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Leading a small organisation with a big mission

17 March 2020 at 8:19 am
Lea Corbett
In the latest in our NFP leadership series, Lea Corbett and Amanda Cornwall from Map consulting group speak with Serena Lillywhite from Transparency International Australia about the experiences and challenges of leading a NFP.

Lea Corbett | 17 March 2020 at 8:19 am

Amanda Cornwall


Leading a small organisation with a big mission
17 March 2020 at 8:19 am

In the latest in our NFP leadership series, Lea Corbett and Amanda Cornwall from Map consulting group speak with Serena Lillywhite from Transparency International Australia about the experiences and challenges of leading a NFP.  

Transparency International Australia (TIA) is the Australian national chapter of an international coalition against corruption, operating in over 100 countries. They work with governments and private businesses to ensure our elected representatives are transparent and accountable and that Australian business take a zero tolerance approach to corruption.

“Fundamentally, we want a stronger and healthier democracy that Australian citizens can trust,” CEO Serena Lillywhite says.

We caught up with Lillywhite in mid-January amidst the chaos and grief of the bushfires burning in NSW and Victoria. Having recently returned from a short break on the NSW south coast herself, Lillywhite started by talking about why the work they do should be seen as important to all Australians.


Transparency International Australia – Vitals

Sector: Integrity/anti-corruption

Purpose: To tackle corruption by shining a light on the illegal practices and unfair laws that weaken our democracy

Annual budget: $1.5 million

Staff: 17


“I was evacuated from a campground in a national park on the south coast of NSW a few weeks ago. The police arrived with sirens blaring at 3:00am and we had to leave immediately. We spent several days in an emergency evacuation shelter watching raining ash and red skies,” she says.

“The whole experience has reinforced to me the importance of our government making decisions in the national interest rather than protecting special interest groups. In other words, there is a nexus between the climate crisis, strong integrity systems and protecting our democracy.”

Being the CEO of a small organisation with a big brief comes with its own set of unique challenges. For Lillywhite though, the first and biggest challenge is a common one – funding. 

Financial viability 

“We have a constant chase for funding. It’s very difficult for civil society organisations to secure long-term unrestricted funding especially for core business functions, and we don’t make surpluses to build up large reserves. The funding is all project based,” Lillywhite says.

“That means the financial viability of the organisation and, with that, the job security of our staff are constant issues.

“Our biggest project at the present time is a five-year, multi-country program on transparent mining. We can be working incredibly hard to get the reports to funders on one phase of the project, while simultaneously planning for the next phase, and managing staff whose contracts may not be renewed.”

Understandably, the sheer magnitude of TIA’s mission is another daunting challenge for Lillywhite.

“Tackling corruption and trying to stop it means there’s so much to be done. I often wonder if we’re making a difference. We’re really up against it because corruption is constantly moving and changing, becoming more sophisticated and harder to detect,” she says.

Acknowledge small wins

For that reason, Lillywhite says it’s important to take the time to acknowledge smaller achievements along the way. 

“For example, we developed a mining awards corruption risk assessment tool to identify corruption risks and hot spots at the time when a mining license or approval is given. We know from our work that this is the highest risk point in the whole mining life cycle,” she says.

The tool identifies over 80 common corruption risks for mining projects around the world, not just Australia. 

It provides a way for companies to understand where they are vulnerable to corruption risks. It provides a way for investors to undertake improved due diligence before financially supporting a project. And it is a tool for NGOs, communities and anyone else to hold governments and mining companies to account, and make sure mining approvals are transparent and in the public interest.

“We are very proud of it and it has received international recognition and praise. The CEO of the International Mining and Metals Association endorsed it, saying it will make a significant change to the industry,” Lillywhite says.

“These smaller wins keep you going.”

Lillywhite says a related challenge is the lack of political appetite in Australia and globally to tackle corruption. 

“We have been campaigning for more than 10 years for a federal anti-corruption agency in Australia. It keeps me awake at night because we keep hitting brick walls,” she says. 

“The public want it, the public don’t trust politicians, the public believe MPs make decisions that benefit themselves and their friends and families.” 

Yet according to Lillywhite, the current government’s proposed anti-corruption agency has limited powers. TIA is working hard to make sure it has the scope and powers to do what it needs to. 

“I would like to see the national anti-corruption agency start with wide powers to investigate corruption and integrity by all MPs and public officials, and to be able to hold public hearings to aid those investigations,” she says.

 Is the role of CEO a lonely one?

Lillywhite says it can be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. 

“I have a talented young team of staff and I keep them informed about what I’m doing and regularly ask for their advice and assistance. They are incredibly supportive. We have a board that meets at least quarterly and they are a great resource,” she says.

“But as CEO there are some decisions I have to make alone, and that’s exhausting rather than lonely. When you need to make decisions that aren’t popular with staff it is important to be sensitive but firm.”

So, what advice would she give to people who aspire to be a CEO of a not for profit?

“It’s a big shift from being a senior manager to being a CEO, even if it’s with a small organisation,” Lillywhite says.

“You need to know that you’ll be spending a lot of time on strategy, budgets, reporting, staff management, recruiting and that sort of thing. Sometimes you might miss doing the things that you are passionate about.

“In a small organisation you may not have a formal senior executive team, so you need to be across the whole lot and be doing a lot of it too.” 

Lillywhite says she thinks it’s important as a CEO to carve out space for yourself to work on your own projects so the day-to-day tasks don’t wear you down. 

“Ensure your work has a focus that is both internal to the organisation, and external in impact,” she says.

Culture is critical

She also says you should not underestimate the effort it takes to build and maintain a positive staff team and a respectful culture. 

“Even when you feel there’s no time to talk to staff about their latest issues, it is important to invest in them and build a culture of respect,” Lillywhite says.

“Culture is critical regardless of the size of the organisation.“

Finally, we ask all the CEOs in this leadership series to look through an even broader lens and tell us what they would do if they were premier of Victoria for a year – specifically what they would stop, start and keep?

Lillywhite says she would start with broadening the powers of the Independent Broad Based Anti-Corruption Commission so they have power to investigate the private sector, and extend its scope to investigate MPs and ministers not just for criminal conduct but also for misconduct and integrity.

“The ‘Lobster with a mobster’ scandal with Matthew Guy as opposition leader was an example of where there was no criminal offence, but questions of integrity should be raised,” she says.

“I would stop logging in old growth forests immediately, not at some time in the future, but with an appropriate industry transit plan. 

“I would keep the strengthened laws on disclosure of political donations, but I’d tighten them so the disclosure had to be in real time, not within 21 days as is currently required.”  


This article is the fifth in a six-part NFP Leadership series. 

Map consulting group initiated this series of interviews with not for profit CEOs to share their insights about the role and support the success of leaders in the sector, current and emerging.


See also:

My first 100 days

Leading through change

Purpose gets you through

Stepping up


Lea Corbett  |  @ProBonoNews

Lea Corbett is the founder and director of Map consulting group.

Amanda Cornwall  |  @ProBonoNews

Amanda Cornwall is a consultant with Map consulting group. She is a public interest advocate, senior policy and campaign expert.

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