Leadership lessons from Paul Masi, chair of the Cerebral Palsy Alliance.

    When I was growing up in Surry Hills in the 1960s with my three brothers, we used to go to Boys Brigade, which then became the Girls and Boys Brigade (GBB). It ran supervised activities for children after school and was founded by Sir James Fairfax and Samuel Bennett in 1882, out of concern for the welfare of boys selling newspapers on the street. It still operates in the same building, but the clientele has changed to kids who need support. Many are from single-parent families, often with difficult social issues in their homes.

    It feels good to give back by being on the board of an organisation that really helped me when I was young. My father arrived in Sydney from Italy in 1956 and my mother followed in 1959 with my two older brothers. Dad cut cane and worked on dairy farms in north Queensland. He moved to Sydney to work on Warragamba Dam, which opened in 1960, the year before I was born. We were typical poor working class.

    I put my hand up to be on the GBB board in 2010 after one of the directors, who didn’t know I had gone there, approached me for a donation.

    I have three sons in their 20s and a daughter who is 16. Grace was born with a rare genetic disorder called NGLY1, of which there are only 50 known cases. She needs support with her self-care, walks with some assistance and is non-verbal. This condition was only discovered in 2012. Grace had been diagnosed as having cerebral palsy (CP) and received lots of support from the Cerebral Palsy Alliance.

    My motivation for becoming a director in the NFP sector comes from having a child with a disability. I’ve got “skin in the game” and have commercial skills to offer.

    I joined the Cerebral Palsy Alliance board in 2013 and 18 months later became president/chair. More than half the people we support don’t actually have CP as a primary diagnosis, but to me, that’s irrelevant — they need help.

    Crisis insights

    “All of my businesses interest and not-for-profits are even more focused on protecting our people and clients and conserving cash. We have many health-compromised people at the Cerebral Palsy Alliance and senior management and the board are having regular updates. The economic/business side is painful, but economies and business will come out of it and there are great opportunities. The level of government stimulus and support will make a difference. The amount of time it takes is indeterminate.

    If a vaccine is found in the near term, things will recover promptly. If not, we have a tough 12 months ahead. The stimulus does have a price in that all governments are increasing their debt levels. This must at some point lead to higher taxes.”

    Working with the NDIS

    This year the alliance, which began as the Spastic Centre in 1945, celebrates 75 years. We have more than 6000 clients in NSW and the ACT and help them access services, which are funded through the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). There are 34,000 people living with CP in Australia. It’s a lifelong condition with no known cure.

    For people with disabilities, there’s been a big transition since the NDIS began in 2013. It’s a great reform and, like any great reform, it’s had its teething issues.

    Previously, the states block-funded charities to provide services for people with disabilities. People who needed help had to queue to get what they needed and a lot of treatments were delayed. Now, people receive an amount of money and can purchase the services they need. For most of our clients, the NDIS is making things better, but accessing the system for some people has been challenging because it’s complex.

    Governance changes

    When I joined the Cerebral Palsy Alliance board, we were running at $74m in annual revenue with block funding and some fundraising. Now we are running at $200m a year in revenue; moving from four block-funding grants a year to processing 25,000 NDIS transactions a month. People don’t want to donate in order to set up a new accounting system or a better rostering system, but we’ve had to take on the flavour of a commercial organisation. The nature of the organisation, its scale and the complexity, bring a new layer of issues, especially as we have vulnerable people in our care.

    We’ve had three Royal Commissions — for child abuse, aged care and disability — that show mistakes have been made. We’re working hard on the risk management piece to ensure we protect those vulnerable people as best we can while at the same time providing value for money for our clients and the community. We’ve got to provide services efficiency and scale is important.

    If someone comes in with a child with a disability and the parent is upset, you can’t say, “Your time’s up, out the door.” It’s not possible in our culture. We’ve got a lot of real tactile human issues [to deal with] that make it pretty challenging for our staff.

    You’ve got to be ambitious for your organisation... but that doesn’t mean growth at any price. You should always be trying to grow your organisation for the broader community benefit.

    Lucky breaks

    As well as my NFP roles, I work in investment banking, am a non-executive director of Shaw and Partners and chair of Greenwich Capital Partners. After going to public schools in inner Sydney, I worked full-time as a trainee accountant for two years and attended Macquarie University part-time at night. My brothers were all tradesman, so my family didn’t understand me going to uni — but I liked accounting and wanted a business career. I was working at Yarwood Vane & Co [later absorbed into Deloitte] and I worked on an audit for a stockbroking firm.

    A job came up there and I was lucky to get it because when deregulation started, it meant I was there at the beginning of a great growth period in financial services in Australia.

    Attracting talent to NFP boards is important, but just as important is belief in what the organisation is doing. I have a child with disability and was supported by the GBB. I believe in investing, so I feel aligned as a board member of Shaw and Greenwich Capital.

    However, if a soft drink manufacturer asked me to join its board, it would be a waste of time because I don’t drink the stuff. Unless you genuinely believe in something, why would you do it?

    You’ve got to be ambitious for your organisation and for your business, but that doesn’t mean growth at any price. You should always be trying to grow your organisation for the broader community benefit.

    Read our coverage on how NFPs can fundraise during the COVID-19 crisis.

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