When pandemic added to the woes of its clients, Sydney inner-city charity Wayside Chapel had to radically change its business model.
During the pandemic’s early days, as unemployment queues grew and calls to crisis helplines increased, assumptions about who needed a helping hand were turned upside down. Graham Rich, chair of Wayside Chapel, says the organisation delivered more than 17,000 instances of support between April and June 2020, including to 688 people who had never presented before. “They’d lost their job, they recognised they were living in an abusive situation for the first time because of lockdown issues, or they were living on the street for the first time,” he says. “As much as politicians can say, ‘We’re all in this together’, there’s a whole bunch of people who are way, way worse off as a consequence of COVID-19.”
Wayside Chapel, a high-profile not-for-profit, has been a fixture of Sydney’s eastern suburbs since 1964, when it threw open its doors to support people who had, quite literally, fallen by the wayside. Founded by humanitarian Reverend Ted Noffs — who also founded Sydney’s first Drug Referral Centre and was involved in the creation of what would eventually become Lifeline — its situation was precarious. Government funding traditionally comprises only 15 per cent of its income, putting significant reliance on donor support. In 2019, it had experienced a loss and was expecting another shortfall even before the pandemic hit.
As other charities found, demand for services spiked at the same time as fundraising and revenue- driving activities had to be halted due to physical distancing requirements. In those early days, the executive and board hunkered down in virtual meetings, wrestling with existential questions about how and in what form Wayside Chapel would survive. “It was a super-dark period of ‘Holy moly, where is this heading?’” says Rich.
We will do whatever it takes to achieve our mission, which is based around no ‘us and them’
Coping with the crisis
Wayside Chapel worked with the NSW government to meet all the necessary requirements for it to be recognised as an essential service in line with public health orders — allowing it to keep its doors open. “There was a big whoop around that virtual boardroom table when we sought and gained exemption from being closed down,” says Rich.
Yet the organisation had to radically revise its business model, which was based around those in need visiting the Kings Cross and Bondi Beach centres for food, clothing, showers and referrals to other support services, including housing, medical and legal.
Because a large proportion of its more than 500 active volunteers were aged 60 years and over, their involvement was suspended from March to the end of November 2020. A decision was also made to stop all non-essential activities and redirect all frontline paid-staff resources to delivering emergency care.
Using a small flotilla of sponsor-funded vans, and good old-fashioned shoe leather, outreach teams delivered care packs and emergency meals to homeless people and isolated individuals. They also provided telephone support and worked with the NSW Department of Communities and Justice and other agencies to move people sleeping rough into temporary accommodation.
Wayside Chapel brought its planned winter appeal forward in the form of an emergency appeal that was launched within two weeks of lockdown and attracted significant donor support. “It nudged into nearly $2.5m of giving and that saved our bacon,” says Rich, adding that the organisation scraped through due to “cohesive, single-minded determination” by its executive team and board. “We had the agility to be able to say, ‘We will do whatever it takes to achieve our mission, which is based around no ‘us and them’.”
Meanwhile, Heart Cafe, the Wayside Chapel’s social enterprise, had begun offering takeaway and delivery options. Its op shops had also moved online, allowing people to purchase sustainable, ethical, quality fashion at the click of a button.
Wayside Chapel held its first virtual live crowdfunding event through The Funding Network, showcasing the emergency response programs provided during COVID-19 and raising significant funds for centre-based care, as well as foot and van outreach. In comparison to an in-person event held in 2019, which raised $90,000, this netted the Wayside $230,000. Long Walk Home, a relatively new initiative, also went virtual, raising $1.025m.
Heeding the call
Originally from Christchurch, New Zealand, Rich has lived in Sydney for the past 25 years. He has been a member of the Wayside Chapel congregation since moving to Potts Point with his wife in 2008. He joined the board in October 2013, before being appointed chair in November 2020.
Rich says it was his deep commitment to the cause that helped ground him through those first whirlwind few months of the pandemic. “We see living in that area as being a real, ongoing daily lesson — a privilege to be part of — because often people who live in wealthy suburbs don’t necessarily see those aspects of society.”
Rich is managing partner and dean of Portfolio Construction Forum. Prior to that, he founded and ran the Australian arm of Morningstar — a managed fund rating business — for 20 years before moving on and establishing a continuing education business for investment advisers. “I’m passionate about the role quality investment portfolios play in ensuring the financial wellbeing of individuals,” he says.
But there is always a social justice angle, he adds. “We ask, ‘What’s the purpose of helping Australians do a better job with their money if we aren’t conscious of the whole person we’re working with, and the whole community we’re part of?’”
Rich says passion drives all activities at Wayside Chapel, exemplified by the reader base of its Inner Circle weekly newsletter rocketing from 13,000 three years ago to 35,000 today.
Coming on board
The board of 11 runs as a “disciplined, structured corporate board”, says Rich. “It has really good oversight, with each board member bringing a depth of experience from across a range of disciplines, and a governance framework supported by a number of committees.”
Psychiatrist Dr Peter McGeorge runs a specialist clinical governance advisory committee. It advises on clinical quality, risk and safety in relation to visitor services, and provided governance oversight as the Wayside adapted its operating model throughout 2020.
A finance and operations committee assists the board with oversight of Wayside’s financial management and external audit, as well as its social enterprise and investment/asset management activities and risk management.
There is also a nomination, governance and remuneration committee, which oversees succession planning, makes recommendations to the board on the corporate governance framework and considers remuneration policy.
Alongside these formal committee structures sit working groups that provide an opportunity for collaboration between Wayside Chapel’s executive team and board members on special projects and initiatives such as corporate partnerships.
The board also maintains a strong connection with staff members. “That connection between board, executive, staff, visitors, volunteers and engaging with donors and supporters is unique, and so special to be part of,” says Rich.
At time of writing, the Wayside Chapel was engaged in a strategic planning review. “A cohesive and united board with good governance disciplines and a clarity of vision goes a long way to weathering any storm,” he says. “But as things calm down, it’s appropriate and prudent to take stock and reassess.”
Rich is adamant Wayside Chapel has come out of COVID-19 stronger than before. “It showed that Wayside Chapel has an amazing level of support and gave us a clear picture of the increased needs of the community,” he says. “Now is the time a full strategic review of every facet of how we implement our mission — root to branch — should occur. That’s exactly what we have the privilege to do — and what we are doing. It’s the most amazing opportunity for me as chair, with our new board, to push out into our future. [We plan] to ramp up our impact in a way fit for the new environment, as the needs and opportunities are enormous. We’re confident we can achieve this without compromising the quality or influence of anything we’ve been doing.”
Near enough is definitely not good enough
Wayside Chapel chair Graham Rich says the selection and appointment of team and board members is especially important for not-for-profits.
“We look for all team members to possess a vibrancy and deeply held passion for the purpose, so that we grow our reach, sphere of influence and brand,” he says.
He notes that approaching goals and plans in a conscious, disciplined and yet still “fully caring” manner is also crucial.
“For Wayside Chapel, this means that we don’t buy into the concept of ‘close enough is good enough’ because we are just a not-for-profit.
“We strive for commercial excellence in our long-, medium- and short-term planning, which is best practice across every facet of any equivalent for-profit commercial enterprise,” says Rich.
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