Mike Gonski chairs Story Factory, a creative writing centre for youth from marginalised communities. He and executive director Catherine Keenan AM reflect on growing an NFP and succession planning.

    In 2011, when Dr Catherine Keenan AM contacted Mike Gonski about chairing a writing centre for young people from under-resourced communities, he was on his honeymoon in Thailand. “You’ve got the wrong Gonski,” he said, referring to his father David Gonski AC FAICDLife, University of NSW chancellor and former chair of ANZ and Coca-Cola Amatil. But Keenan hadn’t misdialed. It was Mike, an employment lawyer (later partner) at Herbert Smith Freehills, she was seeking to join the centre she was setting up with fellow journalist Tim Dick — designed to build children’s literacy, confidence and creativity.

    Story Factory is a not-for-profit creative writing centre founded by Keenan AM and Dick in 2012. Over the course of eight years, it has enrolled more than 25,000 students at risk of low literacy into its programs. Prioritising young people from Indigenous, culturally and linguistically diverse and lower socio-economic backgrounds, 20 per cent of Story Factory’s student cohort since launch are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, and 40 per cent speak English as an additional language or dialect (EALD). The NFP runs workshops in schools, online and at its Redfern and Parramatta centres.

    When the trio met up in Sydney, Keenan and Dick arrived with an idea based on a similar social enterprise venture they had seen in San Francisco, called 826 Valencia. While struck by Keennan’s passion, Gonski was was candid about his own limitations. “I said, ‘I have to be honest, I haven’t done this before. All I can offer you is the most energy and diligence someone will give’.

    However, Keenan was confident in her decision. “One of the things we’ve always been careful of is not confusing Mike with his dad and not using him as a conduit to his dad,” she says. “We love working with Mike because he’s Mike.”

    At the time, Keenan was on an equally sharp learning curve as executive director. “You just make it up as you go along,” she says. “It was literally one step at a time.”

    Story Factory

    2018: second Story Factory opened in Parramatta

    25,255+ creative young writers

    20% are First Nations

    44% speak English as an additional language

    4083 volunteer hours spent supporting student writing

    27 partner primary schools

    38 partner high schools

    49 online programs in schools

    $2,198,678 in 2020 total revenue

    Source: Story Factory annual report 2019–20

    Building a board

    The first task in February 2011 was to build a board of experts. Gail Hambly MAICD, then general counsel and company secretary for the Fairfax Media Group and Gonski’s client, was the first to sign on. “I thought, there’s no way she’ll say yes,” says Gonski. “When I called her, I literally said, ‘This is a risky thing, but to be honest, we need someone who understands governance better than anyone and someone who has board experience. We need someone who can pass on the knowledge.’ I said, ‘I will learn anything. You just teach me. I want to learn from you.”

    Other directors answered the call, including Professor Larissa Behrendt, who lent expertise in First Nations education, and Professor Robyn Ewing AM, a Sydney University expert in creativity in education. “One thing we worked out pretty quickly was that if we asked senior people to help, we got a hit rate of nine out of 10,” says Gonski. “A lot of people, like me, fell in love with Cath immediately. She’s very backable.”

    Dick wrote the charity’s constitution and took on the role as the entity’s public officer with responsibility for its administration and legal compliance, while Keenan sought volunteers, a space to rent and recruited staff to run the programs around the Story Factory ethos: “Reading is access, but writing is agency”. More than 200 people put their hands up to volunteer and joined three part-time staff when the centre opened in July 2012, 18 months after that first phone call.

    You just make it up as you go along — it was literally one step at a time.

    Catherine Keenan AM

    Smart connections

    The small group raised $200,000 in year one, which covered a part-time wage for Keenan, resources and savings for a permanent space. Over time, Gonski has tapped many contacts, including Boral, a client, which donated gypsum for the fit-out. “Boral’s general counsel Amy Jackson and company secretary Dominic Millgate couldn’t have been more helpful,” Gonski says. “The funny thing was, when they came to the opening and asked where the gypsum was. It was actually on the bathroom roof.”

    UBS came on board through Caroline Stewart, executive officer of the UBS Australia Foundation, who Gonski had met through his work with Platform 70, a United Way initiative to get 70 homeless people into permanent housing. Stewart offered fundraising advice and UBS’ first corporate grant. “It was incredible to see a corporate partner giving a three-year grant before the place was even open — and UBS is still a partner,” says Gonski.

    This resourcefulness is still core to Story Factory progress, with their most recent three-year strategic plan developed with pro-bono support from Boston Consulting Group.

    A turning point came in 2013, when a representative from the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation attended an ideas session and advised that meaningful NFP growth required a full-time fundraiser. “Imagine, we had only raised $200,000,” says Gonski. “A full-time fundraiser costs $70,000 a year. They said, ‘You put $35,000 of your $200,000 into this, we’ll give you the other $35,000 and you’ve got $70,000 a year for a full-time fundraiser’.” By 2016, Story Factory was raising more than $1m a year.

    Succession planning

    Gonski says when recruiting the Story Factory board, they focused on diversity. “We decided start high and literally ask whoever was the best person that fits into each matrix?

    Keenan, named Australian of the Year Local Hero in 2016, praises Gonski’s “efficiency” as chair. The board of 11 meets quarterly for no more than an hour, made possible by plenty of work between meetings and a universal commitment to reading boarding materials prior, says Keenan.

    “The skills as a lawyer in my day job helped me at least to start to ask the right questions [as a board chair], but, equally, the things I learned as a chair changed my whole life as a lawyer,” says Gonski, who is now on the board of Carriageworks and the Prime Minister’s Community and Business Partnership.

    Keenan and Gonski have a conversation each year about whether they have gone stale and should move on. While neither feels they have run out of puff, he has advised he will stand down as chair in 2023. “It’s really hard to deal with the idea of what you do when it’s going really well, and there is no need to stand down,” he says. “I just feel that after 10 years, for the future of the group, we need fresh energy, fresh blood. I’ve still got huge amounts of energy for this place and it’s my favourite thing in the world. So, I’m only [standing down] because I feel it’s the right thing to do after 10 years.”

    Both say they are looking at current board directors and outside the group for a new chair. Three other directors — Dick, Hambly and Jonathan Barouch, who founded Fast Flowers and was a finalist for BRW Entrepreneur of the Year in 2012 — are stepping down this year after three three-year terms. Herbert Smith Freehills partner Nick Carney and Macquarie University academic Amy Thunig have recently joined.

    It’s incredible how quick we can move if we want to do something.

    Mike Gonski

    An effective relationship

    Gonski and Keenan each say transparency, trust and open communication are key to their successful chair-CEO relationship and they make time for weekly conversations. “I’m lucky Mike sees his role as supporting me to help the organisation run,” says Keenan. “His most common question is: what can I do to help? One of his skills is getting people together — he spends a lot of time connecting people.”

    Failures, problems and disappointments are discussed early. “If I come up with things, he will say, ‘let’s think about that’,” says Keenan. “Mike is good at asking questions, no matter what the subject. It helps us ensure we’re doing the right thing, for the right reasons.”

    Gonski nominates one area of disagreement between chair and CEO, saying he had wanted to move to online delivery, whereas Keenan favoured face-to-face for “deeper work”.

    “Every time, she’s been open to considering new ideas and set up a working group to find out the information,” he says. “I’m not pushing it to say, ‘I’m the chair. This is what we’re doing’. I know exactly where my limitations are. The thing I love about what we do is we are extremely malleable as a startup. It’s incredible how quick we can move if we want to do something. We just do it — we try it and we fail quick.”

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