and Chairman of the Board of Directors in 2006. McDonald is a also a Partner of national law firm HWL Ebsworth. He brings over 20 years of legal experience, particularly in relation to corporate governance and board procedures. He holds degrees in Economics and Law and his previous experience includes working as a lawyer at leading Australian law firms in addition to holding a senior role at the Australian Securities Exchange.

What is your organisation and Board structure?

Assistance Dogs Australia (Assistance Dogs) trains Labradors and Golden Retrievers to support people with disabilities such as paraplegia, quadriplegia, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, developmental disabilities such as autism, and mental health disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

The dogs we provide to clients with physical disabilities are trained to undertake a number of practical tasks, including opening and closing doors, retrieving out of reach items, pushing the access buttons to commercial premises and barking on command to raise an alarm when help is needed. All of our dogs also provide an enormous amount of emotional support and help to address issues such as social isolation, loss of confidence, a reluctance to leave home and high dependency on a carer.

Our Board currently comprises eight directors including Assistance Dogs' founder, Bob Biggs.  We have also established a number of sub-committees comprising a sub-set of the Board membership which meets separately to the Board to deliberate and ultimately make recommendations to the Board on important areas of our business.   

In addition to having the appropriate skill set to take on the role of director, each director brings to the Board experience and skills developed in their careers outside Assistance Dogs which are invaluable when discussing and making strategic decisions at Board level. The skills and experience of our Board members include veterinary, animal training, physiotherapy, management, media and television, marketing, youth development services and legal.

What attracts you to a Not for Profit board?

It is easy to become consumed by our day jobs, and my career as a corporate lawyer is no exception. Having another outlet to use my legal skills which benefits others adds another very fulfilling dimension to my life. Ten years ago one of my clients, Sydney stockbroker, the late Brent James, asked me if I would like to come along to a Board meeting and I have been involved with Assistance Dogs ever since. Sadly Brent passed away while serving on the Board of Assistance Dogs and is greatly missed.

What is the biggest challenge your Board has had to overcome? And how did you overcome it?

At various times during the life of Assistance Dogs the Board has had to make decisions which have had a material effect on Assistance Dogs both from a financial and an organisational perspective. These decisions have often been vigorously debated by the Board and at times have given rise to strong differences of opinion. One thing I learnt early on is the importance of ensuring an environment is created which encourages open and honest debate and one in which the views of each member of the Board can be heard and be given careful consideration.  Over the 10 years I have been involved with Assistance Dogs the Board has been a very harmonious group and almost all of our decisions, and certainly those which have been fundamental to the ongoing well-being of Assistance Dogs, have been approved unanimously.

What are your Board’s current priorities/goals?

At a Board strategy day we held earlier this year we identified five strategic pillars as being critical to delivery of our overall strategic plan for the next three years. These are: (1) Great service delivery to our clients; (2) Constantly evaluating the impact of our programs on our clients, their families and carers and the wider community; (3) Building better training facilities and improving our systems and processes; (4) Developing our people; and (5) Driving financial sustainability.  

In a separate exercise we also identified the key risks associated with achieving our objectives and then identified the best ways of managing and mitigating those risks.

I am pleased to report that, although much work is still to be done, we have made good progress in realising these goals. Most recently, we entered into a contract to acquire real estate in Sydney's west which will become Assistance Dogs' national training facility. Once modifications to the existing buildings and some additional building works are completed we will for the first time be able to accommodate our clients and their dogs overnight so that they can receive training together in a domestic setting.

What is your Board’s ultimate goal?

Our ultimate goal is to improve the lives of as many Australians with disabilities as possible through access to one of our assistance dogs.

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

Without doubt it is seeing first hand the impact our dogs have on the lives of our clients and their families. I recall one particular client who told me that after he returned home from a long stint in hospital after his accident he literally could not get out of bed. He could not see any point. That was until he received one of our dogs which expected him to get out of bed every day to feed him and take him for a walk. He said the dog has had a profound effect on his quality of life providing him with unwavering companionship and physical and emotional support.

Do you have any advice around recruitment?

There are always plenty of people who would like to join the Board of a Not for Profit. However, it is important to ensure that you appoint people with the right experience and qualifications and the time and commitment required, which should not be underestimated. In our case it is very important, for example, that we have at least one person on the Board who has a disability and it is even better if that person has one of our dogs. This ensures that our clients, the people for whom we exist, have a voice in our decision making. We are very fortunate to have Peter Darch as a director. Peter was matched to assistance dog Phoebe in 2008 after a swimming accident left him quadriplegic. We are indebted to Peter for his time and dedication.

Do you have any advice around the Board’s relationship with the Chief Executive Officer?

It probably goes without saying but in my view it is very important that the organisation's strategy is not developed in isolation but together with the key members of the organisation who will be responsible for executing it. Key to this will be buy-in by the Chief Executive Officer (CEO). Unless the CEO is committed to the strategy it will inevitably fail. Equally important is the buy-in of other key members of the management team. Our recent Board strategy day included our CEO or Top Dog, Richard Lord, our Fundraising Manager, Kerin Welford and our Assistance Dogs Programs Manager, Alberto Alvarez-Campos. Their input was fundamental to developing our three year strategic plan.

If you know someone who you think would make a good subject for the Evolving Chair column, email us at

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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