People with Purpose: Finding a way forward to fiscal fairness

Posted on 11 Mar 2024

By Greg Thom, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia

Fiona Guthrie CEO Way Forward

A passion for ensuring people in financial distress are treated fairly has driven Fiona Guthrie, the CEO of debt relief agency Way Forward, throughout her career.

Tell us a little bit about your career background.

My first proper job after uni – many years ago now – was with ANZ. On maternity leave from there with my first child, I started volunteering as a financial counsellor at Caxton Legal Centre in Brisbane. That experience changed my life.

I was shocked by the unethical practices of so many lenders and the impact this had on people’s lives.

I remember a client who was feeding her children on two-minute noodles because a debt collector had told her that they could take them away if she didn’t pay her partner’s debts. That was a lie, of course.

From then on, I became increasingly involved with consumer advocacy on a voluntary basis, including through the Consumers’ Federation of Australia. I wanted to fix the system.

In my work life, as my children grew, I ran a small management consultancy business specialising in facilitation and policy development and evaluations. I’ve also had a few short stints in government, including in a state minister’s office.

The thread running through all my work has been fairness. I hate seeing people treated unfairly.

What was the biggest lesson you learned from your 15 years leading Financial Counselling Australia?

There were lots of lessons, not just one!

If you’re involved in consumer advocacy, a key lesson is “Never give up.”

Sometimes change can be hard and take a long time, but persistence and patience will often get you there in the end.

Another is the importance of relationships and treating people with courtesy, respect and kindness. That means everyone, including those with whom you may disagree.

Finally, I like this saying from Napoleon Bonaparte: “A leader is a dealer in hope.”

"We know that financial stress has a devastating impact on so many aspects of a person’s life, including their mental health, physical health and relationships."

Has access to financial counselling never been more important than during the current cost-of-living crisis?

I’ve always thought of financial counselling as an essential service.

We know that financial stress has a devastating impact on so many aspects of a person’s life, including their mental health, physical health and relationships.

Access to financial counselling can mean the difference between someone being able to put a roof over their head and food on the table and not being able to.

But having said all that, we need to remember that we have to address the root causes of financial disadvantage. A lack of affordable housing and inadequate social security benefits are pernicious problems and these need to be addressed.

Way Forward CEO Fiona Guthrie.

How would you describe the purpose of Way Forward?

Way Forward is a free service that helps people get back on top of unmanageable debt.

The service is aimed at people who can pay some of their debts but not all of them.

Once our staff have worked with our client to understand what they can afford to pay, we work with the person’s creditors to negotiate affordable payment arrangements.

Clients then make one payment to Way Forward and we distribute this to creditors. This makes debt so much easier to manage.

Many financial counsellors refer their clients to Way Forward as it is another option in the financial counselling armoury.

What do you hope to achieve in your new role as CEO at Way Forward?

Way Forward was founded about five years ago.

It now has a really solid foundation and my job is to help the service reach its full potential. There are thousands of people who could benefit from access to Way Forward.

We want them to find us, not stay trapped in a cycle of debt or end up with some of the predatory lenders or debt management firms out there – which will just leave them worse off.

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