The respected non-government organisation is embracing new technologies to improve its work, writes Domini Stuart.
On her recent trip to Africa, World Vision Australia chief executive officer (CEO) Claire Rogers GAICD was delighted by the welcome she received from a group of traditional Samburu women in drought-stricken Northern Kenya. They expressed their gratitude for the organisation’s assistance with singing and dancing, and the performance was posted live on Facebook. Twenty-four hours later it had been viewed 14,000 times.
“This is a great example of how digital technology can provide a window into our work,” says Rogers. “Donors are much more likely to engage with us when they feel close to what is happening in the field.”
Rogers has built a career on her passion for digital technologies and their impact on how consumers and organisations interact. She began in banking and, as head of digital banking Australia at ANZ, spearheaded the bank’s retail transformation.
“When I was offered an opportunity to transform the way World Vision engages with the community it was too good to refuse,” she says.
The recruitment process began when long-term CEO Tim Costello AO decided to move into the role of chief advocate for the organisation.
“The board decided his replacement should complement his advocacy skills with operational excellence around revenue generation and digital transformation,” says Rogers. Today, all major charities and fund-raising non-government organisations (NGOs) must adapt to a rapidly-changing environment.
“We need to continue engaging with a mature supporter base as we attract and build relationships with new, younger donors who communicate in different ways,” says chairman George Savvides FAICD. “That requires an agile and digitally-connected strategy.”
Digital technology can also help organisations like World Vision to deliver scale in the field.
“One example is our Livelihood Program, where we teach farmers how to improve their yield by managing their land more effectively,” says Rogers. “In the past, this was typically done face-to-face. A blend of face-to-face and digital delivery gives us the potential to reach many more farmers.”
An international approach
Revenue is a major challenge for the whole not-for-profit sector.
“I am constantly amazed by the continuing generosity of the Australian people but, on a bigger scale, we are definitely feeling the impact of a retreat to nationalism – the idea that we should be putting our own country first,” says Rogers.
“I believe that, for the sake of a safe and stable world, we must address poverty globally. I also believe that World Vision can play a major role in this debate and that we must continually challenge narrow perspectives.”
She is also heartened by the fact that the United Kingdom and many European nations are still committed to international aid.
“We work with a number of organisations around the globe and that will continue to be our strategy,” she says.
Another challenge is the war for talent at all levels, including in the boardroom.
“George and I are working closely on locating the right skills for the future. I’m not suggesting we don’t have the right skills now; all boards should be scanning the horizon for the skills they’re likely to need,” says Rogers.
A personal challenge
World Vision also presents challenges on a personal level.
“Exposure to the most testing circumstances of human existence and survival is deeply and emotionally confronting,” says Savvides. “The flip side is that seeing the hope and care we provide, and the positive impact we have on children and their families, is deeply inspiring.”
Since joining the organisation last November, Rogers has already witnessed extreme need.
“Just last week I saw the thinnest children I’ve ever encountered,” she says. “At one level that is very difficult, but as George says, first-hand experience of what our teams are doing in the field is extremely inspiring and uplifting. For example, the Uganda team I met recently is living in temporary housing next to the refugee settlements and working 14 hours a day. The job I do is easy by comparison.”
There are currently 48,000 World Vision staff working across nearly 100 countries. Support offices such as World Vision Australia provide both funds and technical support to the organisation’s national offices, which are on the frontline in the developing world.
Many years’ experience
Savvides’ journey with World Vision began 38 years ago when he and his new wife Vivian decided to sponsor a child.
“It was Viv’s passion for the work of the organisation that encouraged me to donate my business and leadership experience as well as money,” he says. “I was on the board of both World Vision Australia and World Vision International from 1998 to 2010 then, after a two-year retirement, I was appointed chairman of World Vision Australia.”
He worked hard to ensure there would be a smooth transition from 13 years of Costello’s powerful advocacy to business transformation and now his relationship with Rogers is built primarily on trust.
“Claire must feel confident she can raise any issue with me,” he says. “As she tackles the change agenda she will inevitably nudge areas of sensitivity and administrative heritage, so she also needs to know that she can depend on coaching and encouragement from the chair. The conversations I value most are those around how and at what pace change can take place to ensure both buy-in and lasting impact.”
For her part, Rogers has chosen to be very transparent with Savvides and the rest of the board.
“I give them as many insights as I can as to how things are travelling – material challenges as well as material wins,” she says. “They are also very transparent with me. For instance, I sometimes raise an issue without realising that one or two directors have particularly strong views. There might be some equally strong feedback, but I’d much rather hear it at the time than run the risk of stepping on a landmine later on.”
An extra dimension
In its search for Costello’s successor the board considered more than professional skills.
“We were looking for someone with the faith dimension required to embrace the mission and heritage of World Vision,” says Savvides. “Claire appeared on my radar when she was appointed chair of Ridley Theological College nine years ago. Even then I was very impressed by the way she was able to integrate a faith-based mission with a professional corporate career. Now I am excited about what she will bring to her assignment, helping World Vision to continue attracting the supporters we need to fund our life-saving mission among the poorest people in the world.”
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