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Every Woman has a Story

1 August 2016 at 11:06 am
Wendy Williams
Donna de Zwart is CEO of Fitted for Work, the first Australian organisation of its kind, dedicated to helping women experiencing disadvantage get into work and keep it. She is this week’s Changemaker.

Wendy Williams | 1 August 2016 at 11:06 am


Every Woman has a Story
1 August 2016 at 11:06 am

Donna de Zwart is CEO of Fitted for Work, the first Australian organisation of its kind, dedicated to helping women experiencing disadvantage get into work and keep it. She is this week’s Changemaker.

The ethos behind Fitted for Work stems from a belief that when women are fitted for work they are fitted for life.

Since it started in 2005, the Not for Profit has helped 22,000 women experiencing disadvantage,  including survivors of domestic violence, single parents, women with a disability, young and mature-aged woman and culturally and linguistically diverse woman, to break through barriers to get and keep work.  

The organisation helps women with everything from the first step of finding a suitable outfit to wear to an interview, to coaching and mentoring to help women build their skills and develop their confidence in order to achieve meaningful work.

de Zwart, who took over the role in February 2015 replacing outgoing inaugural CEO Jane Hunt, has more than 20 years experience in consulting and the education sector.

She has worked with a range of Vocational and Education Training (VET), higher education and commercial organisations, including many of Australia’s top 100 companies.

She understands from a personal perspective the importance for a woman to experience the dignity that work brings, as well as how employment impacts family, the wider community and the growth of the Australian economy and society as a whole.

In this week’s Changemaker, de Zwart talks about the importance of financial sustainability, how more than 370,000 women in Australia are currently looking for work, how every women has a story and why everybody needs something to do, something to look forward to and someone to love.

Donna de Zwart Headshot

Donna de Zwart

What made you want to work in the Not for Profit sector?

I have a commercial background and I suppose my own personal values and beliefs centre around people. I believe if you get the people right the profit will come, and I got a bit over having that argument around profit over people. So for me when this role came up, and just with my own life story, all the dots connected and I felt like this was where I was meant to be and I could really make a difference.

What does a typical day for you involve?

There is no typical day. It can be as varied as me visiting one of the prison programs that we work with, I like to try and get involved at a grassroots level with clients when I have the time and I can, it might then involve writing board papers, meeting with politicians, working on strategy around our social enterprise and then I might finish the day speaking at an event. And every day is so, so different.

Why is female participation in the workforce so important?

There are a number of reasons why. If you just talk about the business case, around why it is important to improve the participation rates of women in the workforce, we know that we’ve got over 370,000 women in Australia who are currently looking for work and if a women is working one hour a week she is not even included in that number. So we know that women are not only looking for work but are being underutilised. But if you look at something like the intergenerational report that was released last year and some of the ways in which the government is looking to pay for the ageing population and so on, women in the workforce or a greater workforce participation rate of women, is one way in which they can do that. And in fact if we improve workforce participation rates of women, according to the ABS, Australia’s GDP would rise by 11 per cent, so there is a lot around the business case in terms of trying to get more women into work.

And then I think the second area is around the cultural shift that we start to see when more women are working and that is around their financial independence. Because when you help one woman become financially independent, it has a massive impact on how she parents her kids, how she engages with her community, the diversity she brings to the workplace and as I mentioned, to the Australian economy as a whole.

But also, when you look at stats around women who are currently living in poverty, women who are in abusive relationships, we know the stats are unbelievable, that 85 per cent of women who leave an abusive relationship return to their partner, and financial hardship and the inability to gain financial independence is a key factor. So there are so many reasons why it is a good thing not only for the individual woman but also for Australia as a whole.

What are Fitted for Work’s current priorities?

Our current priorities are around building our financial sustainability, [that] is a big one, because obviously without that we can’t grow and help more women. We have a social enterprise that we have launched which is called SheWorks, where we work directly with employers because we have a pool of women that are ready to work. So that’s certainly a big priority for us at the moment.

I think too, more importantly, it is about practicing what we preach. So for us we talk to our women all the time about two things in particular, one is around their value and their worth, because if women aren’t able to put a value on who they are, their experience and what they have to offer, no one else will. And the second is around that financial sustainability because once you have that, you can self-determine your future. And it is interesting that for us as an organisation those two same things apply, we need to be able to put a value around what we do and communicate and articulate that clearly, and we also need to have our own financial sustainability so that we can self-determine our future and we’re able to work with women where we are needed most.

What challenges are facing your organisation?

I think, we’re really confident that we have developed a suite of holistic programs and services for our women, our focus now has to be on our revenue split and our over reliance on trusts and foundations as a Not for Profit. We need to invest in those long term financial solutions.

But our biggest challenge would have to be, we have got our business as usual that we have to continue on with and we have to deliver on our strategy around growth, but as we are not dissimilar from a lot of Not for Profits, we are doing that with no extra resources. So unlike in the commercial sector where you may be given some funds to invest in the growth, we’re not doing that, we’re doing that with the resources that we currently have, so that is probably our biggest challenge.

Fitted for Work was recently one of the Telstra Victorian Charity Award Finalists. What do you credit for the success?

I think that, firstly it was a huge honour in being nominated as a finalist. But I think it is about recognising the Not for Profit sector. The corporate sector is acknowledging our entrepreneurialism, our professionalism and it showcases that it is possible for organisations to address social issues with a combination of business acumen and a real desire to make the community a fairer place for everyone. And, I think it is about acknowledging the professionalism with which we run the organisation. And whilst we are doing that, we are generating a tangible social and financial return on investment, for donors, for corporate partners and so on, and I really think that we’ve got that balance right and I think that has been a great contributor to us being nominated as finalists.

Do you think more charities need to think of themselves as businesses?

Absolutely. Because an organisation like ours, everything we do, we do with absolute compassion and love and care, but the organisation cannot survive on love and compassion and care. We need to generate revenue, we need to generate funds if we’re to deliver the best quality services and programs for women that need it most. So, it is absolutely crucial that we do have a really strong business acumen in developing the Not for Profit sector.

What is the future direction of Fitted for Work?

Well, that’s a good question. I think for us, we would like, as I was saying before, we would like to see ourselves as financially independent and being able to self determine the direction we want to head in, in terms of our growth. But I think we would like to be seen as thought leaders in terms of what we bring to the sector as well as the types of services and programs that we deliver and we would also like to be seen as collaborators, with other Not for Profits, with government, with the commercial sector, and other community sectors as well. We would like to be seen as an organisation that brings together all the great ideas.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

Of course my children, but you know what, I think every women has a story and whether it’s a story of watching your mum experience hardship or perhaps your grandmother, or a friend, but every woman has a story. And I think my greatest achievement is around developing resilience, and grit in terms of overcoming obstacles, and still maintaining compassion and a sense of generosity. I would like to think that that’s what I’ve been able to achieve so far, it’s a work in progress, there’s still so much more to do, but I think with life’s challenges and being able to overcome those and then being able to give back.

What inspires you?

Women leaders that get it right inspire me. I think that all too often we hear about women who perhaps are not helpful, in terms of helping other women and that’s really disappointing. But I know that there are so many women, many of whom I work with and whom sit on our board, that really inspire me, that really set the bar high in terms of how women can work, not only in this sector but in the commercial sector, and do some real good.

Is there anything that frustrates you about the Not for Profit sector?

Yes, probably two things. I think I had an expectation that there would be more opportunities for collaboration between Not for Profits and I’ve been a bit disappointed that I have not seen as many of those opportunities as I would have liked, and the other thing that frustrates me is the attitude perhaps of the commercial sector or the belief that we don’t have that business acumen, that we don’t have that level of professionalism, and it’s really interesting when you start talking to corporates sometimes I think that because they are talking to a Not for Profit they leave their business acumen back at the office. You’ll get comments like, “we had no idea how professional you were”, well, what did you expect? We have people with law degrees working for us, we have an amazing array of people. So I think, there is a big education piece that needs to happen in the corporate sector around the level of professionalism and the ingenuity and creativity that sits within the Not for Profit sector because we work with minimal resourcing, we’ve had to be a lot more creative, and entrepreneurial.

Do you see yourself staying in the Not for Profit sector for the rest of your career?

You can never say forever, but certainly I think in all the different things that I have done in my career this has probably given me the biggest sense of satisfaction. It has also at times caused me a lot of sleepless nights but really that sense of satisfaction, that I am giving back in some way, completely overtakes the stress, so at this point, yes, why not?

Do you have a favourite saying?

Yes I do and I think it is interesting that it sort of lends itself to this organisation, but my favourite saying is “everybody needs something to do, something to look forward to and someone to love”, and I think if you get those three elements right in your life then you are setting yourself up for a long and happy life.

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.


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