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Cultural overhaul: Implementing a complete revamp from the ground to the board


Wednesday, 19th June 2019 at 6:00 pm
Sue Karzis
The NFP industry is ripe for disruption, writes Sue Karzis, CEO of State Schools’ Relief, as she shares her experience of leading an organisation through a complete cultural overhaul.


Wednesday, 19th June 2019
at 6:00 pm
Sue Karzis


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Cultural overhaul: Implementing a complete revamp from the ground to the board
Wednesday, 19th June 2019 at 6:00 pm

The NFP industry is ripe for disruption, writes Sue Karzis, CEO of State Schools’ Relief, as she shares her experience of leading an organisation through a complete cultural overhaul.

Traditionally, the not-for-profit sector isn’t really seen as a “mover and shaker”; NFPs are not generally seen as “game changers”. But perhaps this is why the sector is well overdue for a shakeup. In my opinion, the NFP industry is ripe for disruption.

When I came on board as CEO of State Schools’ Relief (SSR), I was new not only to the organisation but also to the sector. I came from a commercial background and entered the position with this mindset. Perhaps it’s because of this experience, or perhaps it’s due to my unbiased and fresh perspective, but one of the most important jobs I could see when I took on the role was a complete cultural overhaul, from the employees to the board level and everyone in between. By doing this, we also managed to innovate and improve SSR.

Get the culture right

Greg Medcraft, chair of ASIC, said it best: “The establishment and maintenance of trust in a not for profit starts with the establishment of an organisational culture that is positive… underpinning any positive culture is a strong sense of organisational ethics and values”.

While this may sound obvious, the best place to start is the organisational vision and values. Really look at your organisation. What is the vision? What does it stand for? Does it currently align with its values? And looking forward, is there a consensus that the current way is the best way?

If there’s anything I’ve learnt throughout my journey, when it comes to organisational vision, different people will have very different ideas. I have often heard “we need to stick to our core values” which loosely translates to “I am not at all comfortable with the direction being proposed”.

An NFP needs shared agreement on the vision and an assurance that everyone from the ground up is “on board”. Importantly, those at the top need to lead by example.

The best example I can provide is SSR starting a social enterprise. Not everyone agreed that this was our “core” business, however, as CEO, I was intent on running a sustainable NFP and to me, our social enterprise was crucial. While there were very robust discussions, we had enough support to enable the organisation to head in this direction, and already we’ve seen very successful results.

Innovate and then innovate some more

According to the Cause Report, for the NFP sector to thrive, “it needs to continue to evolve and faster than in the past.” While change is occurring in the sector, in terms of innovation there is scope for greater disruption, new ways of doing things and collaborative partnerships that will lead to bigger and better ideas, projects and impact.

NFPs need to ensure that they are at the fore of innovation, that they are engaging meaningfully with communities and constantly evolving.

The Commbank Not for Profit Insights Report found that in terms of barriers to innovation, 60 per cent of NFPs surveyed were struggling with a lack of innovative culture or leadership. Enter, the board.

In conjunction with the CEO, the board needs to be in favour of innovation, and needs to understand and support the agenda. The board also needs to be prepared to commit the resources required to make innovation happen.

Digital Transformation

Nowadays, innovation is tough, if not impossible, without technology. For NFPs, investing capital into IT infrastructure can be a daunting task. However, without this investment it can be hard to innovate.

Without the right systems in place it is difficult to obtain meaningful data, and measure impact and outcomes. It also means you won’t be working as efficiently as possible. In order to fully utilise data effectively and ensure your organisation has an impact, you absolutely need to examine your processes, services and systems.

Surround yourself with people who share your vision

Any CEO is only as good as the team surrounding him or her. People who share your vision, your passion and bring with them diverse skills are crucial to success. Culture is king in most organisations, so you need to build a team that is committed, passionate for the cause and who work together to achieve the organisation’s vision. NFPs are under pressure to perform as well as for-profit organisations, so our people need to be skilled, creative and highly motivated.

Bringing it all together

As a new CEO looking to overhaul culture, there have been many learnings along the way. So, learn from my findings: you need to have a strong clear vision, and don’t allow yourself to be swayed from this. Passion has got me through the hard days, because I know where I want our organisation to be and I have persevered through the challenges.

It’s a very exciting time to be heading up a NFP, as the impact delivered by the sector as a whole is growing. What does the future hold? Hopefully innovation that will help NFPs reap the rewards.

About the author: Sue Karzis is the first female chief executive officer of State Schools’ Relief, a Victorian based not-for-profit organisation that supports the needs of financially disadvantaged school students by providing them with new school uniforms, footwear and educational resources during times of vulnerability.


Sue Karzis  |  @ProBonoNews

Sue Karzis is the first female chief executive officer of State Schools’ Relief.


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