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A First Step journey from classical pianist to CEO


5 August 2022 at 4:35 pm
Isabelle Oderberg
Patrick Lawrence is many things; a classical pianist, a father of five and a CEO passionate about helping people. He is this week's Changemaker.


Isabelle Oderberg | 5 August 2022 at 4:35 pm


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A First Step journey from classical pianist to CEO
5 August 2022 at 4:35 pm

Patrick Lawrence is many things; a classical pianist, a father of five and a CEO passionate about helping people. He is this week’s Changemaker.

Patrick Lawrence​ was born into a musical family and first had a career as a classical pianist and vocal coach. “Yeah, no jokes!” He laughs. After living in the US and Europe for much of his 20s, he settled in Australia, fell in the love and is now a father of 5.

“At the same time that I settled back, I found out about a little clinic in St Kilda that was detoxing people off heroin on mattresses in the back room (this was at the height of the heroin overdose epidemic in 2000) and that they needed volunteers, no special skills required (they already had doctors and nurses and all that),” he explains.

“I thought ‘If I don’t go today I’ll never go’. So I did.  20 years later, with some detours, I’m still here!”

When this week’s Changemaker says “he’s still here”, what Lawrence means is that he is now the chief executive officer of that small clinic, which is a for purpose addiction, mental health and legal services hub now supporting over 1,800 people each year, called First Step.

How did you get into the job you’re in now?

After several months of volunteering I was offered a job (they got some funding) coordinating volunteers.  Turned out I was quite good at that, and after a decade of living as a freelance artist a regular pay cheque every two weeks was quite the shock (a pleasant one).

Over the next few years I transitioned from having a dual career (I was still playing the piano, occasional national tour, fun gigs here and there) to full-time not for profit work.  I moved to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre where I worked for 10 years, whilst maintaining a day a week at First Step.

Then, six years ago, the long-term CEO, great guy, resigned and I put my hand up.  I figured I’d learnt enough from standing next to the person with whom the buck stopped (ASRC CEO Kon Karapanagiotidis) to be the actual person with whom the buck stopped. Not sure if I was right about that.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I was about to say “wildly varied”, but there are some grindingly common themes.  It tends to be a mix of meetings (some upbeat, some very challenging, some boring as hell – not too many of those), typing emails at a million miles an hour, getting constantly distracted by multiple demands, and wishing I could spend more time thinking.

I swing between being inspired by our client’s resilience and our staff’s dedication and skills to being overwhelmed by the uncertainties of this period of great reform (particularly in mental health) to having great meetings with staff (often impromptu) and external stakeholders (planned) to just pumping through tasks as quickly as humanly possible. And a daily walk in the St Kilda Botanic Gardens.

What are some of the challenges working in NFPs generally?

At the executive level, it’s always so much about money.  For nearly all of us anyway.  Financial sustainability! Can I have some of that please?  For First Step that is particularly acute because we have an amazing, renowned model of integrated care for the most vulnerable people in the community (including those with addiction and mental health needs), but it’s future place within the various sectors (mental health, addiction, general medicine, legal work) is not clear.

That’s a challenge for many that the systems of funding are antiquated and not appropriate for the work we’re doing.  Anywhere in the health sector you are supporting people with a great many needs across the whole of life.  But the funding is totally siloed.  How do you build the solutions when the funding is messed up?  I suppose you advocate like hell.

The number of people who reach out to First Step for help, which we are never able to fully meet simply due to capacity, is the great external pressure. Poverty, trauma, childhood abuse and neglect, are factors of life that need addressing at the source (the fence on the cliff, not just the ambulance at the bottom of it).  And my staff are so determined to meet that need that they often do this at the expense of their own health.  This is a big theme, and we talk about it a lot.  When your work involves supporting people on the edge of existence . . . well, it’s tough. Very rewarding, but very tough.

In the end, the biggest challenge is poverty.  In the mental health sector we know poverty as “the cause of the causes”.

What is your proudest achievement?

It’s probably the justified recognition I’ve gained for the work of our staff at First Step. We are a single-site, unaffiliated organisation with minimal funding, but people are really starting to know about us. We featured heavily in the final report of the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System, in the Productivity Commissions Report in Mental Health, we’ve won some highly competitive government tenders, many in government know of our work, we’re supported on amazing proof-of-concept projects by the Ian Potter Foundation, Gandel Philanthropy and others, have outspoken support from the likes of Patrick McGorry and Tim Costello.  Learning how to explain what we do to different audiences so that they really get it is something that will always need to develop, but I think I’ve got a lot of people to listen.

What do you think are some of the challenges being faced by the sector going forward?

One challenge that readers might not know about is that the reform of the mental health sector (well-documented, long overdue, well-funded) says almost nothing about the Alcohol and Other Drug (AOD) sector which is drastically underfunded and getting worse.  First Step sits somewhat awkwardly in both sectors and we are in a great position (sitting in various advisory groups, being part of various consultations) to see the challenge. There’s still a heavy stigma around addiction that mental health has done a great job of overcoming.  How those sectors work together to provide integrated support is a huge challenge that will require years of focus. It is absolutely a matter of life and death.

What do you do when you’re not at work?

I’ve got 5 kids.  Cook. Drive. Play. Sleep. Drive. Watch (soccer, band, violin etc). Collapse.

What do you want to achieve by the time you retire?

Ouch.  That’s a tough one.  Ummm, I want to be happy and healthy (ie. not burnt-out), want to have been a fabulous dad and husband and have great friendships, but I want to know that I used whatever talents I was born with and whatever motivation I could muster to make life better for a lot of vulnerable people. And that’s because everybody deserves every chance to turn their lives around.


Isabelle Oderberg  |  @ProBonoNews

Isabelle joined as the editor of Pro Bono Australia after working as a journalist and media and communications professional for over two decades.

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