Stories in philanthropy

Helping new leaders add value

DAVID Knowles’ epiphany came some years ago during a Melbourne conference when a visiting US academic asked some community organisation delegates to share their mission statement.

One organisation demurred – it didn’t have a mission statement, but it did have a “tombstone”, a form of words that was intended to convey how the organisation wanted history to record what it had done, rather than what it aspired to do. The idea stayed with Knowles and when he and Chris Wilson joined the not for profit investment advisory outfit (and NSW Philanthropy Australia member) Koda Capital four years ago, Knowles realised that for them, the tombstone statement would be: “We gave something meaningful back to the community sector.” 

Two years ago, the “tombstone” started to take on a life of its own, when Knowles, Wilson and Farial Ameen began work on what has become Plus One, an innovative approach to developing leadership skills in the charity sector by providing access to some of corporate Australia’s best professional development programs.

At its heart was a recognition that many charities either can’t afford to develop their talent or can’t justify spending what money they have on the kind of leadership development that requires an extensive time commitment. The goal is to increase charities’ leadership capacity, build their organisation’s long-term effectiveness and increase collaboration between charities and corporates.

“This personal initiative by members of Koda’s Philanthropy and Social Capital Team has grown out of their work and the firm’s focus on providing specialist advice to not only non-profit organisations and philanthropists, but also high net wealth families and company executives,” Knowles explained.

The Plus One program offers 10 not-for-profit leaders the opportunity to become part of pre-existing corporate professional development programs offered at the Commonwealth Bank, PwC Australia, MinterEllison, Westpac, the Macquarie Group, Lendlease, Kaplan Professional, Allianz and the Downer Group. Knowles is thrilled that the corporates he approached were immediately enthusiastic about the new scheme.

The successful applicants will become the “plus one” in each program for 12 months from August and have access to a dedicated coach, provided by IECL by GrowthOps, four months of additional cohort activity and specific digital offerings that draw on sector-specific research and thinking. And there are significant networking opportunities that go with the program are available to every applicant. It’s all free.

The 10 successful leaders will be drawn from 100 applicants, and the 90 who do not get the opportunity to become the “plus one’’ will be able to take part in specially designed training sessions delivered by companies including Atlassian. In the Plus One approach, no one misses out.

“We often take our leadership training opportunities for granted,” Knowles says. “I had training at Harvard, and Merrill Lynch’s Princeton campus: I knew the value of that experience and the penny dropped, that we needed to offer that kind of opportunity to charities.”

The leadership challenge in the broader not-for-profit sector has been alive for many years. Nine years ago, the Productivity Commission observed: “[M]anagement in the NFP sector is often made up of service delivery employees looking for career advancement who may not necessarily have sufficient management skills. Leadership capacity can determine the success or failure of an NFP.”

Knowles believes that historically many funders prioritised supporting their chosen cause ahead of developing their organisation. “During the past decade in the philanthropic space there’s been a move to try to re-educate funders that if you want effective charities, you need to invest in the organisations as you would in any other business,” Knowles explains.

“The issue has been that most people don’t see charities as “other businesses”.”

Enter Plus One to help capture the change in thinking. Knowles, who has more than 25 years’ experience of wealth management in the UK and Australia, believes the exchange of information in the new program will go both ways. “Corporate staff will learn from charities’ people – it will help to break down some of the myths about charities,” Knowles says. “It’s true that the challenges charities’ leaders face are as great or greater than those faced by the corporates.”

The application process is now open and will close once there are 100 applicants or by June 12, whichever comes first. The successful 10 Plus One cohort will be selected by a panel made up of Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie, Luminis Partners co-chairman Simon Mordant and Australian Scholarships CEO Samantha Sayers. The inaugural program will be Sydney-based so interstate applicants need to be available for travel to Sydney. Knowles is optimistic that the future iterations of Plus One will be extended to other capitals.

The program features extensive consultation and research engagement with charities, academics and advisors to arrive at the content that focusses on “people, strategy and operations”. There is a fourth element that goes along with those – a flexible option that will give corporates the chance to explore the notion of “we don’t know what we don’t know” about the sector and to consider sector needs that will form part of the dialogue.

All of which adds up to a tombstone that Knowles hopes will be a testament to his team’s legacy of making a difference.

Charities can submit applications on behalf of a permanent employee who may not yet be in an executive leadership position but has the potential to take on such a role within three years.

Information and applications at

By Nick Richardson, Philanthropy Australia's Storyteller

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