A New Beginning
16 November 2015 at 10:28 am
Despite a life working in the Not for Profit sector and helping children in need, Jayne Meyer Tucker considers stepping down as CEO as one of the most important things she has done. She spoke to Xavier Smerdon.
For eight years Jayne Meyer Tucker was CEO of Good Beginnings Australia, which aimed to improve the lives of children and their families in disadvantaged communities.
This year however, she stepped down as CEO as her organisation merged with Save the Children Australia.
Since then Meyer Tucker has been leading the debate around mergers in Australia.
In this week’s Changemaker column she tells Pro Bono Australia News that she sees mergers as one of the great dilemmas and challenges facing the charity sector and the wider community.
What is it about early intervention of children and family affairs that attracted you to that field?
I probably have to talk about most of my life in the UK because that’s where my main growing up of professional life was. I actually had nothing to do with children or families. I was heavily involved with public health and in actual fact working with GPs and fitness practitioners. So the kind of early intervention and prevention I was in was enabling people to do physical activity.
Where my world shifted into the children and young people arena was when the Blair Government went into an intense modernisation agenda, the whole reform that happened between 1997 to 2005. I was appointed to a position for which they chose and selected people who had the ability with transferable skills but didn’t necessarily know the area they were working in. It was done on purpose because it gave you that edge in being able to be empathetic but ask the right questions. As a result of that I therefore became incredibly engaged in the arena for children and families, primarily because if you really want to do early intervention and prevention the best, that’s the best place to start.
When I was considering coming back to Australia and I put my toe in the water for jobs that were available, I got snapped up by Good Beginnings. I thought it was a good step back into Australia because I’d obviously known a lot about the children and young people’s agenda in the UK at that time and then to come back to Australia in the same area, that’s how I managed to stay with it.
How difficult was it to then to decide to merge Good Beginnings with another organisation and take that step back from the place you’d worked at for eight years?
For me it comes back to a discussion I had with my Board in May 2013 where this all began really. I felt very, very wrong being in a sector which was overcrowded, being part of what I call “feeding the beauty pageant”, you know, just constant competing. It felt to me that we were really exploiting our clients, being the children and the families, and I had that very honest conversation with my Board that I felt we all held a moral obligation. I believed that the only way we could do this better was to enter into some form of an emergence strategy window, which meant we were clear on our outcome, which was to ensure that we gave children a good beginning, but we wouldn’t be too clear on how we might get there and what might happen as a result of it is we may not exist as an organisation or I may not be the CEO or they may not be the Board or the executives may not have their roles.
Were we all willing to step into that space if we could know for sure that we could get more children with a good beginning? I thought that was the right thing to do and put that out there as a question. To be honest with you, when I’m asked that question, was it tough, of course it’s tough because you’re putting yourself completely at risk, but I just didn’t see that there was another option. How wrong is it to just be making a role and a job when you’re really not tackling the root cause of the problem?
It was something that I instigated and that’s why I talk about the timeline. The timeline is incredibly important. It’s not something that you wake up one day and within the due diligence stages make it happen. It’s incredibly important that there is this window of exploration and that you don’t get too set on exactly what the process is going to be, you allow it to emerge.
One of the things that I did do in that window was just help my Board. We had a phrase and that was “let’s not grow the organisation, let’s grow the outcomes”. Whenever we would get into the ego status point, because we’re all human beings, we’d come back to that statement. What are we doing? We’re growing the outcomes, not growing the organisation.
Was there resistance within the organisation?
This is why I made those statements happen for a good 20-odd months before we actually did the merger. I also talk about, when I share the process and stages of this, once you’ve actually got to an agreement or a green light that you want to step into the emergent strategy, you therefore need to have a way of describing what that looks like. From the organisation point of view, we created a manifesto. A manifesto was something that could be a pretty bland document if you let it be, but what we considered our manifesto to be was a statement that the Board bought into, that the staff in the programs bought into, and we on purpose created the manifesto very grassroots up.
It was that the organisation has made this very bold statement that we’re going to grow our outcomes and not grow the organisation, so what do we have to do, we have to disrupt the system until it works for children. So if this is our case, we know what our vision and mission is, what’s our statement of purpose, what’s our manifesto to do that? And the staff came up with an awesome way of describing that, and that went through our whole reporting process, obviously ending up at the Board, and the Board engaged that.
Part of getting people ready was actually also picked up through that manifesto. May 2013 was when we started the conversation and by the end of the following year we had the manifesto and then we set into what I call and emergent strategy which was called Mobilise 2026, which was thinking about what a 10 year strategy might look like. So having had the very clear dialogue about if we’re going to be brave here we might not exist in the end or we may look different as an organisation, let’s go 10 years on and think about what we want it to look like.
Overall it’s really a drop in the ocean, we still have around 600,000 organisations in Australia and even this week we’ve had another celebrity start their own charity. When you see that happen, how do you think we can tackle that?
You’ve actually put your finger on the pulse with that question and there’s two answers to it. The first one is, we’re not clear on our outcomes. Australia is void of having an overarching outcomes framework. That is a requirement of the OECD. It is the root cause of many of our problems in the social purpose sector. Because we don’t have it, it’s a little bit like being on a golf course, everyone’s hitting their golf balls all over the place and we don’t actually have any alignment. Therefore it’s very, very hard for anyone to actually make some decisions as to, that’s justifiable because it contributes to certain outcomes. That’s the first point, and it’s a macro answer to what you’ve said.
And by the way, I make that negative point with a lot of energy because I can see very clearly what Australia needs to do to get itself around that point. Let’s just say we had an overarching outcomes framework in place, it would make it very easy for our regulator, whenever anybody wants to set up a charity, to be able to collate and know where the organisations are that are already contributing towards that outcome and support, be a part of, and have their passion area fulfilled without creating another layer.
I have yet to find anyone, when you have the conversation with them that if they were able to meet their outcome, if you were absolutely 100 per cent convinced that you could do that by joining in with another group rather than setting up your own thing, wouldn’t choose the former.
Once people are clear on the outcome they have a very different rationale behind what they do. It’s really a matter of being clear on where we’re heading and then capturing people’s passion so you can channel it to meet that.
While we don’t tackle those two areas, we will continue to have this vast expansion in an overcrowded market and long-term it will have an explosion at some point. I think we’re seeing the beginning of that avalanche with some of the challenges that we’re having now.
If you look at the UK and some of the discussions they’re having at the moment, the stage that they’re at is the stage we don’t want to be at. Australia’s got a lot of hope if we do things very differently but we have to take some bold steps. I have to admit, on the first of July I was so pleased because I thought “yes, we’re down to 599,000 charities”. The problem is, I knew the next day we would have another nine.
A lot of our readers have said this is an overly simple way of looking at the charity sector, what’s your response to that?
I really appreciate those voices and I know where they come from. This is where I suppose in my studies I’ve really been able to get down to the tension that sits here. The tension sits between structure and spontaneity. If we have too much control or if we push things into a particular shape then we’ll lose the innovation, we’ll lose the ability to have the local-based approach. Well, I’m afraid that is probably a 19th Century way of looking at it and we’re now in the 21st Century and the kind of social problems that we’ve actually got can no longer have the treatment that would’ve worked in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s.
We therefore are being forced to think differently. If we go to the private sector, and I’ve spent some of my life in the private sector, it is very much focussed on one outcome, which is profit. It doesn’t matter what area they are earning their funds out of, it’s always got that end goal of a single profit. In the Not for Profit sector you have a myriad of outcomes that you’re actually achieving. Therefore the regulation and the way that the sector progresses in managing itself through this window of change is going to be different to how the corporate sector or private sector deals with it.
If I try to give a simple answer to this question, let’s consider widgets. In the corporate sector they would have already stopped the widget factory. They would have dealt with an overcrowded market with too many widgets being placed on the production line and they would have sorted it out. What we’re allowing to happen here is for widgets to fall off the production line and to keep putting some on and hoping it will work itself out. It’s getting to a point where it’s going to cram up the whole production line.
So I appreciate it when people have that argument but we have got to move with the current century that we’re in and find the ways that we can balance the structure and the spontaneity. That’s the key for me. It’s not about following an old system, it’s about finding a new way of operating and understanding that if we keep doing what we’ve always done we’ll keep getting what we’ve always got. Are we tackling the major social issues at the moment? Are we seriously reducing some of those trends? I know for children and families we’re not.
What inspires you?
It’s really early intervention and prevention. For all of my career, all of my life, I’ve been really very fortunate to recognise that if you get in and fix things before they become a problem, you have a much better experience at the end of it. That is something that I now feel is really what Australia needs.
If I look at Australia on the world stage, we are the teenager on the block. You’ve got many other countries like the USA, the UK and the rest of Europe, who are grappling with austerity measures that we just don’t understand what it means in Australia. They’ve got inter-century and inter-generational issues that we haven’t had to deal with. We’ve got such an opportunity here to really get in early, make some of those changes, see the result of them, and leapfrog ahead and be a really good leader for the rest of the world. That’s what excites me.
Early intervention and prevention is the lense I’m always looking through and when I look at Australia I just see that it’s so doable.
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