Interview: QA with Anne Robinson

Sunday, 01 November 2009


    World Vision chairman Anne Robinson FAICD plays an electric guitar in a church rock band and runs her own legal practice. She talks to Tony Featherstone about the challenges of heading an organisation that helped 22 million people last year.

    Q&A with Anne Robinson

    Anne Robinson FAICD is not your usual chairman. The 54-year-old mother of three plays an electric guitar in a church rock band on weekends and is passionate about her Gibson Les Paul guitar. Robinson was also an artist for eight years, selling paintings and publishing music, after her first stint as a lawyer at Allens Arthur Robinson and Mallesons.

    Now she runs Prolegis, a thriving small law practice that specialises in charities and not-for-profit (NFP) enterprises, and chairs the World Vision Australia board, one of the best in the charity sector.

    Robinson and 10 directors begin each World Vision board meeting with a prayer. While some NFPs founded on religious principles may do the same, the approach is unusual for an organisation of World Vision’s size. With revenues last year of $355 million, 621 staff and a well-known brand, World Vision is bigger than many local charities put together. If it were a listed company, World Vision would rank just outside the top 200 by turnover. And, it is part of a large global network – World Vision International – of which Robinson is also a director.

    Robinson could be forgiven for taking a hard-headed, clinical approach to running an enterprise that helped 22 million people last year. She is a lawyer after all. But the devout Christian knows the best NFP decisions are often made with the heart as well as the head.

    How could they not be? World Vision directors are encouraged to visit aid projects in some of the world’s poorest countries. Robinson visited Kenya twice in the past 18 months. These experiences have clearly shaped the World Vision board and are a reason for its success before and during Robinson’s stewardship, which began in 2005. Robinson joined the board in 2000 and has been on six NFP boards over 25 years.

    Compassion and good governance go hand in hand for Robinson. They have to. World Vision is largely funded by tens of thousands of Australians who sponsor children in impoverished communities. The slightest hint of impropriety can crush fundraising for international aid agencies.

    Right or wrong, there are perceptions that aid given in Australia does not always find its way overseas or that money is wasted or distributed too slowly. The media quickly targets NFPs that disappoint donors. And some World Vision critics believe the notion of “sponsoring” children – and using them in advertisements to tug at the heartstrings of donors – is a form of exploitation.

    The World Vision board’s best defence is process, performance and understanding. The board adheres to the ASX Corporate Governance Principles, unusual for a NFP enterprise, but not so for a board that wants world-class governance. Robinson also spends more time than most NFP chairs when recruiting directors and reviewing their performance – a process that is paying dividends.

    World Vision’s revenue will be down slightly this year, a reasonable outcome given the fallout from the global financial crisis on charities. Fundraising is harder, but World Vision’s reliance on personal rather than corporate or government giving is holding it in better stead than many charities. Some programs have been postponed and some jobs not replaced after staff have left. But somehow the organisation continues to help more people.

    Robinson’s other big task is improving understanding of World Vision at an organisation and community level. Directors recently recommitted to its mission and values and developed a new three-year strategic plan. At a donor level, Robinson is keen to increase understanding of what World Vision does. Its help of impoverished children is well known, but less considered is its work in areas such as the impact of climate change on the poor and human trafficking.

    Robinson, invited to the Federal Government’s 20/20 summit last year, has strong views on how to improve Australia’s NFP sector. She favours the establishment of a Charities Commission and more regulation of NFPs, but with a lighter touch than models in the UK, for example. She is critical of the Federal Government’s falling contribution to international aid relative to other western countries – a blight she hopes the current government will correct. And, she believes Australian for-profit enterprises should do more to help the NFP sector.

    Robinson is not one for publicity. World Vision’s prominent CEO, Baptist church minister Rev Tim Costello AO, is synonymous with the organisation, and Robinson, almost by habit, defers praise to the organisation’s staff at every opportunity. But it is clear the board plays a key role in World Vision’s success and that there is much to learn from how it conducts business.

    Here is an edited extract of Robinson’s interview with Company Director:

    Company Director (CD): Is the Federal Government doing enough in international aid?

    Anne Robinson (AR): The current Government has made a commitment to increase international aid to 0.5 per cent of gross domestic product by 2015. That’s encouraging, but it should be noted how far this country has fallen behind in international aid. At 0.33 per cent, Australia is a long way off the pace and I doubt enough people realise just how far we have dropped relative to other countries, or that we rank near the bottom of OECD countries in international aid, despite this nation’s prosperity. Australians individually are generous, but past governments have been very mean in this regard.

    CD: Are large companies doing enough in corporate philanthropy?

    AR: Corporate Australia’s record with international aid is not great either. Most of World Vision’s revenue comes from individuals sponsoring children, so we depend less on corporate giving, though it is still important for us. That has helped us during the downturn as more companies cut back. Some companies absolutely get the importance of giving and realise that corporate social responsibility is central to what they do. But the majority do not.

    CD: Should there be more rationalisation of the NFP sector?

    AR: Yes, but not for all charities. Australia has a remarkably high number of NFPs, partly due to a legacy of its charities providing more social welfare than in other countries where governments delivered welfare. There has been more innovation and collaboration than the NFP sector gets credit for. And, the sector’s collective performance has been better than many expected during the financial crisis. That said, while mergers and collaboration can make sense, its dangerous to assume that improving economies of scale is always the answer.

    CD: How can the Government help this rationalisation?

    AR: A Charities Commission in Australia would improve things greatly. But we need a regulatory model that is not too heavy handed. Our NFP sector simply could not handle the type of regulation in place through the UK Charities Commission, for example. An enormous amount of reform is needed here first. State-based incorporation acts are a huge problem for charities and there is a very difficult fundraising regime to comply with. Accounting standards are another issue. The NFP sector has this constant uphill battle dealing with what is an insanely antiquated regulatory regime. We need to fix the foundations before implementing too many new laws.

    CD: How have pro bono legal services to charities fared?

    AR: It’s a mixed bag. There are some good lawyers from good firms who provide important free advice to charities. But I also believe many lawyers provide sub-standard advice when it comes to pro bono work that can damage the charity, put directors at risk and risk the law firm’s reputation. Many NFP boards rely on sub-standard legal advice in my opinion. I don’t want to sound critical of the legal profession – this industry has done more for the NFP sector than many others over the years. But I have seen a lot of free legal advice that is poor quality, and many charities that do not realise they are getting such poor advice. And, I suspect the pro bono model has, inadvertently, stopped the development of more lawyers who have high-end expertise in NFP legal matters. More lawyers of this type are emerging, but it will take time.

    CD: Is this why you started a law firm for NFPs?

    AR: I felt the model of pro bono legal work was simply not working. There is a culture among charities to always seek free advice and never question its quality. And, law firms are under more pressure to grow fees, which can mean less time for pro bono work. Yet, legal risks for charities are rising. Obviously, I have a vested interest: Prolegis is a for-profit practice, although we charge about half the rates of normal legal practices. The culture is slowly changing with more charities, especially larger ones, realising they need to pay for specialist legal advice to manage their risks.

    CD: How has the financial crisis affected World Vision?

    AR: As with most parts of the NFP sector, fundraising contracts as demand for the organisation’s services increases. The people most at risk from a crisis are always the poorest. World Vision Australia has seen a flattening of income and we may be down on the last year. But there is an upside to the crisis; it gives all organisations a major opportunity to drill into costs and be even more rigorous about what they spend money on. Our board kept in close contact during the crisis and we supported management to be more risk averse on some new programs and shelve others. Overall, World Vision has come through the crisis in good shape.

    CD: Why did the board recently review and recommit to World Vision’s mission, vision and value statements?

    AR: It’s easy to criticise charities that spend days agonising over a few lines on what they are about. But this has been critical for our board and organisation. World Vision is committed to the wellbeing of children, but what does that mean if you don’t translate that to real programs with tangible results? Do you just pay lip-service to your values or do you ensure they serve as a reference for everything you do? Values are important for all organisations and boards – not just NFPs.

    CD: What are the big issues World Vision is working on?

    AR: Climate change, and its impact on the world’s poorest people, could potentially wipe out years of economic development work. It is heartbreaking to see how it is destroying years of progress in agricultural development. It could destroy generations of food producers in third-world countries and have catastrophic affects in some communities. But the response to climate change also offers opportunity. A local community in Kenya discussed how selling carbon credits could help it buy trees, reforest its lands and create sustainable water supplies. That would do more for this community than any amount of short-term aid could. These communities have some really smart people looking to make vital changes. Our role is to support them as much as possible.

    CD: Do enough people understand World Vision’s breadth of services, beyond helping to feed poor people?

    AR: Our job is to deliver what we promise. People have to see that their donations lead to real outcomes that change lives. But we also work hard to increase the donor’s understanding that good economic development covers a range of issues from food supplies to education, health and issues such as climate change and human trafficking.

    CD: How have you dealt with occasional criticism about international aid money not getting through or wasted?

    AR: We operate on the “front page” test – if someone visited one of our projects and wrote a front-page story about it, would the project deliver everything promised? I can say hand over heart that this organisation, thanks to its wonderful staff, delivers what is a complex service in complex situations to the absolute best of its ability in the most efficient manner possible. We welcome media scrutiny – the media has an important role to play in highlighting good or bad aspects of international aid projects. In our business, you are only ever one calamity away from disaster because public confidence is everything. We take our responsibility incredibly seriously.

    CD: Can charities go overboard when cutting costs in response to public pressure to be as efficient as possible?

    AR: Definitely. The real problem is we don’t have enough data to compare how charities perform, so we go back to antiquated methods of looking at costs as a percentage of income. Don’t get me wrong: we watch every cent at World Vision. We hope nothing is wasted. But we know that spending money on training staff, or developing strong advocacy programs, leads to higher long-term gains. You can’t just look at charities in terms of inputs and outputs. The challenge is educating donors to understand the outcomes achieved with their donations.

    CD: How big a role does Christian faith play on the board?

    AR: I think it is good to work with people who don’t all believe in the same things you do. You don’t have to be a Christian organisation to do good work. World Vision has an inclusive policy – we are open to employing anybody, so long as they have the right skills and are committed to our vision, values and mission. That’s the same for most organisations. That said, faith plays an important role on our board and who we recruit. We need directors who understand the religious beliefs on which World Vision was founded and support what we stand for. As soon as you put your hand up as a Christian organisation, you set yourself up for criticism. But we take our faith seriously, which is why we pray at the start of each board meeting.

    CD: Can we expect to see you on for-profit boards?

    AR: Possibly. I haven’t ruled that out. I resigned from other NFP board roles when I took on the chair position at World Vision Australia. It’s a reasonably big role and I’m also running the legal practice I founded. I spend at least one day a week on World Vision Australia matters, so I don’t feel as though I could take on much more work.

    CD: What do you do to relax away from work?

    AR: My family keeps me busy. We have three children – two boys and a girl aged 19 to 24. My eldest son, a law graduate, has just gone to Bible College. My other son is a filmmaker and my daughter is a law student. I spend time playing all sorts of guitars in my church band and tinkering with my guitars whenever I have time. I love modern church music – playing and writing it. I also read a lot and exercise as much as possible.

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