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Opinion: A dual narrative around feel-good Charities and misused donated Funds

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There is a dual narrative around charities in Australia; warm-and-fuzzy feel-good stories contrasted with charities misusing donated funds and lacking probity and transparency.

Charities are suspected of over-spending on themselves – disproportionate amounts on administration, executive travel and plush offices. “How much of your donated dollar actually reaches poor children in Africa?” ask sceptical donors.

As founder and CEO of a charity (over $3m annual turnover in 2021), I am acutely aware of charities straying from their original mission – they resemble government departments with a bloated bureaucracy, minimal outcomes and obsessive focus on bringing in more dollars.

Businessman and philanthropist John Wyllie pose 6 questions charities should ask themselves, the first one being: does mission come before the interests of the organisation? As Wyllie puts it “the organisations with real longevity, integrity, impact and financial support are the ones that think obsessively about the people they serve… not who’s on what committees and tickets for test matches.” (Tanarra Philanthropic Founder, John Wylie, speech opening Governance Institute of Australia national conference. 29 November 2018)

Earbus Foundation of WA was set up to address ear disease in Aboriginal children in regional and remote WA. Our patron, Professor Harvey Coates AO, borrowed the Earbus idea from his native NZ. Like most great ideas it is inherently simple –disadvantaged groups with ear disease (Maori, Aboriginal, refugee kids etc.) typically have difficulty accessing mainstream services. So Earbus takes services to them – audiology, doctor, nurse, treatments, hearing tests, specialist consults, medications and more. It’s a free service for kids (and adults who reach out to us) delivered through schools, daycares and communities.

Earbus is built on values – clear, enduring and always front-of-mind; be open and honest, be loyal and supportive and be brilliant. These are the bedrock of our culture and all Earbus people must live them, not just nod in their general direction or applaud enthusiastically when they are mentioned.

My challenge as CEO is ensuring values are in our DNA and that we stay on mission. To paraphrase Wyllie – we are a servant organisation not a self-serving one. Is it simplistic to suggest that charities are one or the other? Part of our culture is zero tolerance for waste; most families and children we serve have very little, and sometimes they lack basic necessities. It ill behoves us to be wasting anything
when many of these children open an empty fridge in the morning hoping for breakfast. Our teams on the road share accommodation, cook our own meals and save every cent we can so what we have goes to children and communities.

A basic metric is how many kids do we help and how much we spend achieving outcomes. The first time I tried this simple calculation I was amazed – in 2019 we helped 12,357 kids at an average spend of $229 per child. The following year Earbus saw 13,083 kids at $253 a head. And last year the reach grew to 13, 407 kids at $252 each – the two most recent years being COVID disrupted!

It’s a gross measure so don’t overstate its nuances. But it reassures us we are on a mission and remain a servant organisation. John Wyllie’s sage advice – “Have a clear mission that’s all about who you serve that you can articulate in 20 seconds to a stranger, have great leadership from your board and management, have a great and positive culture, be lean, and assess honestly your impact, and you’ll be a long way down the path to success, fulfilment and feeling that it’s all worthwhile.” Amen to that.

Related: Charity scams on the rise

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Chief Executive Officer & Co-founder, Earbus Foundation of WA
Paul Higginbotham is a teacher of the deaf who commenced working in the field of hearing impairment in 1982. Paul holds a master's degree (Hons) in organisational leadership and opened and ran a language centre in Tokyo, Japan from 1991 to 1996. In 1997 he was appointed Principal of a school for deaf children in Perth and in November 2004 he became the CEO of a renamed Early Intervention Centre in Perth, a position he held until January 2013.

During a successful 15-year tenure, Paul oversaw a $15 million rebuild of the centre's campus; increased annual student throughput from under 100 children a year to over 11,000 per annum; added programs and services to reach every corner of Western Australia; and built a reputation for cutting edge excellence. Paul was also instrumental in lobbying state and federal politicians through the establishment of the Australian Collaboration on Hearing and Education (ACHE).

Paul served on the WA Newborn Hearing Screening Committee from 1998-2013; chaired the WA Special Needs Advisory Committee (SNAC) from 2003-2005; is a member of the WA Deafness Council Executive Committee; and in 2012 was the recipient of the Harry Blackmore Award for outstanding leadership in the field of childhood hearing impairment. He was a founding member of the Six Centre Alliance in 2003, which later became First Voice, an Australia-NZ alliance of early intervention centres specialising in childhood deafness and has presented at numerous state, national and international conferences.

Paul is dedicated to helping vulnerable kids learn through listening across the state of Western Australia through the work of Earbus Foundation, which will celebrate 10 years in 2023. Since commencement of outreach services in 2014, Earbus has delivered more than 100,000 occasions of care to Aboriginal and at-risk kids in regional and remote WA.


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