CEO Marks 20 Years Providing Support for Unmet Community Need
13 November 2017 at 8:32 am
Geoff Batkin recently celebrated 20 years at the helm of Wesley Mission Queensland, one of the state’s largest not for profits. He is this week’s Changemaker.
Batkin has worked in the not-for-profit sector for almost 40 years, and has grown Wesley Mission Queensland into an organisation which has diversified into community services, disability and mental health services and retirement living communities.
He joined the organisation in 1997, and prior to this spent 11 years as the director of corporate services for UnitingCare Burnside, overseeing the organisation’s expansion throughout regional New South Wales.
In this week’s Changemaker, Batkin talks about how he got involved in the not-for-profit sector, how his Christian faith affects the work that he does, and the surprise party that was organised to celebrate his 20 years at Wesley Mission Queensland.
What has been your history working in the not-for-profit sector before arriving at Wesley Mission Queensland?
I started with an accounting job in Sydney which lasted for one and a half years, and I found it quite soul destroying in terms of what it was and who I was. So I resigned and didn’t know what I wanted to do. And about three months later I was invited to go for a job at Melbourne University. I went for an interview to be a business manager of a college attached to the university and that was really the beginning of my career at 22, in the education or not-for-profit aged care community services sector.
That was probably the most fun job I ever had. I was only 22 and many of the students were the same age as I was. I had a professional role but also a student support role for the students who were living there. So following that, I worked for another organisation in Melbourne called the Mission of St James and St John which is now Anglicare, and I was the director of corporate services there. I’m 59 now and basically since the age of 21 I’ve worked for the not-for-profit sector as part of either the Anglican Church or the Uniting Church and I’ve been very blessed to do that.
I had 11 years in Sydney with an organisation called Burnside, which again is part of the Uniting Church and I was the director of corporate services there. And now I have just reached 20 years at Wesley Mission Queensland, which has been just a fabulous part of my working and family life.
What attracted you to work in the not-for-profit sector in the first place?
It was a number of things. Firstly I was without a job, and I was invited to apply for the Melbourne University job which was a good thing. Secondly, I have a Christian faith and I have always seen it as an opportunity and a privilege to work for the church doing what I think the Christian faith calls us to do – which is care for and support people in need, especially within the community. I have been fortunate to be able to have a wonderful professional career, but also a professional career that’s consistent with my faith and the Christian viewpoint.
How did you come to be involved with Wesley Mission Queensland and how has the organisation grown since you started there?
I was working in Melbourne while my fiancee was working in Sydney, and at the time of our marriage my brother-in-law suggested that I should apply for this job in Sydney. And I got that job at Burnside… so it was kind of an opportune time in my life to return back to Sydney, which was my home and where my wife was working. So it was just an amazing situation where a door opened and it was a great organisation, working particularly with children and families in need within the community and the job in Melbourne led me to have the skills to take on a much bigger role with that organisation.
So interestingly at Burnside, one of the things that I was doing, which I find very satisfying, is making sure that the resources of the organisation are put to best use. If there are underutilised resources – as in property and finance and investments – finding the best use that gives the best return to support the mission of the organisation, is something that I have always seen as really important.
That has also been part of what I’ve tried to do here, making sure the property which is underutilised is utilised for what it was intended for. And so when I first came to Wesley Mission Queensland, the organisation only provided residential aged care and we now provide a wide range of services for children, including child care services, family support services, supported accommodation for people living with disability, youth services, and supporting kids who are struggling with their gender identity. So we’re trying to, as much as possible, provide support for unmet need within the community.
So as an example, about a year ago we opened something called the Hummingbird House, Queensland’s only children’s hospice, for children with life-limiting conditions, and their families. And the reason we chose to do that is because there were no children’s hospices in Queensland and there’s only two others in Australia, one in Sydney and one in Melbourne. So that’s an example of an unmet need in the community and that’s what I think the role of Wesley Mission Queensland should be.
You recently celebrated 20 years at Wesley Mission Queensland. How did you celebrate this milestone?
Well my wonderful executive assistant was working behind the scenes and organised a rather amazing surprise occasion. And so there was probably 150 people who I have worked with over the last 10 or 20 years, who have been part of the journey both internally within the organisation and part of the wider Uniting Church and other organisations with whom I’ve worked.
And a “This is Your Life” was organised and it was humbling as well as exciting, and an experience I’ll never forget. It’s kind of nice because nice things are normally said about people when they’re leaving an organisation to say thanks. In this case I’m not leaving, and it was just a wonderful opportunity to recognise what I’ve tried to do and also the people I’ve had around me who helped make that possible.
And what are some of the unique challenges of running a not-for-profit organisation, especially one with a religious focus?
Well for one we’re a large organisation. We have 2,500 staff and 1,500 volunteers and an annual budget of around $200 million. So organising, managing, and coordinating that is a wonderful opportunity and challenge. But at the moment there are also challenges within the sector, whether we’re a church based or non-church based organisation. This is probably the most significant time of change in my 35 years plus in the sector.
So there’s an incredible change program within the Commonwealth government… and an agenda for increasing competition. So it’s likely that there will be half as many organisations than there are today, who will survive the changes over the next five to 10 years. There’s also been cuts in government funding in residential aged care. There’s a desire for consumer focused or consumer directed care which we endorse, but that brings significant changes to our business models. And then there’s the really exciting change which will happen in the next little while, which is the coming of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, making available a wide range of services for people living with disabilities who currently have little support.
And then the last one is really in the market we are in, which is aged care and community services. It’s the fastest growing employment sector in the Australian economy today and therefore we are in competition for having staff who are the right staff, and motivated by the right values to provide care and support for the people we serve. So getting the right staff and supporting and training them is also a significant challenge, but if offers lots of opportunities and so it’s an exciting time to be involved.
Can you take me through a typical day for you in the life of a CEO?
Typical days are kind of a difficult thing, because most are quite different. But in the course of a week – looked at it in terms of a day – there are typically four or five half hour meetings with people within the organisation, who would be members of the executive staff or members of management teams. Sometimes those meetings are also with clients or family members and they happen probably two or three nights a week. I’m involved in meetings, celebrations, board meetings, committee meetings etc. So lots of meetings, but also lots of time hearing all the good news stories about what’s happening as a result of the services we do and the great difference that makes in people’s lives.
How do you find time for yourself amongst your busy schedule and what do you do in your spare time?
Finding time for yourself is something I encourage also in my executive staff. And so many years ago, I set myself a rule that I don’t work more than 50 hours a week and I’ve stuck to that. I have a wonderful family and three grown up sons, and my wife and I love to walk and we also kayak. So we spend time on the water and occasionally go away to wonderful places like Samoa and Fiordland in New Zealand, to get out amongst nature and experience a bit of quiet solitude. But we also love physical exercise and so forth. Being part of the planet, part of creation and experiencing that, has always been a fabulous thing for our family.
Do you have a favourite saying or a guiding philosophy that informs the work that you do?
Partly because of my Christian faith and church involvement, I do talk in a wide variety of groups and one of my favourite comments comes from the Bible, but I think it’s also one of those life giving comments.
It comes from an Old Testament book called Micah and the passage goes something like this: “What is it that God requires of us as human beings? It’s not about the pomp and ceremony, it’s about doing three things – doing justice, loving mercy and walking in humility with God and with all those people around you.” And those three things I think, are good for every human being. And they’ve been really great things for me.