‘Stop talking ourselves down as a sector’

Julia Keady, CEO/Founder, Benefolk Fri, 5 Apr 2024 Estimated reading times: 4 minutes

Practices, mindset and behaviours that are needed to evolve for the NFP and charity sector – as voted by its leaders.

“We can’t go back!” were four words that cut through me like a knife in 2020, when 330 organisations participated in our RESET 2020 National Research Study on the impacts of the pandemic.

The phrase was deep in 19 pages of free-text responses to just one of the 40 questions. But they leapt off the page, an illustration of the desperate unheard pleas from many corners of our sector that were hoping to be heard.

“Another bloody survey, maybe someone will hear me this time” was the air of frustration that I could feel in the reams of responses.

“We can’t go back” became Benefolk’s (then The Xfactor Collective) rallying cry throughout 2020 and 2021, as we hoped that in a frantic time for our sector, our quiet voice could help bubble wellbeing governance to the surface as a priority to be addressed. I’m grateful that organisations like Equity Trustees and Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation also recognised the issue, joining our call for action.

Fast forward to October 2023 and the launch of The Community Well online resource hub. This was also when Australian Leadership Hub (formerly Australian Scholarships Foundation) launched the Outstanding Leadership in Wellbeing Governance NFP award, which also paid tribute to the voices from the 2020 RESET survey.

What’s energising now is that we are now moving towards practical action. The 2020 research identified the elephant in the room but in 2024, the collective voices calling for change are getting louder – a zeitgeist with Pay What It Takes, Re-Imagining Grantmaking, Uncharitable film screenings and most recently Reframe Overheads, which was launched at the FIA Conference last week.

What could practical action look like?
Benefolk’s ‘Reimagining Resilience’ event in October, attended by 170 NFP and charity leaders, was about sector leaders standing up together, sharing their voices, as well as taking ownership of the practices, mindset and behaviours that they will lead in three areas – in their own practice as leaders, in their organisation and then as a collective.

As part of the event, Benefolk Foundation director Wendy Scaife asked: “What are the three practices that the sector should START to enhance sector wellbeing and resilience, and the three practices the sector should STOP to improve wellbeing.”

The energy in the room was electric as leaders from charity CEO’s to grantmaking foundation CEOs, peak body CEOs and Mental Health Commissioners commented and upvoted each other’s responses in real-time. It would have been a challenge for anyone else to keep up, but Wendy Scaife elegantly provided commentary, weaving in her 30+ years of NFP sector know-how.

Attendees were invited to not only share their views, but also take one action from that day that they would implement that week in their organisation – hundreds of small but mighty steps toward a healthier, more sustainable future.

“Stop talking ourselves down as a sector”

The number one statement in the ‘Stop’ activity that was upvoted was “talking ourselves down as a sector”, shortly followed by “accepting funding that doesn’t cover the costs”, with “scarcity mindset”, “overloading position descriptions” and “underpaying staff” coming in after that.

Some of the consistently used words that came through (as you can see in the word bubble) were “counting, core, costs, busy, overloading, free, extra”, which gives you a sense of the commonality in the messages.


“Productivity metrics over hours worked” 

The number one statement upvoted in the ‘Start’ activity was “productivity metrics over hours worked”, followed by “professional development”, “let entrepreneurship shine over process”; “use the mental health continuum”; and “more women in leadership roles”. 

Some of the key words that came through in comments were “voices, valued, diversity, reflections, fun, time, profit, collaboration and space”.

There were hundreds of responses, which you can read in more detail on Benefolk’s website.

Taken together, these are commitments that could be developed further again around the key practices, mindset and behaviours that we urgently need to adopt as a sector. 

If I had to pick just one? It’s a tough call, but the one that resonates most with me personally is “start making wellbeing a system issue not an individual issue”. I continually see and hear our sector’s mental health and wellbeing being relegated to being about better self-care, that people “give too much of themselves”. It’s far more than that – but that’s for another article. 

So how can we change perceptions and take practical action?

Firstly, continue having the discussion – print the responses and talk about it as a team – both management and at your board. Make your own commitments to starting something and stopping something that will move the dial on sector wellbeing and resilience.

Secondly, we know there are organisations doing it well, who are investing in the systems, the processes, the resources – and many others that are taking small steps in the right direction. There’s much more to do as a sector but for now – let’s celebrate and acknowledge the leaders who are governing, monitoring and leading their teams for wellbeing outcomes

Finally, learn all you can about wellbeing and wellbeing governance. To help, Benefolk is running a couple of online workshops – one on understanding trauma and another on building a workplace wellbeing strategy. We’d love to share some of our expertise and invite you to register for these sessions to help inform your wellbeing practices.

Julia Keady is Founder and CEO of Benefolk (formerly The Xfactor Collective), a certified social enterprise and B-Corp that is fiercely dedicated to changemakers.

Benefolk connects not-for-profits, charities and impact-focused businesses to the very best support and expertise from a trusted and proven Network of consultants and professional service providers. Through the Benefolk Foundation – the only Australian charity focused on the wellbeing of those who volunteer and work in the social sector – the organisation provides resources and undertake advocacy to help all social changemakers achieve their mission without burning out.

Before starting Benefolk, Julia was the inaugural CEO of Women Donor’s Network and worked as a consultant and advisor to hundreds of charities and foundations. She has also served as a Director on several organisations so knows the challenges of being a changemaker. She set up Benefolk to have the support she wished she’d had in her years as a CEO.

Learn more at www.benefolk.org.