Walking the Talk: Visionary CEO’s Relentless Drive Turns NFP Around in 1 Year


Brain cancer, despite its high mortality rate, is under-searched and underfunded. For more than 30 years, the survival rate for brain cancer has not shifted in Australia, receiving less than 5% of government funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council. 

This is a challenge that Third Sector Awards 2022 CEO of the Year, Lance Kawaguchi, sought to change when he moved from banking to the not-for-profit sector.   

Lance’s journey in the not-for-profit sector has “ironically gone full circle”. 

While many of Lance’s network found it unanticipated for him to change gears after 25 years of global finance banking experience, it was actually serendipitous.  

When his mother passed away in 2016 from cancer, she used her last few breaths to tell him that he needed to become a better person. His mother said, “Lance, be the change that you want to see in your life”. 

Teary-eyed, Lance’s voice cracked as he shared just how much his mother’s passing affected his life decision during his acceptance speech at the awards night.  

Lance’s story, his motivation to work more for development, reverberated throughout the audience. A heartful retelling of a common story that every Third Sector worker can relate to. 

“I’m proud to say that this was the most gratifying, the most difficult, and tiring job, and I want to commend all of you who’ve committed your life to not-for-profit, and everyone who supports it,” Lance said. 

Throughout his career, Lance has been focusing his efforts on coordinating disparate efforts around the world, collaborating with other charities, and advancing brain cancer research. 

In a previous conversation with Third Sector, Lance talked about wanting to collaborate with other charities globally. He believes that not-for-profits should shift their focus on collaborating more rather than competing.  

“If ten of us are investing $1 million, why not pool the money together to make sure that we can achieve something meaningful and on a larger scale,” he said. 

During the shared trauma of the global pandemic, Lance has achieved reforming the foundation’s Scientific Advisory Committee. Together, they were able to have invested $21 million into world-class brain cancer research and $8 million into projects that have helped children with brain cancer. 

Third Sector awards is just one of Lance’ many achievements over the last 8 years. In 2019, he was awarded Outstanding Treasury4Good Leader for supporting Diversity & Inclusion. He was also recognised by the BAME100 Board Talent Index in 2018 and became one of UPstanding’s 100 leading ethnic minority executives in 2016. 

With a disease like cancer, time is of the utmost essence, something Lance knows all too well. He was familiar with the struggles of having to fly back and forth to visit his mother and almost always being in a state of mixed urgency and gratefulness.  

“I noticed that sometimes not for profits don’t move in a sense of urgency of the Community that they serve, whether it’s cancer, multiple sclerosis. So, what I want to do is make sure that if I make a commitment, we’re going to move at the same pace of our community,” he said. 

Lance has made significant contributions to the Cure Brain Cancer Foundation and the cancer research and support sector in a very short time. Over the course of just 9 months, the foundation has deployed $11 million for innovative research and launched the world’s first brain cancer-dedicated Clinical Accelerator program in Australia to support early-stage biotechnology companies, researchers, and industry partners. 

“I’m deeply honoured to be recognised for my work as CEO of Cure Brain Cancer Foundation,” he said. 

“I left a lucrative career in banking to join the not-for-profit sector. The Foundation had, up to that point, undergone several leadership changes. Every day is a different challenge; ensuring we keep our commitments to our community, building networks to collaborate and navigating the intricacies of the sector.” 

Lance, who has made significant changes to the Cure Brain Cancer Foundation, is now challenging many others in the corporate world to take a year out of their careers and give back to the community. 

“I think what you’ll find is that there’s nothing more gratifying than helping other people and looking back on your life and realising the impact that you have on them.”