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Leadership WA Spotlight Series

Nick Wood is COO and CFO of the Telethon Kids Institute. He is Chair of Gowrie Western Australia and an Alumni of Leadership WA’s Signature Leadership Program.

As COO and CFO of the Telethon Kids Institute, Nick Wood gets to go to work every day knowing he’s helping with what he sees as one of the most worthy social causes: discovering causes, cures and treatments for the illnesses and disorders that afflict children and young people.  However, he’s not wearing a white coat in the lab; he’s behind the scenes, working with a dedicated team of professionals that support some of Australia’s best and brightest child health researchers.

The Telethon Kids Institute is a world class medical research institute located here in Western Australia.  With more than 700 researchers and professional staff, the Institute is at the forefront of global child health research and has the track record to prove it.

Since joining Telethon Kids at the end of 2014, Nick has worked closely with the Board and senior executive team to lead an organisational transformation process with the objective of becoming the ‘medical research institute of the future’.

“Telethon Kids exists to undertake great research that improves the health and development of children.  Delivering on our mission requires outstanding researchers that are leaders in their fields, supported by high calibre professional staff.  We also need world class research facilities and access to cutting edge technology.  And we must be financially sustainable.”

Achieving long term financial viability is one of the significant challenges facing the medical research sector in Australia.  Changes in the funding environment have meant that income is increasingly hard to come by and research institutes can no longer depend on government grants to sustain their operations.  More and more, the focus is on revenue diversification and cost management.

But it’s not only medical research institutes that are grappling with this issue.   According to Nick, all not-for-profits are faced with the same challenge and must take control of their financial destiny if they are to deliver on their mission.  Such a task requires a new way of thinking for boards and senior management.  Good business strategies, building commercial acumen, developing new income streams and creating operational efficiencies are now critical areas of focus.

One of the first obstacles for not-for-profits is changing the culture within the sector that has traditionally viewed profit as a dirty word.

Being not-for-profit doesn’t mean not making a financial surplus; rather it is a reflection of where retained earnings are deployed – reinvested back into the organisation to continue carrying out its mission.  For not-for-profits, making money means staying open for business in the long term.  And it also translates into having the capacity to maximise their social impact and relevance to the benefit of the community they serve.

A further challenge confronting not-for-profits is addressing the power imbalance between those that provide funding and those that seek it to deliver quality community and social services.  Misconceptions within government and the private sector about the costs of delivering services by not-for-profits often result in systemic underfunding of the sector.  It can also lead to funders seeking more outcomes for less funding.  Many not-for-profits have been complicit in validating these misconceptions by participating in bidding wars for funding, driven by the fear of missing out on vital funding.  Typically, this mindset is borne out in a race to the bottom on price when competing with other organisations for the same pot of money.  This mentality more often than not results in critical services being delivered through an unsustainable financial model that leads to zero or negative net margins.

“Sadly, preconceived notions about the true costs of delivering services by not-for-profits remain pervasive in government and private sectors, which has weakened the third sector and jeopardized the ongoing survival of many organisations.  Ultimately, the dysfunctional cycle of underfunding not-for-profits is to the detriment of the wider community given the increasing reliance on these organisations to help in resolving serious social problems and satisfying unmet community needs”.

“Changing the incorrect perceptions within funding organisations about the costs of delivering services by not-for-profits involves the whole sector working together, shoulder to shoulder, to advocate for sustainable models of funding.  It also requires greater transparency by not-for-profits in terms of what it actually costs to deliver quality services.  And not-for-profits must gain a deeper understanding of their cost structure and resist the temptation to pursue funding which is unsustainable.”

Nick’s role with the Telethon Kids Institute is as diverse as it is challenging.  A particular focus of his job is building the financial strength and operational capacity of the Institute to achieve its goals.  Luckily for the Institute, Nick is up to this task.  Since joining Telethon Kids, he has worked to improve the Institute’s business strategy, to diversify revenue streams and to increase operational efficiency in order to ensure that there are sufficient resources to enable the Institute to accomplish its purpose.

“Telethon Kids continues to strengthen its financial sustainability by maintaining a strong focus on developing new income sources, improving cost management and investing in strategic procurement.  This has been greatly helped through building strong partnerships with leading corporates and individuals that share a commitment to the Institute’s vision.  With strategic allies like Telethon, BHP, Wesfarmers and Minderoo in our corner, the Institute has been able to take giant strides forward over the past five years towards becoming a sustainable research organisation which has the ability to make a tangible difference to the kids and families of Western Australia.”

Nick is also Chair of the Board for Gowrie Western Australia, a community-based organisation which delivers high quality child care and learning opportunities for children, families and the community.

“I first went to Gowrie in a pro-bono capacity as a fellow of Leadership WA to assist them with reforming their governance model.  They were going through a tough time with a raft of significant challenges that were negatively impacting on their financial viability.”

A short time later, he was on the Board of Directors and as Chair was responsible for leading the organisation through a tumultuous period of essential change that was necessary to revitalise what was a dysfunctional business model and a declining organisation.

“Like many not-for-profits, Gowrie had been stuck in survival mode for a very long time, eking out an existence on a month by month basis.  Constantly going from deficit to surplus and back again was like being stuck in a revolving door.  Not breaking this cycle meant that Gowrie would never have the financial capacity to genuinely thrive because it was always struggling just to stay afloat.”

“Gowrie had also lost focus on its core business and consequently, was no longer a leading organisation in child care nor the place that child care professionals actively sought to work.”

With a unified Board and a new CEO, Gowrie undertook a significant transformation that returned the organisation’s focus back to its core business, created major cultural change and saw the implementation of a new business strategy.

“The organisation went from running consecutive deficits and being very close to shutting its doors to having substantial operating surpluses for five out of the last six years.  Gowrie is now able to re-invest its own funds back into the organisation.  Service levels have dramatically improved, the organisational culture is strong and Gowrie has re-emerged as a recognised leader in the child care sector”.

Now at the Telethon Kids Institute, Nick is applying his skills and experience to an important cause that he is strongly passionate about.

“In terms of my life values, I feel very much aligned to organisations that are in the space of trying to make the world a better place by addressing an unmet need that has a massive impact on the lives of people, particularly the most vulnerable in our community.”

“I count myself very fortunate to work for an organisation like Telethon Kids, one with such a noble and incredibly vital purpose.  Having a very effective Board, an outstanding leadership group and a remarkable team of leading researchers and professional staff certainly make my job that much easier and rewarding.”

“What I love about the Institute is the strong heart and mind connection to our vision for child health and wellbeing that is strongly embraced by researchers, professional staff and valued partners.  We are building the medical research institute of the future here in Western Australia, one which is and will continue to make a tangible difference to the lives of sick kids and children with developmental challenges.”

Nick is an Alumnus of Leadership WA’s Signature Leadership Program, which he completed in 2005.

“Leadership WA stoked a fire in me. It showed me that genuine leadership was vitally important in all organisations as well as the community.  It inspired me to want to do something with my career that strongly resonated with my personal values and helped make the world a better place.”

“Leadership WA provided an intimate interface with real life leaders that had, and were still on, significant leadership journeys.  These leaders had experienced the highs and lows of leadership and enjoyed great successes as well as painful failures.  They’d learned from their experiences, both good and bad, and had grown and evolved as leaders.  They possessed a profound wisdom that only comes from having a diverse leadership experience.”

We asked Nick what other professionals could do who also felt the desire to apply their professional skills and experience to organisations with missions that connected with their personal values or passions, but who didn’t know whether working for a not-for-profit would be feasible or the right direction for their careers.

“Doing pro-bono work for, or joining a board of, a not-for-profit is a great way to connect with a cause that you care about and make a meaningful contribution.  It can also be the perfect litmus test for figuring out whether actually working for a not-for-profit could be part of your future career.”

“There is significant personal and professional growth, as well as a great sense of satisfaction, that can be achieved through community leadership, by becoming involved with an organisation which has a purpose that matters to you.  Not-for-profits are crying out for pro-bono technical expertise, for board members with relevant professional experience and for individuals that have a passion to take on voluntary leadership roles.”

“There are so many not-for-profits in Western Australia that are of vital importance to the community but which are often lacking the resources, expertise and know-how to become sustainable organisations.”

For Nick, working for the Telethon Kids Institute is a great privilege and has been incredibly satisfying.

“When you get an opportunity to work for an organisation that you would gladly volunteer your time with, you know that you’re working in the right place.”

“Is there anyone who wouldn’t strongly resonate with a cause where the end goal is ensuring that children everywhere are able to lead long, healthy and dignified lives?  I get to work with an organisation that is doing just that all day, every day.  Honestly, I can’t think of a more rewarding job.”

Applications for Leadership WA’s Signature Leadership Program 2019 are now open.

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