Peter Baines OAM on setting up a charity

Sunday, 01 October 2023

Zilla Efrat

    Hands Across the Water founder and director Peter Baines OAM has learned that directors on a charity board must have the capacity to commit the necessary time and resources. 

    Starting an international charity can be a tough ask, as Peter Baines OAM learned after he started Hands Across the Water in the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in South East Asia. Having spent 22 years as part of the NSW Police elite forensic services group, Baines was sent to Thailand to lead the international identification of the 5500 bodies recovered in the wake of the tragedy. During his time with NSW Police, he did similar work after the 2002 Bali bombings and was an adviser to Interpol in France and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in South East Asia.

    “I spent most of 2005 on the ground in Thailand and during my last tour there, I met a group of children who had all lost their families, parents and homes,” says Baines. “So, I started the charity to build them a home and it just grew and grew. The biggest challenge when you start a charity is that you have a vision, but you don’t have the credibility and a story. There’s not necessarily something that someone can look at as proof of your ability or that you will do as you say. Raising the initial money requires a lot of trust from people.”

    Eighteen years later, the charity now has credibility and proof of how and where those funds are being used. It has raised about $30m, owns seven properties and has helped hundreds of children, 33 of whom have graduated from university.

    “Good governance and transparency are very important when you’re asking people to commit their funds, time and reputations,” says Baines. “We’ve always posted our annual audited accounts on our public website and up until COVID-19, we never used a cent of the money raised on administration. We have a social enterprise that sits next to the charity and undertakes those income-generation activities.”

    When the pandemic struck, this changed. Hands Across the Water had to temporarily start using some of its raised funds on operations to survive.

    “The biggest challenge for us was that most of our income was generated through the international events we run and by taking people on long- distance bike rides through Thailand,” says Baines. “They have been hugely successful, but they can only be successful when people can travel. We lost over 70 per cent of our income. At the same time, the operational costs of running the homes and educating the kids didn’t change.”

    After surviving 2020, the organisation began using 15 per cent of its donated funds to cover administration costs. It is currently working to reverse that, even though donors appear to be cutting back on spending in the current economic environment.

    “The big challenge for us now is relevance,” says Baines. “There are 60,000 charities in Australia and many businesses and individuals who engage in philanthropy will start with the position that they’re only going to donate on a domestic level and will not support offshore charities.”

    He says that because of its structure, the organisation is seen by Australian businesses as an international charity. But because all its funds are raised in Australia and all the work is done by Australians, Thai businesses regard it as an Australian charity, even though all its fundraising goes into Thailand.

    “Rather than seek donations, we look to provide value to our donors, supporters and corporates in ways that give them a reason to engage with us,” says Baines. “Once that happens, they see the difference that we make and the futures we’re creating for the children. That’s when we get their support.”

    Getting the governance right

    In his role as the charity’s director of international operations, Baines sits on each of its three boards alongside chair Kay Spencer. “I’m very lucky to have someone with her wisdom,” he says.
    Hands Across the Water recently restructured its governance, with the international board becoming its primary board and recruiting new directors. The charity also has boards in Australia and New Zealand.

    “The big challenge over my 18 years at Hands Across the Water has been finding directors who see the appeal of sitting on a charity board versus those who see it as an entry point to other professional board positions,” says Baines. “The charity board shouldn’t be just a departure lounge, waiting for something better. We need directors to bring more than themselves and not just turn up for that bimonthly or quarterly meeting. Directors need to bring their network and be prepared to leverage it, because those in the team aren’t senior or experienced enough to have a broad network. That’s what we’re relying on the directors for.”

    A statement that has always resonated with Baines is that “a director on a charity board is there to give, get or get off”. He is adamant that these directors should have the capacity to commit the time and resources needed. “The most successful directors I’ve had over the past 18 years have been actively involved and have made several trips a year to our homes,” he says. “They participate in our bike rides. We run a directors’ meeting in Thailand and they’re happy to invest their time and money, cover their travel costs and immerse themselves. That’s what’s required.”

    This article first appeared under the headline 'Lending A Helping Hand’ in the October 2023 issue of Company Director magazine.

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