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Outside your comfort zone: How community groups can drive change and increase their impact

From the institute's member publication Board Builder

It's tricky knowing where to start when it comes to introducing Holly Ransom, a graduate of our Diploma of Business (Governance).

Holly might be just 27, but she's already led large-scale change in the corporate, not-for-profit and government worlds; is CEO of her own company (Emergent Solutions); was asked by the Prime Minister to chair the G20 Youth Summit; authored a paper on youth entrepreneurs and jobs for the United Nations; has been named among the "100 Women of Influence"; counts Virgin entrepreneur Richard Branson as a supporter; was elected as the world's youngest Rotary president; and delivered a peace charter to the Dalai Lama.

Did we mention that she was a top-10 finisher for her age group in her most recent Ironman endurance triathlon (3.8km swim, 42km run and 180km ride)?

Oh, and she's on the board of the Port Adelaide AFL team, as their youngest ever director, and sits on the board of other not-for-profits, government entities, and private companies.

It's a defining characteristic of this dynamic operator that where others see barriers, Holly sees challenge and opportunity. And it's that attitude that saw her speaking about leading change at our 2016 Communities in Control conference.

Holly overflows with insights about transforming organisations and how to tackle resistance, outmoded attitudes, limited resources and a rapidly changing world.

We spoke to her about the challenges for not-for-profit directors.

Holly Ransom

Holly Ransom

Tell us about one of the big challenges for community groups.

HR: One thing we're dealing with across the board is the disintegration of trust. We're fortunate in the community space to be facing that far less than those in corporate and government sectors but just being an institutional name or having worked in the space for 50 years doesn't buy us the credibility in the community that it once did. What does buy you credibility is continued commitment to asking: "Who am I seeking to serve? What does that mean I need to deliver? And how do we finance and build the partners ... to be able to support the delivery of that?"

But how can community groups deliver with limited resources?

HR: It's very easy to sit there and say, "Oh, but ..." and list all the reasons why you can't move, or do things differently, or change up the way you work.  

The core for every organisation is: What's our mission? What are we here to achieve? What's the absolute best way we can deliver on that mission? And, understanding that as the community evolves, as the people we're seeking to support evolve, our operation has to evolve as well.

You don't need to be working on "x scale" to have impact - whether it's $2 million or $20 million, it's just critical that you're thinking about how you become resourceful with what you're capable of doing, and you're looking for inspiration. That might be from other industries, or from other parts of the not-for-profit sector.

Another sensitive topic in the community landscape is (the) enormous number of non-profits within Australia - we've got about 650,000. There are obviously opportunities to think how some of those merge, how joint ventures are stepped into, and how you collaborate ... with government or corporate groups.

What can community directors achieve that others can't?

HR: The amazing thing about being a community director is the opportunity to have an enormous level of impact and support for an issue that you really passionately care about.

They have the opportunity to think about creative ways of leveraging resources and being able to garner support, and deliver services or advocacy - whatever the role of a particular community organisation - to be able to drive impact, and lift the standards of living in our community.

Community directors (and) the organisations themselves are closer to the issues, and tend to have a more direct interaction with the people that they're seeking to support.

How did doing the Ironman change your thinking?

HR: For me it was wanting to sink my teeth into an audacious challenge and see if I could pull something like that off; having only decided to pull the trigger on racing 100 days out, at a time when I probably couldn't have run 10km, and hadn't been on a bike for five or six years.

But that's often the landscape you can find yourself in. You could have been newly appointed to an organisation, and you've have an ambitious target for the first 100 days in the hot seat, as a new CEO or chair of the board. How do you go on that journey of rapidly transforming your reality? What does it feel like? What are the strategies you need to employ? What is the psychology you work through? And can you pull something like that off, when it's completely out of your comfort zone or even sphere of possibility at the starting point?

It's honestly one of the best things I've ever done in terms of the learning curve around resilience, motivation and understanding an entirely new subject matter.

Getting comfortable contending with uncertainty in a "stretch environment", particularly when the world is changing so rapidly, is a core competency that I think all directors need to build.

Why did you decide to do the diploma?

HR: I'm blessed to call Carol Schwartz (chair of Our Community) one of my mentors. She's someone whose impact across every sector is an enormous source of inspiration. I'm a big believer in sitting at the feet of people you admire, and asking: "What can I do to improve and grow my ability to have a positive impact in the spheres I'm working in and the community I live in and love?"

And Carol's big suggestion - particularly since I was a director on a number of non-profit boards - was to take the diploma on.

You'll get the opportunity to build a network of community directors. You'll have the ability to have some focussed time under the guidance of a really experienced facilitator; going through the nature of different challenges and responsibilities you need to be alive to, and need to be able to handle and think through. And this program is tailored to the needs of community organisations and community directors.

How did you find the time to do it?

I would say while it's great to be busy in an organisation, it's critical that every year you're building your capacity to have more impact, and to deepen your understanding and your contribution.

If you're picking up this magazine, you're probably the sort of person who is thinking: "What can I be doing this year, to ensure that our organisation is able to think through the challenge we're going through, or maximise the opportunity that we have?"


Follow @HollyRansom | Emergent Global

The Diploma of Business (Governance) is Australia's only currently approved diploma-level governance qualification.

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