People with Purpose: From high-flying travel to high-flying advocacy

Posted on 01 Jun 2024

By Greg Thom, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia

CCA Partnerships Manager Deborah Smith

After travelling the world, Community Council for Australia partnerships manager Deborah Smith set her sights on helping make Australia a better place.

Tell us a little about your career.

It started with two dreams.

One was to follow in the footsteps of some of the amazing teachers who had opened my eyes to the world and its possibilities.

The other was for a small-town girl to go see the world.

I ended up combining the two (sort of) in a 10-year career at Qantas many years ago, the highlight of which was training customer service staff mostly around Australia, Asia and the Pacific.

Living out of a suitcase but spending time with locals for a week or two as part of my job meant I had colleagues and friends from Mumbai to Perth, Fukuoka to Nairobi, Suva to Sydney. My travelling days taught me a simple truth – it’s the people we connect with, not the places we go, that is the real joy.

How did you come to work in the not-for-profit, charity and community sector?

By accident. Moving to Canberra, with family in tow, I applied for one role and was offered a different one (managing the health consumer representative program at the Consumers Health Forum of Australia).

I had never heard of a consumer representative – but wow, what a privilege and an honour to support the work of these amazing volunteers working tirelessly to bring lived experience to making the health system do what it is supposed to: work better for – and work better with – consumers (patients, carers and their families).

Working with one of the extraordinary leaders in the charities and NFP sector, Carol Bennett, I learned about the power of policy and advocacy grounded in evidence and the experience of people and community. I also learned about the perverse power and influence of private vested interests and industry groups in a political system that is supposed to focus on public benefit.

Working in this sector puts you at the intersection of the kind of society we want to live in (our values and aspirations) and the reality of the kind of society we currently are, with all its flaws, missed opportunity and self-interest.

APH 17 May
Deb with other sector change-makers at the inaugural CCA-sponsored, climate-change-focused COP31 meeting at Parliament House, Canberra.
"Imagine if every Australian was involved with a charity, a community group and volunteering. That’s a future worth imagining – and working towards – which is why I feel honoured and privileged to play a small role in supporting the work of CCA."

How would you describe your current role?

A couple of whistle-stops after CHF, I found myself at the Community Council for Australia. Lucky me!

Instead of working with one extraordinary change-making leader, I began working with 80 or so, and their teams. These are the CEOs and leading charity organisations that are making it their business to try to influence a better future for the charities and NFP sector.

They invest precious resources and their leadership in supporting policy and advocacy on the big issues impacting charities and community groups, their work, their impact, their sustainability and ultimately the contribution our sector can make to causes and communities.

Regulation, funding, giving, the way governments work with the sector, workforce, volunteering, advocacy, digital capacity and transformation, resilience and supporting communities in a climate-changing world are all part of the CCA agenda.

My role as partnerships manager is to support this work to strengthen our sector and our communities – working with partners and drawing on the collective leadership that is the CCA membership.

What's your biggest frustration in trying to bring about positive change?

As (Community Council for Australia CEO) David Crosbie has been known to say, “that good work is not enough”.

Our sector changes lives and futures – but it seems repeatedly that we are not valued or prioritised in the same way as government or business when it comes to investing in meaningful reform and support that would build the capacity of our sector.

Also, that it’s too cheap, too easy and frustratingly effective to feed fear and division as a political tactic. I want a society and a robust political discourse from across the political spectrum that’s better than that.

What do you find most rewarding about working in the sector?

The idea of what’s possible, and the magic of charities and community groups in enabling every single one of us to contribute to creating the kind of Australia and the kind of future we want.

Find the cause and the values that align with the change you want to see in the world and get involved, through work, through giving, through volunteering or through fronting up to a trivia night or a fun run.

Imagine if our sector could realise the full potential of its change-making resources (organisational capability, experience, community connection and expertise) because policy, regulations and the way funders worked with the sector genuinely valued and enhanced our sector and its capacity.

Imagine if every Australian was involved with a charity, a community group and volunteering. That’s a future worth imagining – and working towards – which is why I feel honoured and privileged to play a small role in supporting the work of CCA.

Oh – and the people I get to work with are pretty inspirational too!

More People with purpose stories

Become a member of ICDA – it's free!