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Changemaker  |  Social Issues

Leaving the World a Better Place

10 July 2017 at 8:43 am
Wendy Williams
Among her many titles, Dawn O'Neil AM is the former CEO of Lifeline and the founding chair of social enterprise STREAT, a role she is now stepping away from after nearly a decade. She is this week’s Changemaker.

Wendy Williams | 10 July 2017 at 8:43 am


Leaving the World a Better Place
10 July 2017 at 8:43 am

Among her many titles, Dawn O’Neil AM is the former CEO of Lifeline and the founding chair of social enterprise STREAT, a role she is now stepping away from after nearly a decade. She is this week’s Changemaker.

O’Neil has more than 20 years’ leadership experience in the social sector at all different levels.

She was deputy chair of the Mental Health Council of Australia for six years and was previously the CEO of both beyondblue and Lifeline, where she led the organisation from a grouping of 60 centres with a turnover of about $600,000 to a nationally co-ordinated $14 million-a-year telephone and web network.

Since 2011 she has worked as a consultant in Collective Impact, social sector leadership, mental health and suicide prevention policy development and service reform.

She led the development of the first Strategic Plan for the new National Mental Health Commission and undertook a study tour for the Centre for Social Impact into how the Collective Impact Framework could be implemented in Australia to increase the social impact of the social sector.

O’Neil is also the chair of homelessness social enterprise STREAT, which she has led, alongside the founders, for the last eight years.

The resulting legacy is a portfolio of cafes and kiosks, a catering company, an artisan bakery and a coffee roastery, and the foundation and plan in place for further growth.

By 2022, STREAT will reach the equivalent of one young person each mealtime – or 1,095 young people each year.

O’Neil said she was “proud of the legacy” they had created but it was now time “to pass the baton on”.

“It’s been amazing to be on this part of STREAT’s early journey and to see so many young people at risk, feel a deep sense of belonging and connectedness in our city,” she said.

“Jane [Burns] will lead the next phase of STREAT’s reach and impact for young people and I have every confidence that together they will achieve even more extraordinary outcomes.”

In this week’s Changemaker O’Neil talks about her belief in STREAT’s founders, why 10 years is long enough to lead an organisation and why the social sector needs to learn new ways of working.

Dawn O'NeilYou have more than 20 years’ leadership experience in the social sector at all different levels. What attracted you to the not-for-profit sector?

As a young woman grappling with what I wanted to do with my life and made a decision quite early on as a result of life experiences really, in particular, I travelled throughout Africa when I was in my early twenties, right across Africa from the bottom to the top and I saw such poverty and war torn countries and such enormous need which of course coming from a prosperous country like Australia I really hadn’t witnessed to the same degree. It was then that I made a decision that I wanted to do something that was broadly in that sort of profession and make a difference in the world. So that was the original motivation that started my journey.

What is the most rewarding part of your work?

There has been so much that has been so incredibly rewarding. Most recently, just stepping down as chair of STREAT after almost 10 years, I was the founding chair and it has been enormously rewarding seeing young leaders like Rebecca Scott and Kate Barrelle have a passion and a vision for doing something differently, and that’s been in a social enterprise way. How do we harness the good of commerce and business towards supporting young people that are at risk. And that is what they have done in STREAT and it has just been a privilege to be a chair of that and to see that come to such a successful fruition. With of course the support of many, many, many people.

As you mentioned, you were the founding chair of STREAT and for the last eight years have led, alongside the founders, what has become a leading Australian social enterprise. Did you expect in the beginning that it would be so successful?

Probably I had no idea of where it would go. But I had been already mentoring Rebecca for about 12 months before she launched into getting started on this project and I believe in her. I think she is smart, she’s savvy, she’s hard working, she is disciplined, she is very committed to young people and doing the right thing, as was Kate. Both of them combined had so much potential. And as with almost every venture and every business, it’s the leadership that matters. So I believed in them as leaders and so anything was possible and I still think anything is  possible with them leading that enterprise.

Why have you decided to step away from STREAT at this point?

I am a firm believe that 10 years is really enough for someone to lead an organisation. I was the CEO of Lifeline for 10 years and I made the same decision at that time. I was loving my work, the organisation was strong and doing very, very well but I am just a firm believer that there is a time for new, fresh ideas and new, fresh leadership.

I am doing different things at the moment, I am working much more in the sustainability area, which is another passion of mine. And so I thought it was time to handover and I was fortunate enough that Dr Jane Burns agreed to take on the role.

The social enterprise space is becoming increasingly popular, do you think we will continue to see more businesses making the move to become more socially conscious?

I certainly think there is a huge driver towards businesses having a significant role or business understanding their role in creating a world that we want to live in, a world that is clean, that looks after its people, that looks after future generations.

In my own street this week, a new hairdressers opened up that is fully sustainable, they recycle 95 per cent of all of their waste and use only organic matter. So it is a trend that I don’t think is going to go away and it is a really good trend!

You have done a lot of work in the collective impact space, what is the potential for collective impact in Australia?

Collective impact is a really important conceptual, as much as anything, practice or way of working that is critical when you are working on complex social issues that are intergenerational, that cannot be achieved with a three year project, or one year project or even a five year project. When you are talking about really deeply embedded systemic problems they take 20 years. So we have to learn new ways of working, and collaboration is critical to that, and being able to work within systems and understanding how systems work and this is a new skillset if you like for the not-for-profit or the social sector to develop.

So we became very good at partnerships, we became great at partnerships, we’re really excellent at working in a community development way but not necessarily systemically and holistically across a generation. Especially within place, in a particular location, which is where a lot our our really deeply entrenched challenges come from, is deeply embedded, social disadvantage in a place that is intergenerational. And that requires a whole different skillset and way of working.

I think collective impact, that is where we can make a massive difference and where we need to really develop and hone our skills and practices around how we do that work.

In 2009 you were appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for services to the Community and to Mental Health. How does it feel to be recognised for your work?

As always it is very humbling, because I am well aware I was receiving that Order of Australia award on behalf of the thousands of volunteers that do the work at Lifeline. I was privileged to be able to lead that organisation for 10 years but it is really the volunteers that turn up in the middle of the night, on the weekend, week after week, day after day that are the heroes.

So it is always incredible humbling when you get those awards and I just think it probably should go to other people but when you lead an organisation you take that responsibility and I humbly accepted that award on that basis.

Through your work what is your ultimate goal?

Like many people, to leave the world a better place than when I found it, where I can have an influence, and I made a positive one.

My next big passion I suppose, and something I have been interested in for a long time, is how do we remove some of the toxins from our world. We have made a big mess in our own backyard with plastic waste and wasting food and chemical waste, which is now more critical at the moment and this will impact our health and our well being no question about it. And if we are going to have a healthy future, and our children and our grandchildren are going to have a healthy future, we have got to get on top of this mess that we’ve created. Business of course can have a big part to play in that, and social enterprise more broadly.

How do you find time for yourself?

I manage to squeeze it in! Because I love my work it never really feels like a chore, I have a wonderfully supportive partner and I make time for my family and friends. I exercise every day, generally speaking, and I have time somewhere in amongst all of that to chill. So it is just a matter of being organised, I’m not always successful but I’m fortunate these days because I can work from home so that cuts down on a lot of travel time.

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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