Mother-in-law knows best

Michael Randall OAM was “nudged” into volunteering by his mother-in-law. But he grew to love it. He’s been on the board of directors for both Cottage by the Sea and Variety – the Children’s Charity Victoria for many years now. Read about his volunteer work and why he thinks if you’re a board member, you better be doing something useful and not just using the title as a resume enhancer!

Why did you start volunteering for Cottage by the Sea? (We hear it’s a funny story).

It all started with me proposing to my wife, Nikki. She’s an only child, and I got along really well with her father, but her mother, Wendy, was a bit reserved about me. She soon realised I wasn’t going away and decided to test me as a future son-in-law.

The test involved asking me to do some fundraising for her chosen charity, Cottage by the Sea. The Cottage is a non-profit children’s charity in Queenscliff that supports disadvantaged young people by giving them fun and supportive seaside holidays.

Wendy’s idea for a fundraiser was to organise a film night at the local theatre, and when I asked how much she thought we’d make, she said a couple of thousand dollars. I told her I’d think about it. On the drive home, I said to Nikki, I think we can do better than that!

We assembled a committee of 12 fun and creative people. Every Tuesday night we’d meet at ours for soup, bread and wine and plan out the event. In the end, we organised a fundraising dinner four years in a row at the Powerhouse in Albert Park Lake. The event comprised a bunch of all the committee’s friends getting together and enjoying live music, a raffle and auction. In those four years, we raised $60,000 for the Cottage By The Sea. Much better than a film night!

And you fundraised for the Cottage for several years?

Yes indeed. I wanted to ensure I’d have a good relationship with my mother-in-law for the rest of our lives! So, I organised fundraisers like tennis days in those early years. And my volunteer work evolved as I joined the board of directors. When I met the staff and the kids we helped, Cottage by the Sea became a passion for me.

My passion has always been about kids and helping organisations that don’t get a lot of government support. I like to help those organisations grow by setting up foundations and providing investment and financial advice to increase their income.

I look back in hindsight, and my life was, and still is, pretty good. You see a lot of kids who have fallen through the cracks along the way, and that is what keeps my passion going – I  contribute to them having a better life.

How did the board appointment come about?

After the success of our fundraising dinners, Wendy came and asked me to join Cottage’s board. At the time, the board was represented entirely ofwomen in their 60s, and I was the first guy invited in. I was in my mid-30s at this point, and honestly, I didn’t know what I was doing, but I accepted her invitation.

That first board meeting went for four hours, and I thought, if it keeps on going like that, this will be a disaster! Two months later, my mother-in-law retired, and I think I was part of her strategy to put new influence on the board. I did enjoy working with those women though, and I’m still here 24 years later. In that time, I have served as president and treasurer.

Ten years ago, I turned my focus to growing the organisation. While we love the day-to-day donors, who are so generous to Cottage by the Sea, I wanted us to be less reliant on them. So, I set up a foundation for the charity which is now significant and provides a lot of income to offset the management of operations. I’m the chairman of this foundation, and that’s predominately my role now.

I have three other board members involved in the foundation. We meet quarterly and report back to the board on how investments are tracking.

You’ve been known to drop into the Cottage on your holidays? You can’t get away from it!

I love visiting, and I’m lucky we have a holiday house near the Cottage. I’ll be on the beach, and sometimes I say to my wife: I think I’m going to drop in on the Cottage and see what’s happening. When I was president, Nikki and I would often drop in, have a cup of coffee with the staff and talk to the kids. It’s fun.

You were also a founding director of the Financial Services Foundation which has helped raise substantial funds for children’s charities. What sort of fundraising activity do you undertake through this body?  

About 18 years ago I set up the Financial Services Foundation with another stockbroker. We got another three people involved, and we organised an annual gala ball 12 years running to raise money for charity. Originally the anchor charity was the Cottage, but that grew to include Variety, Camp Quality, Epic and the Royal Children’s Hospital amongst others.

Over the 12 years,the gala ball raised about $1.2 million, which we distributed to all those charities. It was quite an achievement. The foundation is on the shelf for the moment as we were all exhausted after so many years!

You have had a busy career as a stockbroker for the past 30 years including senior roles with UBS and Macquarie Wealth. Now you’re a partner in Randall Daish, your own stockbroking business. How do you make time for your volunteer commitments when you have a busy job?

I’ve been working for myself now for five years, and it’s probably more relaxed now than what it was. When you work for those big organisations, there’s a lot of pressure from up top to deliver a result day in and day out. Working for myself isstill challenging but far less pressure from the top!

For me, it’s about time management and making sure I have enough time to do the reading for board meetings and attend them.

The Macquarie executive was incredibly supportive of the gala balls I organised for the Financial Services Foundation. They would buy half a dozen tables and fill them up with the staff. While they are sometimes in the news for the wrong reasons, Macquarie is very philanthropic, and they were always generous and supportive of what I was doing for the foundation.

Right now, I’m juggling board work for Cottage and Variety, and I’m also a volunteer investment advisor for the Royal Australian College of Surgeons Foundation. There’s a lot of report reading to do, but I’m used to this from my day job.

My passion is the charities I’m involved with. They carry a fair bit of weight in my life, and I’m happy with that.

You also volunteer with Variety – the Children’s Charity of Victoria, another great charity that helps disadvantaged kids with grants, scholarships and empowerment programs. How did this come about and what do you do for them?

I first met the CEO of Variety when they became one of the charities we supported through the Financial Services Foundation. About eight years ago, they invited me to join their board. Like I did at the Cottage, I established a foundation for them to raise funds. It’s now well underway.

My expertise is stockbroking and financial services experience, so I like to put these skills to good use.

I’ve been involved one way or another with Variety for about 15 years now. I continue to fundraise for their annual Bash. This is Australia’s largest and longest running charity motoring event, and you drive for several days around the Australian outback. We’ve driven to Broome, Townsville, etc. The cars have to be at least 30 years old and capable of cruising on gravel roads for long distances. I’ve been on a few bashes, and I’ve met some extraordinary people. It’s a hoot.

I also like to support their Eat Street event at the Sofitel Hotel every May. You pay for a ticket and get to sample this fantastic food at these 30 restaurant pop-ups. There are drinks and music, and it’s very enjoyable.

My focus more recently is the foundation I’ve set up for Variety to help raise funds. I’m keen to get it to such a level I can step back and say, I’ve done my job and this is how we manage it going forward.

What are the joys and challenges as a volunteer?

For me, I don’t think there are any significant challenges. But there are joys. I have kids coming up to me all the time, and they have no boundaries. I remember one kid who was staying at the Cottage. He was this little guy of about 10, and he was introduced to me. Well, he just started hugging me in his excitement. I thought wow, I’ve known you for 10 seconds, and you’re just so pleased to be here. That’s very rewarding for me.

What’s your most poignant volunteer story?

We have a fete every January down at the Cottage. I often collect toys or clothes throughout the year, store them at home in Melbourne, and then drop them off at the Cottage. My kids are now in their 20s, and they’ve been through plenty of toys, so I would often add their old toys to the collection. One time there was a tiny plastic trumpet amongst the toys.

When I got to the Cottage, some Sudanese refugees were helping out, and a little boy came up and asked if he could help me sort through the toys. Well, he was more of a hindrance than a help, but he was delightful. He pulled out the trumpet and asked if he could play it. And I said yes, give it a blow. He did and then asked if he could have it. I said sure, and his eyes lit up. He was so happy to have this old plastic toy. I still get emotional thinking about it.

Any tips on how to get on a charity board?

Find a mother-in-law! Seriously, I’ve thought long and hard about this. I’m a member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, and there are lots of opportunities published through their website. It’s an excellent place to start.

How do you encourage other board members to get involved in fundraising?

If you’re going to get involved at board level, it’s essential to be part of the charity’s journey, not take a back seat role or be there for the title on your resume. Otherwise, there’s no point in being involved.

I’ve been known to put subtle pressure on Cottage by the Sea and Variety board members to attend events and to put some money in. I always tell them it would be great to see them at this event, we’re here to raise funds, and we need you to be involved.

I don’t expect board members to rock up to every event, but they should make an effort to attend when possible.

There’s a Variety board member who’s incredibly philanthropic, and he asked me the first year I joined the board if I had been on one of their bashes. I said no, and he said, next year, you’re coming in my car. There was no will you come in my car? It was practically an order!

I knew I couldn’t disappoint him, so I fundraised and went along in his car. We filled in a lot of the time talking about Variety and what we wanted to accomplish for them.

With Variety, there are 60 to 80 cars taking part in the Victoria Bash, and they raise approximately $1.5 million a year. This taught me that board members should be out there participating and having an input. There’s no point in being a silent board member.

You received an OAM in 2014 for services to disadvantaged children. How did you feel about receiving such an honour?

I still wonder why they chose me!  I love my volunteer work, and I’m happy doing it. But I’ve met many other volunteers who do an enormous amount of work, and often I think they are more deserving.

But since I received the honour, I try and use it as much as I can for the benefit of the charities I serve. If I have to use the OAM to push a point for a cause, I will!

You’ve given your time, fundraising and investment skills to several charities. Have you picked up some skills in return?

It has been rewarding to meet people from different walks of life. Along the way, I’ve learned to be more cautious in my board work. I try not to speak out too loudly or too quickly, but to digest the opinions of others. I’ve learned I’m not the only one with views!

In my younger years, I was pretty vocal and forthright. When I first joined Cottage by the Sea’s board, I was pretty candid about where I thought they should be going as I thought I should be changing the world.

But then I started thinking, maybe I should take a breath and go along with the ride instead of trying to drive all the time. That’s what I learned: to listen better and respect others’ opinions. It took me a while as I tend to have firm beliefs, but I got there in the end!

How do you sell the concept of volunteering to others?

Volunteering shouldn’t be a one-off. It’s a long-term commitment, with no half measure. You’re in it, boots and all, or you don’t get involved. I think if people see you volunteering and enjoying your time, they might start thinking about what they can do to help.

You have two daughters. Do you encourage them to volunteer?

They have long been aware of my volunteer work, and I’m always encouraging them to give back. They are very kind and thoughtful girls, and they are supportive of kids who haven’t had a privileged life like theirs. They have stepped up with charity fundraisers for their schools, always suggesting money raised went to the Cottage by the Sea! They have also helped set up a Variety event.

Right now, both girls are studying, and then they will have to think about getting a job and getting their life going. I didn’t start volunteering until I was in my mid-30s myself, so it’s when they are ready. The main thing is for them to enjoy volunteer work and be committed. 

One final question, how do you and your mother-in-law get on these days?

We get along very well and have for many years. Luckily for me, I turned that situation around!

Click on the links to find out more about Cottage by the Sea and Variety – the Children’s Charity Victoria