Five minutes with…Ursula Stephens, FIA Code Authority Chair

We spent time with Ursula Stephens, inaugural Chair of the FIA Code Authority. We talked about her diverse career, challenges and opportunities for the fundraising sector, what the Code Authority has been up to and why she’s running as Labor’s candidate for Goulburn in the 2019 NSW election.

You’ve been a teacher, small business operator and social entrepreneur. You were also elected to the Australian Senate for NSW. Tell us about these roles and how you came to have such a diverse career.

When we emigrated from Ireland to Australia, I don’t think anyone in the family thought there’d be a politician in their mix. My dad was a mechanic and my mum was a nurse. There were seven children and my parents decided there wasn’t a future for us in Ireland.

I grew up on the NSW North Coast. I won a teaching scholarship, got my degree and worked as a primary school teacher for many years, including two years in the Northern Territory.

This is when I first volunteered in the community sector. At the local crèche, there was an adult education program and I volunteered as a literacy tutor to Aboriginal women and helped to organise the local folk festival – the kinds of community involvement that makes you realise the importance of social capital in sustaining communities.

We returned to NSW in the mid-1980s when it was time for the kids to go to school. By then, I was actively involved in politics. My husband Bob had been a candidate for the Labor Party and the-then Premier, Neville Wran, told me to consider politics. When I was appointed to the Rural Assistance Authority and the Board of Vocational Education and Training, I made connections with organisations such as the CWA, the co-operative movement, and several industry-skills bodies. I saw how entrepreneurship and collaboration could really make a difference in communities.

Things moved along. I set up my own training and development business and continued my involvement with politics and community organisations. Then, in 2001, I was elected to the Senate and served there until July 2014.

When did you become involved in the non-profit sector?

I think I’ve always been involved informally, through church and community activities and work. My first formal connection with the sector itself was through work I was part of in formalising accreditation for crèches in the Northern Territory. That took me into governance issues and the formalities of accreditation. Once I started my PhD research into regional community development, I became connected to a range of not-for-profit organisations and peak bodies that were being challenged by tendering for service delivery contracts and the regulations around that.

What are the current challenges and opportunities facing the non-profit sector?

As I see them, the challenges would be:

  • the competitive market model and balancing that with people-centred service delivery
  • sustaining organisations when the block-funding model disappears
  • the importance of organisations being able to identify and communicate the social value and impact the sector makes in society.

The opportunities include:

  • government and community interest in innovation
  • the sector’s preparedness to promote and explore that innovation
  • interest in ‘new economy’ thinking and investment again in delivering outcomes through collaboration and wraparound services.

What about the challenges for fundraisers?

The fundraising sector is under very close scrutiny by both government regulators and the community. So, I think maintaining integrity in fundraising practices and the trust of donors is always the biggest challenge. Those within the fundraising realm understand the real costs of fundraising while most in the community don’t. That is a continuing issue.

The second challenge I see is the growth in citizen-developed fundraising and how that reflects on the entire fundraising sector. There are so many online platforms for donations to causes, movements and campaigns, and whilst none of these people or organisations may be members of FIA, it is to FIA that people will complain if they see something untoward.

At the same time, these platforms also create an opportunity for new fundraising strategies for FIA members.

The complex regulatory environment, which helps to maintain the integrity of the sector, is also an opportunity. Developing professional qualifications in fundraising, raising the bar on ethical fundraising, supply chain management, privacy matters and growing personal philanthropy are key opportunities for the sector in the future.

When you were invited by FIA to chair its Code Authority, what attracted you to the role?

I had previous involvement with FIA through the work I led on the National Compact, fundraising regulation and the not-for-profit sector. The establishment of the Code Authority was an important decision by the FIA Board. When invited to become the Chair, I recognised the Board’s commitment to taking a critical next step in ensuring best practice standards in the sector. The Code Authority is about changing behaviours and maintaining standards through self-regulation and responding to consumer concerns.

The Code Authority has been running for over a year now. What stands out as its major accomplishment to date? What other work needs to be done?

This has been a busy first year. Thanks to the experienced members of the Code Authority, we’ve already been able to undertake significant monitoring of the sector. We targeted three key areas of concern:

  • how FIA members solicit donations from young people and those in vulnerable circumstances
  • the engagement of FIA members in the online training for the Code, which is now mandatory
  • the integrity of supply chains in ensuring awareness of and adherence to the Code, as defined in the online training, and the associated practice notes.

What is your greatest personal achievement?

I think to be the first woman ever elected as President of the NSW Branch of the Labor Party and to hold that position during some tough times. I learnt a lot about managing egos and the art of negotiation during those days!

Two years ago, you were one of 12 Irish-Australian women to receive an award for achievements in politics and the trade union movement. How have Irish-Australian women contributed to Australian society overall?

There’s a very long answer to that question!

Irish-born immigrants and their descendants have been a feature of the Australian population since the arrival of the First Fleet. Before the large-scale European and English immigration of the post-1945 decades, the Irish formed about a third of the Australian population. Australia remains the most Irish country in the world outside Ireland. The contribution of Irish-Australian women to Australia’s evolving cultural, economic, political and social life has been of central significance.

You’re the Labor Party’s candidate for Goulburn, the most crucial area for Labor to win. Why the return to politics now?

Yes, I’ve been endorsed as Labor’s candidate for Goulburn at the March 2019 election. I see myself as a changemaker and activist. This election is going to be critical for NSW, just as the federal election later in the year will be. I can’t just stand by and throw bombs from the sidelines: I need to be in there to be part of the change!

What do you think you’ll be doing in 10 years’ time?

Goodness, me, in 10 years I hope I will be alive and well, still involved in politics and community life, sitting in the sunshine, enjoying life with my family and friends.

You’ve got a lot on the go! What do you do in your (limited) spare time?

I used to belong to a community choir, but I’ve missed too many rehearsals to keep up.  Mostly now, I like to lose myself in a good book.