People with Purpose: Happiness truly matters for sick kids

Posted on 23 Feb 2024

By Greg Thom, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia

L Baxter Pink Bkgrd

For Starlight Children’s Foundation CEO Louise Baxter, putting a smile on the faces of sick children during one of the darkest times of their young lives makes it all worthwhile.

Tell us a little bit about your career background.

My experience spans three decades in senior roles in the commercial and not-for-profit sectors.

My career began in the flagship store of David Jones, and in a full circle moment, DJs now supports Starlight. I think this is where I developed a love and respect for great brands.

After this, I began my career in FMCG, marketing and advertising. I am always saying, behind every great brand is a great story, and everything you do either underpins or undermines your brand.

I’ve held senior positions working on major multinational local brands and government contracts including NSW Tourism, Roads & Traffic Authority, Proctor & Gamble (P&G), Arnott’s and more.

Now, as well as my current role as executive director and CEO of Starlight, I also hold NFP non-executive director positions on the boards of the Stanford Australia Foundation and the Community Council for Australia.

How did you come to be involved in the not-for-profit sector?

I often describe the moment I decided to join Starlight as a "moment of truth" deciding there must be something valuable and rewarding I could do with years of knowledge and skills in sales and marketing.

I first joined Starlight in corporate partnerships on a six-month maternity leave contract, thinking it would help me build additional skills. I ended up staying for a number of years. The impact of Starlight really resonated with me.

Eventually I was seeking a new challenge and left Starlight and returned to the corporate world. I’m a big believer in “It's okay to leave” if you need a new challenge.

I returned to take up my “dream job” as Starlight chief executive in May 2009. My time away from Starlight made me a better CEO when I returned 18 months later. The good news is I love what I do and continue to be challenged every day.

Often the perception in the for-purpose sector is it [moving to the not-for-profit sector] is a step into the slow lane. This could not be further from the truth. Business acumen is everything in this sector.

We need to be smart with our resources, be more efficient and constantly innovative. I describe it as “eternal start-up mode” and I love this about our sector. I’m proud of the fact Starlight was awarded Most Innovative Company (Government, Education and Not-for-Profit) by AFR in 2020.

During my time as CEO, I have prioritised diversity and equity throughout Starlight. We are now on our third Reconciliation Action Plan. We have also been announced as Best Place to Work for Women 2023, awarded as part of us being a “Great Place to Work 2023”.

Everything we do is based on positive psychology. We positively distract the children and young people we support.

What we do for sick kids, lifting their spirits through positivity, we do for our people. We practise this as part of the holistic care we provide for our people, to support their wellbeing and flourishing.

I practise positive leadership in everything I do, all the while championing innovation, creativity and inclusion to maximise Starlight’s impact. This has seen every business metric improve.

I am committed to supporting the growth of philanthropy in Australia and the role of civil society in ensuring we can all live in an inclusive, equitable and flourishing Australia.

"I am committed to supporting the growth of philanthropy in Australia and the role of civil society in ensuring we can all live in an inclusive, equitable and flourishing Australia."

Why Starlight?

All parents ever want for their children is for them to be happy and healthy. At the time of joining Starlight, I was a parent of two young boys myself.

The fact Starlight uses distraction in such a positive way, enabling seriously ill children to laugh when facing some of the biggest challenges, I always find inspiring.

Often, we see a child come into the hospital with their head down and shoulders down, with the weight of the world on their shoulders.

When they come into the Starlight Express room and begin to interact and engage with Starlight, you see them start to lift! To see this child, minutes later, roaring with laughter, forgetting where they are and why… it’s so powerful, and really connects with me personally.

Happiness in childhood is one of the biggest determinants of how we will perform as adults in education, socially, in employment and in long-term healthy life behaviours. Children are our future, and the health, happiness and overall wellbeing of all children is incredibly important.

Volunteering, giving back, fundraising and philanthropy were all a part of everyday life for me and for my family when I was a child. I headed up fundraising at school to get a bus to help to get kids (including myself) to the beach. When I left school, I volunteered for another charity and then again as a parent I led fundraising with my boys’ school.

So, you could say I have always had a passion for purpose and this shared passion is what binds us all at Starlight.

How does the Starlight Children’s Foundation make a difference to people's lives?

What we do is so simple yet so powerful.

Starlight brightens a seriously ill child’s life in the darkest of times. Starlight transforms the hospital experience, connects children who are feeling isolated and provides important moments of entertainment which lift the spirits of the child and brings fun, laughter, and joy.

A diagnosis of serious illness is life-changing for a child and their family.

Suddenly their world is filled with stress, pain and fear. Starlight helps by providing moments of positive distraction, supporting a child’s mental wellbeing while doctors focus on their treatment.

This builds resilience and supports their ability to cope. The more this concept of supporting a child’s “total health” is understood, the more Starlight is needed.

Starlight is embedded in the Australian healthcare system as an essential service. It’s now in every children’s hospital in Australia, supporting more than 140 Indigenous and remote clinics and communities, and known as Australia’s number one and most trusted children’s charity.

2009 Louise Baxter RAP 3rd Preference Head Shot 1

How do you maintain the daily motivation and drive required to run a successful not-for-profit organisation?

I always say if you love what you do, you will always have the energy to do what needs to be done. And I do.

I love people connecting and I am genuinely interested in people. Business is all about relationships and people. So, what I do plays to my strengths.

I call on my networks regularly for support and advice. We simply can’t do what we do alone. Starlight has some amazing donors, supporters and partners who enable us to achieve great things.

Starlight's focus on exceptional experiences and relationships has seen improvement across all key business metrics. I am also passionate about the creation of organisational purpose, and I believe this is key to delivering maximum impact through people.

Whilst I’m passionate about having purpose in our lives, it doesn’t necessarily mean every person who goes to work fulfils their purpose “at work”.

I think this is a common misconception. You don’t have to work in the for-purpose sector to necessarily fulfil your purpose.

I think as long as you are aligned with the values of your work and play to your skills with opportunities to be the best you can be… you can have passion projects and contribute to making the world a better place in many ways.

I see this example in some of our corporate partners. They have built amazing customer-centric businesses, and they love what they do, whilst supporting Starlight, the environment or whatever it is their aligned values lead them to support.

I am deeply, personally invested in Starlight’s vision, mission and purpose and committed to Starlight’s people, who are the driving force behind its impact. I am accountable for Starlight's performance in achieving its mission to brighten the lives of seriously ill kids.

For me, leadership is leaving people, places and projects better than you found them. I hope to be doing this every day.

I’m a big believer in the power of storytelling and this is something I reinforce daily.

I am guided by and believe in numbers and metrics but I’m inspired most by the children and families we support, and I share their stories to demonstrate Starlight’s impact at every opportunity.

I encourage my team to do the same. At Starlight we are all storytellers.

I practise positive leadership and have been successful in developing high performing teams within a culture where change is embraced, and innovation is embedded.

More People with purpose stories

Become a member of ICDA – it's free!