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Rethinking and transforming in a crisis

20 July 2020 at 8:12 am
Maggie Coggan
After taking on the position of CEO at CARE Australia six months ago, Peter Walton has had a more interesting start to the job than most. But these unusual circumstances aren't stopping him from taking the organisation to new heights. He’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Maggie Coggan | 20 July 2020 at 8:12 am


Rethinking and transforming in a crisis
20 July 2020 at 8:12 am

After taking on the position of CEO at CARE Australia six months ago, Peter Walton has had a more interesting start to the job than most. But these unusual circumstances aren’t stopping him from taking the organisation to new heights. He’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Across the globe, the pandemic is hitting vulnerable communities the hardest, communities that CARE Australia is designed to empower and service. 

Walton is aiming to not only guide the organisation through the current disaster, but to strengthen its position to deal with impending social and environmental issues such as global poverty, overpopulation and climate change.    

He’s got a wealth of experience to take on the job at hand, having served as the international director at Australian Red Cross, the CEO of Infoxchange Australia, and director of programs at Save the Children Australia. 

The challenges of running an organisation from his home office have also offered space for reflection, not just on the future of the workforce, but on how the foreign aid sector operates as a whole. 

In this week’s Changemaker, he shares his tips on staying grounded, what led him to the role and why he loves his job. 

You started six months ago, what are your key focuses for the year ahead and beyond?

Starting six months ago, as people would realise, was just before COVID-19 hit. So this has been a fascinating journey of looking at how CARE continues to evolve and adapt to meet the challenges international NGOs have faced for years, such as the changing nature of disasters, climate change, health security and the pandemic we’re facing now. 

But I think it’s also about trying to address the fact that the current system that we all operate in is ill equipped to meet the challenges of today, let alone those that we’re forecasting in the future. The pandemic has just sped up all of those challenges that were already there, so my first five months in the role, three of which have been operating from home, have really been looking at how we accelerate that process so CARE comes back really strongly. 

Because if anything, what we’re dealing with at the moment has actually just increased the need for our services and the support that we can provide, but [it’s] also enforced the need to do a whole range of things differently.

How do you stay grounded and focused at the helm of an organisation at this time?

First and foremost, you’ve got to put the mission at the heart of everything you do. For CARE Australia, that’s looking at overcoming poverty and addressing issues of social injustice, with a very strong focus on women and girls. 

So I guess there’s been a reassessment of what this means in the context of the bushfires, but also the escalating need for our services during COVID-19. I think there are very few occasions when you are faced with mobilising your response everywhere concurrently. So we’ve taken a sort of step back and really tried to reflect on our evidence. Where is CARE best placed to make the biggest difference and the biggest impact? How do we ensure that we’re doubling down in those spaces and being open to doing things differently? 

So we have gone through a strategic reimagining because, sadly, many charities may not survive the economic hardship brought on by the pandemic. CARE is in a good financial position and it has a good track record, but it’s important to not take that for granted.

So what does your day look like from your home office?  

Well I don’t think the days are getting shorter even with the shorter commute. We are an organisation that has invested quite a lot in technology so that we can streamline our operations. So my day is punctuated with a whole range of videoconferencing and planning with the team, and making the team stay as connected as possible, both professionally and socially. We’ve made that transition pretty smoothly. 

So I think my day is now an example of something that will continue even post the pandemic, where we’ll have a mixed approach to office space work and remote work, which was well underway already. But my day is really about trying to build relationships with the new team, having only had a few weeks in the office before we were locked down.

Has this time working from home shifted the way you think about leadership? 

I’ve alway been a strong proponent of concepts such as activity-based working, where work is something you do, not necessarily a place you go, and that we should be judging people based on outputs, not presenteeism in an office. 

In terms of how it has changed my leadership, I think that this has quite constructively forced the international humanitarian and development community to rethink ways in which they have been operating. I’ve been a strong proponent of locally-led humanitarian action, because the best responders are the local responders. The way that we reduce risk is absolutely through making sure that we’re supporting local communities, local people, local business structures to be able to be as local as possible.

 If you take Tropical Cyclone Harold, a category five cyclone that hit the Pacific recently, that ordinarily would’ve been in the media cycle, but it barely got a look in because of coronavirus. But even more importantly, the normal international response of flying in to help, which is sometimes not always welcome, has been overturned, which I don’t necessarily think is a bad thing. It’s probably an acceleration of what should be in place, where we’re doing more and more to strengthen local actors and to support local actors so that the international support is needed less and less. 

What do you like to do in your downtime or what’s kept you sane during isolation? 

My kids are the best reality check of all time, and I’ve been at home with them trying to help with their transition to homeschooling. They’ve done incredibly well considering the circumstances, although I do joke that if my son was going for a diploma of YouTube, he would have passed with distinction. 

It’s all a tricky balancing act – trying to make sure that we are all still being active and making time for those hobbies and things which we sometimes take for granted.

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.


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