Non-profit Steward

Monday, February 1, 2010 - 09:09

There was a time when a manager who moved across to the not-for-profit sector would be asked the question, "What went wrong?." Not anymore. By Richard Jones.

It has been an interesting trend to witness over the past decade. As not-for-profit organisations become more businesslike in their operations, increasingly, managers and leaders now actively seek out the not-for-profit experience as a more rewarding, and worthy, career change option.

Kate Frost, the CEO of YWCA NSW, is an example. She turned to not for profits after a 20-year career in corporate banking with international banker, Citi.

"The YWCA in New South Wales is actually about helping disadvantaged families; in fact one of the biggest misconceptions that we face is that we are just about young women and Christian values."

As an aside, Frost wistfully suggests that she would have paid a lot of money for the Village People to have sung 'YWCA' rather than 'YMCA' in the 1970s hit song.

What makes the YWCA NSW different from many of the not for profits is that it also operates commercial businesses; the two Y hotels in Sydney generate about 30 per cent of the YWCA's revenue.

So why does a career banker head to a third-sector organisation? Like many people, it was partly the result of a life-changing event when her foreign-exchange dealer husband suffered a heart attack.

"My former Citi director, Paul Henderson, who had moved to The Smith Family, said to me one day: 'Come and join us, we're going to look at different ways to make this organisation financially sustainable. We need an independent revenue stream, we need long-term relationships, we need to work with the corporate market'. So I made the shift six years ago to the sector and 18 months ago I moved to the YWCA."

Frost says that six years ago not for profits were just starting to connect with corporate clients. "Corporates would started to talk about charity opportunity and course-related marketing, but there was very little around investment. Now we talk their language, and we speak about return on investment, and how to position them as employers of choice.

"We speak to corporates about how it would help their own customers, how we would engage with their people, and it just made sense to them; and we made sure that their mission had some synergy with our mission, so there was never a reason to walk away."

The right language

Frost believes that YWCA now holds an esteemed place in many corporate clients' eyes. "But I always tell our clients that they'll never get a one-to-one return on investment. I say, 'I'm a not for profit, so you will always give me more than I give you, but accept that and we will go towards building your brand, engaging your employees, and making your directors feel good about themselves'."

According to Frost: "If someone's going to invest $150,000 in you, you need to be able to tell them what you're doing, and you need to be able to show them that it works. Certainly at the YWCA, the measurement and accountability we have built in allows us to have that conversation with a corporate."

Frost believes her not-for-profit career has given her useful new skills. "One day I can be out there watching one of the kids learn how to read with a program we call, 'Mum, Dad, Baby' and literally four hours afterwards I can be in the managing director's office of Macquarie Telecom talking about a project for kids who are at risk of falling out of the school system. That's a buzz."

Frost does admit that, as an ex-banker, funding is her passion. "Finding those sustainable long-term partnerships and getting embedded into an organisation to the point where you're actually working together, as distinct from walking up the same street holding hands, is critical." She says she has also found that not for profits excel at collaboration and pulling together consortiums, working together and having the ability to work with other partners.

Frost is passionate about her current workplace. "You see a lot more young people coming through this industry who are incredibly talented, are here for all the right reasons, and work so bloody hard. It's a fact that it is hard to turn off in this industry because there's always someone else to help. So, from an altruistic point of view, there's a wonderful reward.

"Do I sometimes miss the corporate life, the pointy end of the plane? Sure I do. But there are plenty of other compensations."

When it comes to management and leadership, Frost has a favoured quote: "Stephen Covey says 'Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success. Leadership determines whether the ladder is against the right wall'. This appeals to me, and I quite like the idea that under my stewardship there is a journey to be had for the YWCA NSW, and my role is to bring people along on that journey."

On a day-to-day basis Frost admits that a whole side of her job is making sure that everyone has a voice, "but still ensuring that what we're doing is in the direction we've chosen to go".

"The skill that I constantly hone is communication, and especially listening, because a lot of the job is around giving people the voice and listening to them, and giving them permission to have an opinion. Gone are the days where you can actually instruct people."

A resource that she takes advantage of as a CEO is the use of a professional business mentor who provides both sound advice and the opportunity to bounce ideas around. "I never had a mentor at the bank but I find now it really helps me in the job as CEO."

Frost also values a formal network of mainly female CEOs who get together regularly and talk about "CEO stuff".

Too many charities?

One area where she does have concerns is the rapid growth of the not-for-profit sector. She says there's a feeling that there may be too many players in the marketplace and some mergers may be necessary.

"How many cancer charities do you need?" she wonders aloud.

"Most people are in the industry because they do want to make a difference, and they can see that the dollar will go further if they were to join forces. There's a lot of discussion in the industry about how to make best use of the resource and how to reduce duplication.

"In terms of my future, if I stopped being passionate about what I do and the cause, I'd be able to walk away faster than I would in a 'for profit' environment. I'd actually feel a moral obligation."