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Feature  |  Good Business, Leadership, Social Enterprise

Evolving Chair: The Business of Social Change


Thursday, 26th May 2016 at 10:33 am
Ellie Cooper, Journalist
Dawn O’Neil AM is a trailblazer for collective impact in Australia, and has served as an executive in both Not for Profit and public sector organisations. In this month’s Evolving Chair she discusses her role with social enterprise STREAT.

Thursday, 26th May 2016
at 10:33 am
Ellie Cooper, Journalist


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Evolving Chair: The Business of Social Change
Thursday, 26th May 2016 at 10:33 am

Dawn O’Neil AM is a trailblazer for collective impact in Australia, and has served as an executive in both Not for Profit and public sector organisations. In this month’s Evolving Chair she discusses her role with social enterprise STREAT.

Many people are familiar with STREAT’s cafes dotted across Melbourne. The award-winning social enterprise uses its retail outlets as a training ground for homeless disadvantaged young people to gain skills, employment and, ultimately, a sustainable livelihood.       

Dawn O’Neil was the founding chair when STREAT began in 2007 in Canberra and, after a break from 2009 to 2011, she returned to the organisation, which is now based in Melbourne.

Previously CEO of Lifeline Australia, O’Neil is recognised as a leader in the social and mental health sector. In this month’s Evolving Chair, she shares the importance of innovation and  business strategy in creating change.

STREAT chair Dawn O'Neil AM

Photo: Lori Holdberg

What is the structure of your board?

The STREAT board is a standard board, we’re only a small board, and at the moment we have five other board members. We have a finance and audit committee, we have a remuneration committee which really only forms every 12 months when we do a review of the CEOs remuneration. We also have a… research and evaluation committee.

What attracted you to STREAT’s board?

I had met Rebecca Scott, who’s the CEO and founder of STREAT. I was actually her mentor to start with. She was doing a leadership program through the Vincent Fairfax leadership program, and I was asked to be her mentor. She was, at that time, thinking about starting some kind of Not for Profit or social enterprise, and I worked with her because I was, at the time, still CEO of Lifeline Australia, which actually started very much as a social enterprise. It’s always had a business arm… many people wouldn’t necessarily know that or call it a social enterprise, but the op-shops and the recycling of donated goods is very much a social enterprise within Lifeline and many other charities like that in Australia. So I was able to share with her a lot of the learnings from Lifeline around running the businesses, because I’d run the businesses myself at a local level for about five years.

What has been the biggest challenge in your time as chair?

I think, really like most Not for Profits or most social sector organisations, it’s that coming down to the wire financially so often. I think trying to be fully self sustaining is a real challenge, even for social enterprises. So we’re still not fully self sustaining yet, but we’re hoping in the next two years we will be with the opening of our new Cromwell site. The aim is that within two years we’ll be self sustaining, but that’s a lot of hard work and that will be 10 years into running the enterprise.

How does the organisation plan to achieve financial sustainability?

We have been very successful in getting funding and support and philanthropy. First of all, Rebecca Scott is a tenacious, enthusiastic, wonderful advocate. [She] believes in what she does, and has great integrity around that, and she works very hard writing out many, many applications to many foundations and funds and philanthropists. So you can never stop that, you’ve just got to be very tenacious and hard working around those things. I think also not to underestimate the marketing promotion of your organisation, people need to know about you. It’s like the old saying, we know that only 50 per cent of the marketing works, but we just don’t know which 50 per cent. So Rebecca’s been very generous with her time in agreeing to be a speaker at many events on weekends, at night, at all times of the year. She’s available, she’s generous with her time, she speaks and she shares what we’ve learnt at the organisation with others, and I think that’s really helped to build the awareness of the organisation beyond our small footprint in Melbourne.

What are your board’s current priorities?

Number one, it’s to finish the building in Cromwell, it’s a major exercise to build a big facility with a bakery and new coffee roasting training facilities. It’s a major undertaking, it’s a $3 million building exercise, so we’ve had to borrow those funds, fundraise, do the build that will be ready in June. So we’ll be opening our doors hopefully in July of our new facility, so that’s been a massive exercise, that’s the number one priority right now.

What’s the highlight of working with this board?

They have been a fantastic board to work with, they’ve been willing to take risks – calculated risks. [They’re] very diligent and thorough around due diligence, asking challenging questions, having robust discussions, but then letting the CEO get on with the job. They’ve been very good at being clear around the governance role versus management, very willing to roll up their sleeves and help in any way possible whenever asked. [They’re] great advocates of the brand and the organisation. It’s been an absolute pleasure working with them – all of them.

What sector issues are currently being discussed at a board level?

Probably the one that’s been consistent throughout the whole time is… current policy and funding priorities around getting young people who have complex disadvantage into work or participation or even stable, safe housing. Current policy just does not fit the reality of what these kids’ lives are like. And the funding streams – we have never really qualified under any funding stream in the last 10 years, and yet we consistently support young people to get from homelessness into jobs, and the way the funding is structured is just too disjointed, too exclusive, it goes to certain ages, they have these streams – it’s not holistic enough. I think that federal policy around young people and getting young people with complex disadvantage from that place into stable homes and stable lives and into work needs to radically change.

Is gender balance an issue for your board?

Not at all, we’ve got a female CEO and I’m a female chair so that’s not been a problem. We have had three men on the board and three women, so it’s been a very even spread.

Does your board believe in collaboration with other organisations?

Very much so. I’m a big fan – we all are – of collaborative practice. We’ve always collaborated with other organisations, we rely on them to refer clients, we work with institutions like TAFE colleges and other training organisations… and we work very closely in collaborating with the private sector around a whole lot of areas to help us to achieve our goals, and our longterm goal of getting young people away from homelessness and into secure work and training every year. We could not do that on our own – no way.

What advice do you have around the chair and CEO relationship?

My advice would be that it’s critical for a chair to have a good, open, transparent relationship with the chief executive officer. That’s probably number one role for the chair… to maintain that relationship, maintain that transparency, make the time. I would always encourage chairs and CEOs to speak at least weekly, making sure you have a good process for annual reviews. In our case we do six-monthly reviews. And it’s just absolutely critical, that relationship, it is the pivotal one, really, for the organisation to function well.


Ellie Cooper  |  Journalist |  @ProBonoNews

Ellie Cooper is a journalist covering the social sector.

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