Meeting Human Need and Breaking Cycles of Dependency
4 June 2018 at 8:36 am
James Toomey is the CEO of Mission Australia and has extensive experience working in community services. He is this week’s Changemaker.
Originally from the UK, Toomey served for two years as a police constable in London before he decided to become a qualified social worker.
From 2001 to 2006 he was an assistant director with Foster Care Associates, and he then joined education youth charity Skill Force as operations director.
Toomey decided to relocate to Australia in late 2009 and soon joined Mission Australia as national manager of community services operations support.
In November 2017, Toomey was appointed CEO of Mission Australia, and on 4 June he will depart for a five-day hike along Central Australia’s iconic Larapinta Trail.
This will help to raise money for a new Missionbeat service to support young people experiencing, or at risk of homelessness in the Northern Territory.
In this week’s Changemaker, Toomey reveals what prompted his move to Australia, explains how the local not-for-profit sector differs from its counterpart in the UK, and talks about his interests away from work.
What drew you to working in the social sector?
I come from a family where services to society and the community is very important, and that’s what led me to start a career with the police in the first place.
Whilst there, I found there was a particular group of young lads who we kept arresting but they continued to commit more burglaries and it was clear that actually they were just bored and disaffected. That was really what the issue was, they weren’t actively trying to set up a criminal network or anything like that.
This causes you to pause and reflect on why people get into the situations and circumstances they’re in. I left the police and did random jobs for a couple of years, whilst I thought about what I was going to do next.
On the back of that, I decided I would go to qualify in some area of social policy and actually went into social work and qualified as a social worker. I then found myself working mainly with adolescent young men who were offending, because that was a particular area of knowledge or interest of mine.
So I think it came from a motivation around service to society and the community, and then became more focused around actually working with communities and with families to try and help them effect change in their lives and improve their circumstances.
What prompted your move from the UK to Australia?
I’m married and have two children who are now in their 20s, but were then in their very early teens. We came here on holiday and just thought Australia looked like a fantastic place to live from a lifestyle point of view.
My wife’s a nurse and we were able to become residents relatively easily based on her nursing qualifications and nursing experience and so we moved across. I targeted a couple of organisations from afar, Mission Australia being one of them, which appealed to me because there was a very strong alignment with the work that the organisation does… [and] my own values. So it was an easy match for me targeting an organisation like Mission Australia.
What differences have you found between the not-for-profit sectors in the UK and Australia?
I think the not-for-profit sector’s [service provision] is much richer and more diverse and more developed here than it is in the UK. And organisations like Mission Australia and other long standing not-for-profit organisations with a founding charitable principle going back well over a hundred years, are much more established as legitimate providers of services as opposed to being peripheral providers of support.
Whereas in the UK, the thrust towards outsourcing of community and family services tended to be towards for-profit organisations as opposed to using it as an opportunity to develop the not-for-profit space. So there’s a richness and diversity here and provision which there probably isn’t in the UK.
There’s also a number of similarities, and it’s also struck me that a number of the social problems like poverty, homelessness, overcrowding in housing, issues around child protection and safety, drug and alcohol use etc. are all are very similar to those that you would see in the UK as well.
What major challenges have you faced since coming in as CEO at the end of last year?
I think focus is always a challenge for organisations like Mission Australia. Our founding purpose is to meet human need and spread the knowledge and the love of God. There is a lot of human need and we can’t meet all of it.
I think there’s always that tension between where we can actually take our capability that’s going to make the biggest difference, and focusing on those areas where we can actually help people effect the greatest change in their lives, rather than just adding on new activities because it makes us feel good.
And I think that’s the challenge and focus for organisations like Mission Australia. What does success look like? For large organisations like Mission Australia, success tends to be traditionally based on growth, expansion or increasing numbers of people or revenue. But we need to be clear about what our purpose is and it’s really about meeting human need and helping people move to a point of being self-actualised and not needing us. It’s breaking cycles of dependency, so we need to be really careful that we focus on activities where we can really add value and capacity.
Can you take me through a typical day for you as CEO?
I don’t think I’ve had one yet. I’ve been in the role for six months and no two days have been the same. I guess in terms of the pattern of the day, I wake up and not long after I start thinking about the organisation, but not in a bad way. I absolutely love working for the organisation, so it’s fantastic.
I listen to the news and pick up what issues are potentially impacting society or an organisation like Mission Australia. I get on the train, read through my emails. I try and get a few things out of the way and I prep for the day and my meetings.
Thinking particularly with my external meetings, I think why am I here? I’m not there because I’m James Toomey, I’m there because I’m CEO of Mission Australia and I recognise always the importance of the organisation being represented.
So I try to represent the organisation in a way that’s consistent and in a way which validates the people we work with and the people that work for Mission Australia. So that is the kind of overarching frame I take into every day, but I haven’t had two days the same.
Why have you decided to take part in a five-day hike along the Larapinta Trail?
This is pretty new for the organisation, actually having an event-based fundraising opportunity. We certainly haven’t done one for a number of years. And when we looked at doing a walk, we noted that activities-based fundraising is becoming quite popular and there are a number of different places to go and do it.
It was important to me that we did something in Australia rather than somewhere outside Australia. It also needed to be somewhere which provided an opportunity to shine a light on a particular challenge. And the issue of homelessness in the Northern Territory is very profound and it’s been reinforced with statistics from the recent census. So that’s why we pitched to do the Larapinta Trail in Central Australia.
I wanted to be able to represent the organisation to other walkers who were taking part. I’ve persuaded my wife to come with me and we then had a bit of fun trying to out-fundraise each other. It provides us with the opportunity to not only shine a light on the issue of homelessness in the Northern Territory but also raise funds to develop a new homeless direct outreach service which we run in other parts of the country.
I try to set an example around leadership and leading organisations. And if I expect – and I do – other staff and other donors to support us, then I need to be putting myself in that situation too and not just imagining that other people are going to come along and support the organisation when I have the ability to do so. And what better way to send the message about the importance of this to the organisation than taking part?
What do you like to do in your spare time away from work?
For me, music, motorbikes and family I guess would be the three big things which takes up most of my quite limited spare time. Also, I love exploring the natural environment of Australia and engaging with Australian [nature], which is incredible and diverse. Bushwalking is something that we do, so the trail walk fits in quite nicely with that.
But I also enjoy accessing the richness of what’s available in Sydney and the areas around Sydney. So we like to see bands and go to other kinds of cultural pursuits which are so easily available in Sydney. Those things are really important.
With every experience that I have as I go around Australia, I use education to increase my knowledge and am always curious. So this means reading up on where we’re going, what the history is and what the circumstances are that led to towns coming into being for example. And there frequently is an Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander version of events of what led to a town coming into existence and I’m always mindful and respectful of that deep cultural history.
Is there anything you are reading, watching or listening to at the moment?
Well I’m watching The Handmaid’s Tale at the moment and it’s fascinating and brilliant and compelling. I just started reading Junkie by William S. Burroughs, and listening wise, I have a really broad set of musical influences and tastes. But I did go and see The Rubens a couple of weeks ago who were excellent. That’s the kind of genre of music which I find enjoyable and appealing.