Q&A: Taking on NGO leadership in the COVID crisis

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Peter Walton, CEO at CARE Australia. Photo by: CARE Australia

CANBERRA — In January this year, Peter Walton took on a new challenge. He left his position at the Australian Red Cross as international director, a role he had been in for seven years, and took on the new role of CEO at CARE Australia.

The decision to make this change occurred before Australia was hit with bushfires that made global headlines and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It feels like dog years,” Walton told Devex. “But I have only been in this role for five months.”

Discussing the challenges he has faced, Walton told Devex he has been grateful to have come to an organization with a strong reputation as a leader in gender programming and a leadership team that has come together to help CARE through this time. But he also knows there are still more hurdles they will face.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

“We are launching an emergency response simultaneously in every country we work in, while also being fundamentally challenged around our own viability.”

— Peter Walton, CEO, CARE Australia

Congratulations on your role with CARE Australia. What has been your reaction to how CARE operates and what you can deliver to the organization moving forward?

CARE is an organization with strong foundations, but like other international NGOs, it is grappling with a fast-changing environment in which to operate. I think I was brought into CARE because I am someone who has gone on the front foot in terms of thinking differently.

When I came into CARE it was obvious that many of the challenges that I led the Australian Red Cross through were absolutely relevant to CARE as well.

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But what struck me, though, is that CARE — being a Canberra-based organization for much of its history — just needed to accelerate the speed with which it was adjusting. That was a mix of understanding how it maintains its ability to be good in the present, but not at the expense of evolving for the future. That is what I have focused on.

When you overlay a pandemic like COVID, when you overlay the infrequency and intensity of disasters caused by climate change, we can’t be an organization that is still working in the same way the sector has operated for years. I’m coming in excited, with a mandate to reimagine how CARE not only continues to change, but accelerates that change — which COVID has enabled.

COVID has certainly changed the climate for many NGOs. What are some of the biggest permanent shifts that have had to happen, operationally and programmatically?

I would contest that in the Australian development and humanitarian sector that the growing competition for shrinking resources is just reaching a breaking point. It has resulted in many organizations claiming to be experts on everything — which is clearly not the case.

So what we have done at CARE is analyze where we are best-placed to maximize impact, and what we would be willing to think differently about so we can maximize impact and reinforce our credible voice — and get the delivery right. And that has meant we are narrowing a focus slightly. We will be focusing on disaster risk management, climate justice, and women’s economic justice and resilience — but also thinking about how these can support each other.

In responding to COVID-19, however, I think there are things that made CARE better prepared than some. At a practical level, we work in the international space. We travel and we are used to working remotely and have the mechanisms to do that — we’re not necessarily tied to a desk and so forth. That wasn’t a major shift.

At a philosophical level, the biggest shift is that this is one of the few occasions where we are launching an emergency response simultaneously in every country we work in, while also being fundamentally challenged around our own viability. We have healthy reserves and we have weathered the storm quite well — I am more fearful for other organizations. But we have a double whammy — extra needs for the services we can provide and great economic uncertainty in the market we raise our money.

Financially, at what point would you start getting nervous and need to look at programs and staffing resources to make tough decisions?

When I say we are better than most, I think it is a reflection that we are a well-run organization and have had decent reserves which help weather the storm. But the generosity of Australians has also meant that we’re still seeing people reach out and provide support to our near neighbors.

Where I am concerned, though, is that I see this as a good news story short-term. I am deeply nervous about the economic repercussions getting deeper and deeper.

Sitting here in Melbourne, which is in lockdown, I know that for many organizations JobKeeper [a federal government employment support package introduced in response to COVID-19] has helped people maintain their jobs. But if and when that stops, it will have a flow-on effect to people’s disposable income and will impact the whole sector.

The approach we are taking is to ensure we have the information to quickly identify those trends, and quickly identify the adjustments we can make in the hope that they will not be as deep as some people are predicting. But we don’t have a crystal ball either — so ultimately it is making sure there is an absolute focus on cost-effectiveness and efficiency, and no wastage. That will hopefully serve us well.

At this time, having the right people around you and people you trust is very important. What is the team you are building to support CARE during this time?

I’m very pleased with the executive team I have got — and they have come together incredibly well. We did have a vacancy for the director of international programs and operations, and when I started I didn’t want to rush into filling that because I wanted to take stock of where the organization is at.

But the team has come together well to deal with the issues we all have to deal with at this time.

Unlike many organizations, we are not downsizing our staff but we are making changes to the composition of the team. And that goes down to the different skill sets we need to deal with today’s challenges and the future. That is a different range of skill sets, not the typical NGO skills. Digital technology is part of this as well as people to support different forms of partnerships — partnerships that can bring new ideas to solve complex social problems. We need new ideas to deal with development and humanitarian challenges moving forward.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.