Fighting for fair in challenging times
23 August 2021 at 6:29 pm
As the new CEO of The Benevolent Society, Lin Hatfield Dodds is using her many years of leadership experience to tackle the big issues. She’s this week’s Changemaker.
With coronavirus still running rampant across many parts of Australia, coming on board as the new CEO of The Benevolent Society this July was never going to be an easy job for Lin Hatfield Dodds.
But with years of leadership experience in government and the community sector behind her, she’s determined not to let COVID get in the way of setting and achieving big goals.
As Australia’s first charity, The Benevolent Society provides a range of support services right across the country for vulnerable children, young people, families, people with disability, older people and carers.
During the pandemic, as was the case for those working in most charities, the team at The Benevolent Society was forced to adapt their service delivery during the pandemic, shifting programs online and rethinking the way they connect with the people they serve.
For Hatfield Dodds, this connection has always been about ensuring that the client comes first, focusing on the wellbeing of staff, and keeping an eye on the bigger picture.
In this week’s Changemaker, she discusses upcoming plans for The Benevolent Society, how she manages the more challenging parts of the job, and the things that inspire her leadership.
You started with the Benevolent Society in July, what drew you to the role?
My working life has moved largely between the NGO world and government, with a bit of a stint in private practice as a psychologist in my 20s and early 30s. So I think I’ve always looked for roles that are a platform for me to contribute and work with other people to try to make the world a better place for everybody.
My focus is on people, and I’m really interested in how we figure out the conditions that enable every one of us to thrive and reach our potential. We know that as human beings the baseline things we all need are to connect, to contribute, to belong and to be valued. But a lot of us get locked out of some of those things because we are either living with mental ill health, we’ve got a disability, we’re over 75 years old so we stop mattering, or we’re under eight and nobody cares what we think, and so on and so forth.
The Benevolent Society was just this wonderful opportunity for me, because it’s rare to find an organisation that is true to both of those things
What are some of your main aims for the organisation, considering everything that’s happened over the past year?
Our first goal is to look after our staff, volunteers and the people accessing our services and make sure they are doing well. We have strategies that we’re actively enacting at the moment around making sure they have got what they need to be ok. That means checking in on them, making sure they are getting the health information they need and the services and supports they need and making sure that our staff have the support, the skills, the tools they need at the service front line to keep doing what they’re doing every day.
Right across the community sector we’re seeing a workforce that’s increasingly exhausted. And so it’s really important that those [of us] who are in leadership positions are paying attention to that and doing what we can to support them. We have recently kicked off an initiative at The Benevolent Society called “We Care”. And so we’ll be doing a load of fun things with our staff such as online trivia and online choirs – all things that staff can do with their families, their households, their clients and their colleagues just to remind people that while this work has been exhausting it can be fun as well.
We want to make sure that we’re getting through this pandemic together so that at the end of it, we’ll be ready to continue to provide great services and support to vulnerable people. That’s incredibly important, because what we do know is when this pandemic does finish, Australia is going to need its whole for-purpose sector to provide support for all the people who are vulnerable in our community.
What are some of the things that inspire your leadership?
I am inspired in three different domains. The first is by the people that are living lives of dignity and joy in the midst of incredible hardship. So whether it’s somebody who’s lost a limb through an accident, somebody who is old and frail and largely shut in, or a single mum with two or three kids who is struggling to make ends meet. People who are prepared to speak to people like me and share their story and trust that those in leadership positions will carry their story with integrity to decision makers.
The second is our frontline staff, the people that turn up every day and do what needs to be done to make sure people get a fair go and that the services and support they need are there for them every day.
The third category is people I’ve been inspired by through my working life and they’re people I know. My old chair at Uniting Care Australia, Peter Bicknell, who grew up very working class in Port Adelaide, started off as a machinist in a factor but ended up running one of South Australia’s largest NGOs in a way that was intelligent and really empathetic. That was because he’d lived the life that many of the people accessing his services were living. It was always a “we and us” not an “us and them”. I think that’s what inspires me, that we’re all people on a journey together, and those of us who are better off have got the opportunity to listen with respect, listen with care and travel with people who have less opportunity to try to share that around.
Everyone shifted to remote working and learning last year. How did you handle that transition as a leader of an organisation?
I came to the Benevolent Society from the Australian New Zealand School of Government, which went to online learning right at the beginning of the pandemic. By the time I came to the Benevolent Society a month ago, I’d been working in a virtual world for quite a while. So it wasn’t this awful, terrible change, it felt really normal. So I got used to, for example, using break-out rooms on video chats, but when I came to the Benevolent Society, I did wonder how you run services via video chat. It does look different and you’ve got to be careful about what you can do and what you can’t do, what will work and what won’t work, and you do a bit of experimenting. But the main thing is when you’re shifting a service to video, you just have to keep in mind the guiding light of what’s in the best interests of the consumers and clients of those services.
So [with] a lot of our work with young children, you really can’t translate it to video work because our staff have to be in the same space as those families, watching dynamics in order to really support parents in parenting their children. But you can move a surprising amount online. We’re just about to embark on a data-gathering exercise and find out what we have learned through pivoting online, what we will keep online when we no longer need to be online, and what will go back to being a face-to-face service.
And in challenging moments in your work, how do you keep yourself grounded?
I go for walks when I can. Currently, my knees are destroyed, so I’m waiting for a knee operation, which means I’m hobbling around at the moment and missing my walks in the bush. We’ve got a little shack down at the coast, and it’s really important for me to get down there every two or three weeks and just walk along the ocean, and do long cliff walks. What also keeps me grounded is exercise, remaining reasonably fit, and then having a really large network of family and friends who are not at all impressed about what I do at work. If you ask my two adult kids, they would probably roll their eyes and tell you how crap I am at IT. So it’s really nice to be able to just relax and be yourself rather than always in a professional role. I think it is very life-giving. The last thing that keeps me grounded is getting out to frontline services. So in [my] leadership jobs, the most precious, most inspiring, most beautiful, fun moments are usually the ones when I’m working in a service or in a community with people. I love that sort of thing to recharge my batteries.