CHANGE AGENT: A conversation with Claerwen Little, National Director for UnitingCare Australia

Multiple and major challenges to the future of the not-for-profit social welfare sector have been at the heart of my recent talks with leading not-for-profit CEOs.  My latest interview – with Claerwen Little, National Director for UnitingCare Australia – took this discussion to another level as she reflected on a 40-year career in the sector.  Not only did she call for a fundamental rethinking of the role of the sector, but she suggested ways to do it. This was a conversation with an agent of change and transformation.

UnitingCare Australia is the national peak body for the Uniting Church’s community services. The UnitingCare network is a collection of the Uniting Church in Australia’s service providers, made up of a large number of organisations run at a state or local level. The network has over 1,600 sites across Australia, employs 50,000 staff, is supported by 30,000 volunteers, and has an annual turnover of more than $4 billion.

Claerwen has been the National Director for two years, following thirty years in senior executive roles in service delivery, advocacy and innovation. She led the establishment of research and advocacy functions of Uniting and then a large and complex suite of programs for vulnerable children, families, young people, disadvantaged communities and people with disability across New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. She was the driving force and vision in establishing Jaanimili, the Aboriginal services and development arm of Uniting, and also the inaugural Uniting Children’s Advocate, promoting the rights of vulnerable children and young people at state, territory and national level.

People who change our lives

The influence of empowering people threaded its way through my talk with Claerwen. She told me one story about how, as a young social worker then in her late 20s, she was put in charge of a hostel for men with intellectual disability. Deeply daunted by the prospect, she recalled how her manager believed strongly in her capacities to do the job and how his faith helped her to rise successfully to the occasion.

‘My boss was deeply committed to my development. I was thrown in at the deep end and had a huge duty of care to these very vulnerable people. I had to use what wit I had, and ask a million questions.’

‘I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my career to have had older, wiser people around me who have encouraged, mentored and supported me. I’ve always had two or three people, particularly women leaders, who saw in me what I didn’t necessarily see, and mentored and pushed me,’ she said.

‘I started working in the sector in the late 70s and I wanted to save the world. In some ways, I am still that young girl, still believing that change is possible and having a great sense of optimism and hope. The achievement is ‘hanging in there’ and not being beaten down by the persistent lack of good policy direction and by political interventions that do people so much harm.’

Change is possible; collaboration is everything

That leadership is a practice that involves working closely with other people and which relies on mindfulness emerged strongly during our talk.

On what motivates her, Claerwen talked about her ‘Three Ps: Purpose, Passion and People’. She told me: ‘Purpose has been very important to me, it motivates and sustains me and the passion I have that change is possible and that people are important. If you believe change is possible then you can keep ploughing along. People motivate me – lots of people sustain me.’

‘Collaboration is everything. No work is possible if you try to do it on your own, or claim the glory, or try to do too much. You’ve got to do it with others and learn to collaborate.’

‘There’s a great quote from the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu that “a leader is best when people barely know he exists and, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will all say we did it ourselves”.’

The Intrapreneur’s Ten Commandments

Claerwen talked about barriers when others don’t share the vision for change. ‘Sure, you’ve got to do things on the smell of an oily rag to do the work, but they are just challenges,’ she said. ‘The really big barriers are when others don’t share your vision.’

On ways to overcome barriers, she said ‘I’ve relied on the Intrapreneur’s Ten Commandments:

  1. Come to work each day, willing to be fired
  2. Circumvent any orders aimed at stopping your dream
  3. Do any job needed to make your project work, regardless of your job description
  4. Find people to help you
  5. Follow your intuition about the people you choose, and work only with the best
  6. Work underground as long as you can – publicity triggers the corporate immune mechanism
  7. Never bet on a race unless you are running in it
  8. Remember it is easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission
  9. Be true to your goals, but realistic about the way to achieve them
  10. Honor your sponsors

Stepping back

When asked about barriers, Claerwen said ‘As a leader you have to pick your battles and find the best way ahead. It’s about being able to stop, change and adapt to the changing environment around you. It’s about not being too precious. We all have our own pet passions but, at the end of the day, the most important thing is achieving outcomes for very vulnerable people.’

‘Sometimes you have to not hold onto things too hard. You have to ditch your ideas and do something else. It’s about being tenacious, but also about being able to read what a barrier is about and to take a step back if you have to.’


Discussing who or what supports her in leadership, Claerwen talked about the vital importance of her home and family. ‘What supports me as a leader is my balance of home and work, my garden, and the reality of everyday life. There’s no hubris allowed at home. You have to wash-up and be the mother.’

‘There’s a reality about family life that grounds you,’ she said. ‘You can never get an inflated sense of who you are with your kids and grandkids. I’m blessed to be surrounded by people who love me but who can easily put me in my place.’

Finding our sector’s point of difference

On major challenges facing the not-for-profit sector: ‘there are obvious ones like competition and the rise of the for-profit organisations. The challenge for us is about losing our identity. We have to ask: What’s our cutting edge? What’s our difference? We have to articulate that better. As a sector, what is it that makes us so great? Why would people prefer an aged care facility that is run by a not-for-profit? We need to re-create our narrative in the current environment.’

‘The current political climate is another challenge. The lack of focus on good policy making is astounding and will have ramifications for decades to come. It’s already having ramifications because it’s probably been going on for about ten years.’

‘We’ve got some entrenched social problems with no will to change them. There’s active punitive policy on our most vulnerable and disadvantaged. It’s so wrong in every way. The growing disparity between those who have and those who haven’t is huge.’

Changing to survive

‘We are at a point in history,’ she said, ‘where we’ve got a welfare sector that’s decades old. It’s not going to be like that in the future. How can we reinvent ourselves? We have to completely change the way we do business if we are going to survive and find a narrative that the community understands.’

‘The other big challenge is the loss of faith in institutions and new power paradigms around social media and people being able to make collective decisions quite outside any formal service or network. The challenge for services is how to understand how they can do their business in ways that are going to be relevant to people.’

Getting back to community

‘We have to find new ways of doing things. I get the sense that the seeds of change will come from the people we work with. If we can listen to their voices, if we get out into the margins, to where the homeless are, and where families are really struggling, we’ll find the answers about what people need.’

‘The not-for-profit sector has a great opportunity to take leadership but the seeds will come from local communities themselves. Communities will have to find their own solutions. They can find those solutions if they are given the opportunity. They don’t need other people to tell them. The role of the not-for-profit sector in this work is to help facilitate given that our whole reason for being is about transformation.’

Be yourself

Asked what advice she would give to aspiring leaders, Claerwen said: ‘be yourself, get to know yourself and how you impact on the world around you, be absolutely clear about your purpose, and never waver from the truth that people matter, that there is hope and that change is possible.’

‘Find ways to inspire others about your dreams, find some inspiring leaders and get them to mentor you, keep learning, never think you have all the answers, always be open to being wrong and to changing your view. Use the Intrapreneurs Ten Commandments.’

‘Most of all, be kind to those around you and to yourself. Be humble. Humility and kindness are two traits I see in any good leader.’

Brian Babington

April 2019

Read other interviews on excellence in not-for-profit leadership here