Today’s Children Are Tomorrow’s Leaders
Monday, 20th June 2016 at 10:35 am
Lisa Sturzenegger is the CEO of children’s welfare agency OzChild, which works with more than 6,000 children and young people with the aim of providing them a better future. She is this week’s Changemaker.
Welsh-born Sturzenegger has had an international executive career working in the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom with 28 years of direct experience in the Not for Profit and government sectors.
She was the director of community safety with the CFA during the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires and the subsequent Royal Commission, and she has even won several medals in commonwealth games.
In this week’s Changemaker she talks to Wendy Williams about teaching her niece to run, why she feels at home in the Not for Profit sector and why, when things get hard, she just tries harder.
What made you want to work in the Not for Profit sector?
That’s an easy one for me. I had a niece born when I was 15 with cerebral palsy. She was born three months premature, she weighed less than a kilo. And so I was at that age, sort of very curious as to what that would mean as an impact on her as a little baby, and the impact was of course she had many, many struggles. And when she came to be about four, I was an elite athlete at the time, and… I came back home to Wales and I was playing with Carlie… and she started to cry, and I asked her why, because it was obviously very distressing to me to see this little four-year-old crying, and she said “because I can’t run with the other children”. And I looked at her and I Iooked at the other kids playing that day, and I thought, well I can maybe teach her how to run, somebody’s got to teach her how to run. So I spent about six weeks with her and by the end of the six weeks, she could run. She couldn’t run straight but she sure could run. And that sort of inspired me then to think that I had made a little difference that day and I wanted to continue on with that in my journey, and it really inspired me to get into this career.
How did you start out?
Well I started out working in special education, so working with children with disabilities, and became a special education teacher, working with what was then called the Spastics Society in the UK. And my first role in the sector was working in the 24 hour residential school, with kids of all ages who had a range of multiple disabilities, so that’s how I started.
What does a typical day for you involve?
CEOs are quite renowned for being in lots of meetings all day, which means pretty much that I spend no time at the computer during the day. So I get up quite early, I get up about 4 o’clock, and I get myself organised with reviewing my emails, that’s sort of typically when I clear the decks at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day. I jump on either the treadmill or I go out with my dog for a 10 kilometre walk, so I walk 10km everyday, and I use that to prepare mentally for whatever’s in front of me that particular day or the following week, like this morning for example I was on the treadmill thinking about the speech I’m going to give at the upcoming OzChild Gala Dinner.
Then pretty much, most days involve a combination of internal and external meetings and I kind of work what I call around the clock and I take the breaks that fit in with family and life. Two days ago I was at a function for our carers until 11 o’clock at night and I might be out on the weekend doing something for the organisation, so it’s definitely not a nine to five job. This morning I had a teleconference at 7 o’clock in the morning with the United States… so that is an unusual day. It’s not a traditional job at all.
How does OzChild make a difference to the community?
We are the oldest child welfare organisation in Victoria, we’ve been around for 165 years and throughout our history we have been very well known for being innovative. We established things that were ahead of their time, we were responsible for the first ever single widow’s pension here in Victoria, we agitated for a bill to parliament and we established the national Children’s Bureau of Australia.
What that means today, is we have a journal called Children Australia, which is a quarterly journal which aims to provide an opportunity for service providers and academics and others concerned with children and young people and families to report on their work and raise issues and share their views, and that’s international and it’s published in 28 countries. But fundamentally we support vulnerable children and families by providing healing, preventing abuse, neglect, and strengthening families, and our core services are family services, kinship care, foster care, and disability care.
What are your current priorities?
Well two main ones. We are in the business of strengthening our impact, so we really want to make sure that what we do counts, and there is a tangible difference in children, young people and families lives and we want to grow our reach. So we are introducing what we call evidence based models, so that means that the work that we do has basically got the evidence behind it, to demonstrate it can be successful… So we’re not just going to do something because we feel it will work, we are doing things that we know work because it has been tested, much like in the health sector where you get randomised control studies done around different products coming into the market to help improve health outcomes, we are doing the same, we are looking at models of support that have been tested through randomised control trials around the world and we are going to introduce them here in Victoria in the coming months.
What challenges are facing your organisation?
It is a rapidly changing sector, and that is unsurprising because it appears to change in the world today. As we know we are a collaboration economy now. There is much reform going on here in Victoria and there is also the NDIS, and governments are moving to pay for outcomes rather than pay for outputs, which I think is very positive, but the result of that is that organisations like ourselves have to change the way we think and the way we work and we have to change our business models and ultimately change our mindset, because we are not just going to get paid to turn up and have so many foster care placements available, we have to make sure that what we are doing with the children in foster care is having a dramatic impact on their outcomes and their life trajectory so they have better outcomes and we make a difference in their lives.
What is the future direction of OzChild?
Ensuring that all the programs we do deliver do have measurable impact, so that goes back to that suite of evidence based models. Currently the programs we deliver are good programs but they are not well evaluated, so to do that we’ve got to change these models and make sure that our staff are really well trained and supported and they are delivering the right mix of services that serve our purpose and ensure that children and young people can reach their full potential.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
I think that day with Carlie, when I got her to run, probably it’s very hard to top that. And I have won a couple of medals in commonwealth games. But I think in a work context, I had a time when I worked in the public sector during Black Saturday and I helped reform Victoria’s bush fire policy post Black Saturday, I was largely responsible for the largest planning reform and I think that is something I am really proud of. And I really, really hope that introducing the evidence-based models will be the next thing that I do that will change dramatically the outcomes for children and young people in Victoria.
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
It has to be the people, I really love setting people up for success. Ultimately it is the people at the grassroots that do all the work, so it is my job to ensure I give them the right tools so they can be as effective as they can. We have an army of carers that aren’t paid, they are all volunteers, they work in our disability programs, in our foster care services, in our kinship care programs. They are the heartbeat of the organisation and they do it because they love kids and they want to make a difference and anything I can do to make that easier for them is really, really rewarding.
You work with a lot of children who have suffered abuse or neglect, how do you stay motivated in the face of that?
I think that for me the harder it is the harder I try. Part of the reason that we are fundamentally trying to change our service delivery model is in response to that because the complexity of the world, and we see it everyday, what is going on in the United States right now, mass shootings, the world is very, very different through social media, and that has had an impact on our children and young people, and it is hard enough if you are a child or a young person growing up in a very healthy family, but if that is taken away from you because your family suffers from drug abuse or family violence and you are part of that journey and then you get removed, then we want to ensure that when we get you, that we are setup to make sure that we give you the most loving and healing and nurturing experience. And a lot of the way we have been doing our work for the last number of years isn’t best served for children anymore.
The outcomes for kids that are in the out-of-home care sector, particular if they are going to residential care, are quite awful. Forty per cent of kids in residential care go on to become a youth offender and get involved with the youth justice system. Higher unemployment rates, poor education rates, poor health outcomes, the whole range of indicators for kids that have been in the system are really bad, particularly at the pointy end, so I am trying to make sure that we don’t keep them at the pointy end. We can bring them into loving families, into foster care where the projected outcomes are much healthier.
Do you see yourself staying in the Not for Profit sector for the rest of your career?
Absolutely yes, I love it. I did have 10 years in the public sector, when I worked for the CFA and I worked also for Work Safe and I was in policy setting roles and I was able to really change, as I said after Black Saturday, I played an instrumental role in putting in a new regime around bush fire safety in Victoria, but it is nothing like working in the Not for Profit sector. I feel like I am home here and it is where I want to stay, making a difference.
Is there anything that frustrates you about the Not for Profit sector?
Probably mostly, that it is the lack of ability to realise that if you collaborate together you get better results. So there tends to be a bit of everybody thinks that what they are doing they know best and ultimately I really enjoy collaborating with others. The problems are so big, there is enough work for us all to do, so working together we can really make a better difference. And of course in the Not for Profit world, there are I think 600,000 Not for Profits across Australia and 58,000 of them are significant, so they have got budgets of more than $1 million, but there are a lot that pop up, 10 new ones a week, it would be better to look at the problem you are trying to solve and see if somebody else is solving it and maybe partner. But equally for us who are an organisation that works very closely with government and is largely funded by government, so in the community services sector, we have to rely on them as well, so the system has to work together and often it doesn’t quite gel so that can be frustrating, so that is where collaboration really is the key.
Do you have a favourite saying?
I do, “today’s children are tomorrow’s leaders,” and therefore you have got to make sure that whatever you do to help them you have got to do it with excellence.