From Volunteer to CEO
23 November 2015 at 9:36 am
Kath Snell has a unique insight into her Not for Profit organisation, having risen the ranks from volunteer to CEO in eight years. Snell is this week’s Changemaker. She spoke to Xavier Smerdon.
Originally from Wales, Kath Snell was working in the corporate sector when she said she had a “conscious change” which led her towards working in the Not for Profit sector.
Snell started out by giving her time for free to Volunteer Task Force, a Perth organisation that provides free gardening, home maintenance, domestic assistance, social support and transport for people in need.
Within eight years she was running the organisation, which now has four locations across the Perth metro area, more than 100 staff members and 560 volunteers.
In this week’s Changemaker column, Snell discusses how starting as a volunteer has made her a better CEO and what other organisations can do to attract more volunteers.
Tell us a little bit about Volunteer Task Force and what you do there.
We’ve been in operation since 1970, so we’ve been up and running for about 45 years now. We were established originally by a couple called John and Sandra Penrose, and they actually brought the idea back from the UK and started the organisation from their spare room in their home and rounded up some friends who started providing voluntary services for people in need in the community. The principle of that has really remained the same except we’ve got a bit bigger now. We’ve now got about 120 staff, 400 to 500 volunteers and around 6000 clients that we provide services for over the period of the year.
What are you working on at the moment?
There’s a number of things happening in the sector at the moment. There’s lots of reforms on the horizon, so we’re really working towards what that means for us and ensuring that we’ve got a balanced and sustainable future. A lot of the work that we’re doing is around setting ourselves up to be able to broker our services to a wider range of clients, but also working at making sure we’re increasing our volunteer opportunities and our engagement with volunteers. That’s a huge part of what we do and how we operate.
We’re also trying to ensure that our back of house systems are structured and our technical infrastructure is robust, flexible and ready for the changes ahead in the sector.
We’ve got International Volunteer Day coming up in December and then obviously a run of Christmas parties and we try to really focus on ensuring that our staff and our volunteers are feeling valued and appreciated at that time of the year. So there’s lot going on from a strategic level all the way through the organisation and the focus is always on our groups, which are our clients and our volunteers that work for us.
How did you get involved in the sector?
I’ve been involved with Volunteer Task Force since 2006. I actually worked in the UK for a commercial radio station as marketing manager for a few years. When I moved over to Perth I had a conscious change, if you like, that I wanted to move into an area or an industry that I could contribute to that was a bit more meaningful. I decided to look out for work that would allow me to utilise my skill set but in an area that I felt would be a little bit more worthwhile, and, as I say, make a change really. So I started volunteering when I came here and I actually volunteered for Volunteer Task Force. That was my initial position with them. We were a much smaller organisation then, and I volunteered in the area of social support and office work and I could see that there was a need for us to do some marketing and targeting of volunteering if the organisation was to survive. I was then contracted by them to put a marketing plan together and I ended up getting some full time work with them a few months later. That was in August 2006 and I was working as the Business Development Manager and Manager of Volunteers for some years and then moved up to Senior Manager a few years ago and the CEO role last year. So I’ve been with the organisation coming up to 10 years in August next year.
How does it feel to have climbed the ranks of the organisation from volunteer to CEO?
People keep telling me it’s a great story and I feel quite privileged that that is how it seems. I think what it’s done for me is really give me an opportunity to really understand the organisation and understand the challenges and the rewards of volunteering and volunteer coordination and management. It’s given me a really clear understanding of what the organisation is about, what our purpose is and what the heart and soul of the organisation is. With the role that I’ve had for the last year, that’s given me a whole different insight into the strategic direction of the organisation; where we need to go, having a varied business approach. That sort of commercial background I think was one of the reasons why the interview board that took me back in 2006, wanted to bring me on board, to have that more business approach to the Not for Profit. I think that particularly in the competitive time that we’re facing, that’s probably helped me keep the head and the heart of the organisation aligned.
You mentioned rewards there. What is the most rewarding part of your work?
The most rewarding part for me is working for an organisation that really aligns with my own values and allows provides a forum for people to engage in meaningful activity. I see that right through our client set. Particularly being able to re-engage with their garden because it’s manageable again, being able to go out into the community because they have transport or social support that gives them that confidence and support. But also through our staff and our volunteers, providing opportunities for individual volunteers who perhaps have been suffering with mental health issues or have been long term unemployed or who are retired and are looking for a way to engage in the community. It gives people that opportunity to provide a service and to engage in an area that they might not be able to otherwise. You can see some real positive benefits from that. You can see some positive benefits in the areas of wellbeing, mental health, social engagement. The feeling and the rewards you have from contribution, I think for me that’s one of the big benefits of the role, to be able to be part of that and be able to provide that opportunity to people.
What’s the most difficult part of the role?
We’ve got challenges ahead. There are changes ahead, particularly in WA in terms of where our funding comes from and what that’s going to look like over the next two or three years. So there’s challenges in that area but I think you can also see them as opportunities and what we’ve done is take the opportunity to stop and review what we’re doing and look at what else we can do and how we can build on what we’re really good at and what our strengths are and that’s certainly in the areas of volunteering and our gardening and our transport service. So I think it’s actually given us a bit of a platform to review what we’re doing and how we can do it better and how we can broaden our opportunities to more clients and to more volunteers. So it’s challenging but rewarding and I think for me I really enjoy those opportunities for us to stop and go, “Ok, we’ve got some hurdles to get over, let’s look at some creative ways we can do that together.”
You’ve got roughly 500 volunteers at your organisation. What can other organisations do to attract more volunteers?
We do a lot of work in the community to let people know about who we are and what we do. For instance, we attend about 43 different community events every year where we have a stall and we talk to people about our services and our volunteer opportunities. That’s just part of our marketing plan if you like. We do a lot of work to get our name out there and I think that’s one thing that we do pretty well. But the area that I think really goes in our favour, in terms of how we recruit and retain volunteers, is that we try and be as flexible as we can. We work with people around when is convenient for them to volunteer and how they want to volunteer. We’re not trying to squeeze everyone into the same box. We work with people as individuals or groups and I think it’s our flexibility and our encouragement of people to come and volunteer that has really helped us. For instance, we’ve actively worked with people who are recovering from mental health issues, we work with one volunteer who has early onset dementia, and we work together on how best can we create this opportunity where everyone benefits. So I think as volunteer coordinators and managers it’s not just about what the volunteer can do for us, it’s about what we can also do for them to make the experience a positive one.
What inspires you to continue working in this kind of field?
I’ll be perfectly honest. When I started working for Volunteer Task Force I thought it would be a six to 12 month role that would get my foot in the door to work for perhaps a bigger charity or a bigger Not for Profit and what has kept me here is the nature of the work that we do, the people that this industry attracts, and the way that we can move and grow to make a real difference in the lives of people. We hear stories everyday about how we’ve benefited our clients. We’re very luck that we get to hear stories about things like our social support program which has helped re-engage people and give them the confidence to go back into the community or to go shopping again. I’m inspired every day by the people that we support and the people that do the supporting. That has never gotten stale. So the fact that 10 years later I’m still enjoying that element [proves that] the job satisfaction is enormous.