COLLABORATING AND ADVOCATING FOR CHANGE. A conversation with Camilla Rowland, CEO, Marymead ACT

Collaboration and advocacy for social change have been central themes throughout my interviews with not-for-profit community sector leaders. I was therefore delighted that my interview with Camilla Rowland, CEO of Marymead, delved even more deeply into these topics. I found a passionate advocate for building connections not only within organisations but across communities and sectors to support social change.

Camilla came to the CEO role at Marymead in 2015 after running a drug and alcohol rehabilitation organisation in the ACT and surrounding NSW region. She has also worked in the commercial sector and in regional, rural and national settings. She has recently finished her role as President of the ACT Council of Social Services.

Established in 1967, Marymead is a highly-respected, not-for-profit organisation that serves the ACT and southern and western regional areas of NSW. It delivers a wide range of family support services to children, young people and their families. In particular, Marymead works with children, young people and their families to address complex issues by providing specialist, early intervention, clinical therapeutic services and support programs and services.

A fair go

Asked about the things that motivate, Camilla said: ‘It comes from a strong sense of a ‘fair go’ for everybody, particularly vulnerable people. I’ve been brought up with those values. Through my parents it’s been ingrained that we need to look after people and our community and give everybody the best opportunity.’

‘For me, achievement is about ensuring we have a strong vision for the community as well as sound future-focused policies and programs that deliver services to meet need. I’ve spent the last 29 years in health and community services because I believe that the best way to deliver services flexibly to meet need is through that space.’

‘I don’t have time for smoke and mirrors,’ she said. ‘I want to ensure that anything our agency is involved in developing and delivering is high quality and, when there are challenging issues in the sector, we act on them and just don’t accept the status quo.’

Community at the centre

Camilla talked passionately about the importance of communities and the supports they need. ‘Community is about neighbourhoods, towns or regions,’ she said. ‘If we take away town planning, early intervention development work and basic community development processes, we end up with places where people live in isolation – that’s deeply concerning as it disintegrates our social infrastructure.’

‘We appear to be moving in the direction in Australia where the focus is on the individual in terms of funding and prioritisation, and Government priorities are not necessarily addressing families as a whole and their broader connections to community.’

Seeing people flourish

‘I love to see our staff teams deliver good services and to see individuals progressing. There’s nothing more exciting for me than to see a client progressing and achieving outcomes. To see less client reliance on government systems and on services, and to see people flourish as a family really excites me.’

‘I also like to see well considered social, health and education policies and programs that build capacity in communities. I feel frustrated if I see policy or policy that’s not integrated.’

Advocating for change

On obstacles she’s faced in her CEO role, Camilla talked about the challenges that can be caused if government planning doesn’t consider integration across disciplines and portfolios.

‘The biggest barrier,’ she said, ‘is where short term-ism of government can occur in implementing programs and policies. It’s hard to put good strategy and policy into place to develop programs and think about outcomes for individual clients or families when you are operating on a short-term funding basis.’

Asked how she works to overcome those types of challenge, Camilla talked about her support for community sector advocacy. ‘I sit on boards of not-for-profits at the local and national level because they are places where I can collaborate and help to influence change.’

She also gets involved in advocating for change by supporting alliances with other organisations. She spoke about how Marymead had been at the forefront of a lengthy, and ultimately successful, campaign with other community service providers, supported by commissioned private sector research, to build a case to improve access to short-term accommodation for people with complex needs under the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Reflecting on that and other types of advocacy, Camilla said ‘the sad thing is that there are number of CEOs in the community services sector who no longer advocate because they feel that change is not occurring as a result of their advocacy, or they just don’t have the time and resources to engage in advocacy.’

‘We have more senior executives coming from the commercial sector to community service CEO roles who don’t necessarily have the background and knowledge about how to successfully advocate to Governments nor understand their responsibility as a community organisation to do that. I believe that it is important that we build capacity of these roles to fulfil this important responsibility.’

A call for shared policy development

Asked about the major challenges facing the not-for-profit sector, Camilla talked about the importance of greater cross-sectoral collaboration. ‘The community services sector budget is nowhere near the size of the health service budget and yet issues for individuals and families are interconnected across health, education, justice and social services.’

‘The silos that occur for policy can be overcome if there is more shared policy development particularly between health and social services sectors. It would also be of great benefit to have justice and education connected.’

‘I often see policies that contradict one another or don’t necessarily work for the community as a whole. It would be excellent to have a Summit for the community service sector that starts to build a bipartisan approach for the longer term.’

Look for mentors

Finally, I asked Camilla what she would say to aspiring not-for-profit sector leaders. ‘It can be advantageous to come from different careers’, she said. ‘Skills and knowledge are transferrable. But, everyone moving into the community sector needs to do some personal study and understand the background to community work. There’s a lot of professional development available, including through the peak bodies.’

‘And, look for mentors, not necessarily formal mentors but people who might be able to provide voluntary mentoring or even someone you can just talk to. It can sometimes be quite lonely being the CEO of an organisation but it helps a lot to have a trusted group of people to discuss ideas.’

Brian Babington
May 2019

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