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The key questions I asked to be a better leader for social impact

By Melissa Abu-Gazaleh | Managing Director, Top Blokes Foundation

This article was originally published in Philanthropy Weekly, the digital newsletter of Philanthropy Australia.


“One of the main indicators of a successful organisation is whether the CEO continues to grow and learn.” This sentence, said by Australia’s most significant and well-respected funders at the inaugural Social Impact Leadership Program launch event stopped me in my tracks.

Having established the Top Blokes Foundation, a leading boy’s mental health organisation that helps young males build the skills to lead healthy and safe lives, I was no stranger to learning. Learning how to reduce the rates of male suicide, incidences of mental ill-health and all forms of violence. That skill of learning means we’re always delving into the hard, difficult and messy issues that young males face.

I knew as CEO, I had more learning to do which is why I applied to be part of Australia’s ground-breaking leadership program for the social sector, SILA, a collaboration between the Myer Foundation, the Sidney Myer Fund, the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation and the Paul Ramsay Foundation and delivered by the Centre for Social Impact.

What I didn’t realise was how the program would have me asking some of the most critical questions that all for purpose CEO’s should be asking themselves.


From undertaking a series of activities including an organisational diagnostics assessment, wellbeing assessments, 360 reviews, coaching sessions, learning circles, three retreats and a three-month sabbatical, I have come to learn that as leaders in our field it is actually our responsibility and obligation to ask ourselves the hard questions, both in our work and of ourselves and to continually sit in the discomfort of those learnings.

At the end of the program, here are examples of the challenging questions I believe all for purpose CEO’s should ask themselves:

1. Do I actually understand my leadership shadow and is it driving cultural change?

Every leader casts a shadow. Our intentions, behaviours and language influences how we build our internal culture. But when was the last time we asked our teams how they experience our display of power, authority and influence?

How do we become more conscious and deliberate in the leadership culture we’re building to ensure it will drive positive cultural change within our organisations and within the communities we serve.

2. To what level am I helping our leadership team to instill a culture of curiosity and exploration throughout all levels of the organisation?

I just completed SILA’s three-month sabbatical, where I stepped away from the day-to-day of the Top Blokes Foundation and used the time to reflect, examine and explore the complexities of the social issues we’re working so hard to address.

I used the time to challenge my own assumptions, to understand the levers of change and to sit in the unknown. I learned that this sense of reflection, clarity and energy can be a source of innovation.


And in that time, I couldn’t tell you how many people would say that a sabbatical is a wonderful once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

My question is, why just once in a lifetime? Why can’t we embed a culture of reflection and clarification and instill it as a core value?

What if giving employees paid time away to explore and examine could lead to our sector’s most interesting innovations? I came to the realisation that one of my core priorities as CEO should be to create a culture of innovation by embedding curiosity and exploration as key values.

3. Can operating in fight or flight mode helps us achieve our organisation’s mission?

When meeting other for purpose CEOs, I’m never surprised by how quickly the conversation moves to the fast-pace nature of our work, the feelings of exhaustion and the sense of being overwhelmed. I’ve yet to meet a for-purpose CEO who doesn’t wake up at 2am with a panic thought about a detail they may have missed.

We often feel like our busy minds lead us to constantly operate in a fight or flight mode and we’re constantly fed messages how this isn’t healthy. Instead, we’re encouraged to achieve balance and calm (what even is that?!) in our roles.

So, I’ve been questioning, how would our relationship with stress and exhaustion change if rather than trying to move away from the tension we instead welcomed the benefits of functioning in fight or flight? Could it help us thrive even further and amplify our effectiveness as leaders? If we continued the pursuit to stop operating in this state, what are the impacts on our work and the people we’re ultimately trying to help?

4. Am I stepping into my authority and how do I better understand my growth edge?

Why do so many for purpose CEO’s battle imposter syndrome? Are our own sense of fears and limitations impacting how we step up and into our authority, the very authority we’ve worked so hard to earn? Are we struggling because we’re actually trying to find the line between confidence, skill and humility? What if we better understood our own vulnerabilities and used these as leadership strengths. Could we become better leaders?


The CEO role can be incredibly lonely at times. SILA has helped me find my tribe. The very people who simply understand the deep commitment and resilience needed to pursue long term social change.

We’re sharing our passions, our struggles and our personal and sometimes incredibly deep grief. We sit with each other and know how tiring yet exhilarating our leadership roles are. We sit with each other knowing that we do this work because it’s hard and we’re built for hard. We’re reigniting each other’s spark and we’re becoming stronger than we were the day before. And true to that funder’s observation, we are all seeking every opportunity to grow and learn.

SILA has already been transformational for our organisation, in more ways than I can currently acknowledge. If you’re a VIC or TAS CEO and you’d like to strengthen your leadership capabilities, I strongly encourage you to apply for the upcoming SILA Program.

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Participant profile: Jarrod Wheatley

Jarrod Wheatley

Jarrod Wheatley is CEO of Personalised Individual Care (PIC) and a Cohort One SILA participant.

Jarrod Wheatley was working with refugees in Germany when he learnt about individualised out-of-home care as an alternative to foster care or group housing for vulnerable children.

He credits the model’s strength to the concept of “professional nearness, rather than distance” in caring relationships, and the expert skills of carers who know how to work with young people who have been let down by the system.

Caring for children, shifting to a relational model

While working for a German-based IJS, Jarrod spent two years scouring the for-purpose landscape for a partner to bring the personalised out-of-home care model to Australia. After many meetings it became clear that the best way forward was to establish an independent organisation.

In 2016 Jarrod founded Personalised Individual Care (PIC) with a vision to reform the out-of-home care system for children and young people. Once incorporated, there was a lot of “regulatory paperwork, including licencing and funding approvals to work through,” and it took an additional two years before PICs operations commenced – it was quite a journey.

PIC places children in the home of a Professional Therapeutic Carer, who understands complex trauma and provides tailored care, therapeutic intervention, and the opportunity for the young person to have a real relationship.

The evidence-based model has been operating in Germany for close to 30 years with “double the success rate of any other model of home care,” Jarrod explains.

“We work at the pointy end of the social sector with kids that no one knows what to do with,” he says.

Children with complex trauma are hyper vigilant, and “healing” is different for every child.

“It’s miraculous when a child rewires their brain and believes in connection, so they can drop out of the stress response,” says Jarrod.

Some children have cycled through the system, having spent time in up to 50-70 different houses. It takes a lot of work, and understanding from a professional carer to support them so the young person can build trust again.

PIC has currently placed 23 children in care. But for every one carer, there is a waitlist of 60 more young people seeking a placement, and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to help them.

As well as longer term placements, PIC facilitates short-term travel projects to children in transition between care.

“We might take them on a trip to Uluru or Romania if it’s in their best interest, and that then becomes the project so they’re not placed in a hotel placement unnecessarily because there’s no one else for them to go,” says Jarrod.

PIC works together with the child to determine their needs, and is flexible to offer tailored solutions, matched to the skills of the carer and the needs and desires of the young person.

Relationships are the cornerstone of the PIC model, and are central to the organisation’s ethos, culture, and operations. The current system is entrenched with “clinical medical concepts of care, and we’ve forgotten how to really care,” says Jarrod.

“People say what we do is innovative, but it couldn’t be further away from innovative,” he argues. Around the world Indigenous populations have understood “the centrality of relationships in raising a child, and as I parent, I wouldn’t raise my child any other way.”

Addressing wicked problems through cross-sector collaboration

Jarrod was drawn to the SILA Program because of its collaborative approach to capacity building within the sector.

Jarrod feels that the social sector has been segregated based on funding models that force organisations to focus on “maintaining their market-share,” rather than working collaboratively to achieve greater impact.

“If you’re talking about improving outcomes for young people, you can’t just focus on juvenile justice, education or health,” he says. The problems cross all of “those artificial boundaries.”

SILA aims to bridge this divide, by bringing people together who are in a position to have “some influence” over their organisation and the sector, to join forces for good, he believes.

“There’s usually very little space for collaboration in the social sector, but a lot of problems we’re working on are systemic.

“What’s really attractive to me about SILA is not only the learning, but the fellowship with other people in the social sector.”

SILA’s learning environment enables for-purpose CEOs to come together, and share their collective wisdom “to address some pretty wicked problems,” says Jarrod.

The SILA Program gives participants space to consider, “How can we use this opportunity, as a sector, as a catalyst for positive change for the people that we’re working for?”

“SILA is a very holistic offering, and the team has done an incredible job in pulling the program and partnerships together. It’s a privilege to be part of it.”

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Participant profile: Penny Dakin

Penny Dakin

Penny Dakin is CEO of the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY) and a Cohort One SILA participant.

With a passion for serving young people and communities, Penny Dakin has a strong sense of social justice – a driving force throughout her career.

Penny first made her move into the for-purpose sector after 15 years working in public service. The constant “churn,” as she describes it, with little tangible impact on the ground, led Penny to make the leap.

Realising children’s potential

Established in 2002 by former Australian of the Year, Professor Fiona Stanley, ARACY works as a “systems intermediary” that brings bright minds together to turn research and evidence into practical tools.

It’s an organisation that’s very clear about who its beneficiaries are, says Penny – “it’s the children and young people of Australia.”

Having first joined ARACY as a Research Manager – where she brought her big-picture ideas to the table – Penny’s ability to think strategically and fit different organisational and project requirements together, saw her soon move into a national leadership role with the organisation.

After a short stint with a local collective impact initiative, she then returned to ARACY in the role of CEO.

The time away working with the grass-roots organisation really “grounded her in the community,” and honed her understanding of young people’s needs, and she was pleased to return to ARACY with this expanded perspective and knowledge.

Isolated leadership, no more

From the moment Penny heard about Social Impact Leadership Australia (SILA) she knew the program was right for her, as a leader, and for ARACY too.

“I reacted so strongly at the time because being a CEO, and particularly of a small not-for-profit, can be really isolating,” Penny explains.

“I sit between two fabulous groups of people, our board and our team. But when you’re in this role, you can feel quite alone.”

For Penny, one of the biggest assets of the SILA Program is the relationships with the other participating leaders, from across the social sector.

Even after a short time together the group is bonding, especially through the program’s learning circles, and the ability to support others through their challenges has been especially rewarding:

“Whatever the circumstances…there are things that cut across the different types of organisations. It’s amazing to be able to contribute and help somebody think through a challenge they are facing.”

SILA’s peer-focused learning environment increases social capital among leaders, boosts organisational capacity, and facilitates greater collaboration across the sector, as Penny shares:

“There is a lot of competition in the for-purpose sector. We’re competing for money, the best staff and opportunities. This program disrupts that approach.

“The premise of SILA is that we’re more powerful as a sector when we’re united and driven by what’s common between us, with shared skills and language. It’s about making us stronger.”

Personally, Penny considers herself to be “very much a service-focused leader.”

She is increasingly trying to bring a systems-based and adaptive lens to her leadership and work at ARACY, and SILA is helping develop her skills and resources in this area.

“The real opportunity here is the relationships. It will stand the sector in such good stead, as we start to develop genuine systems leadership.”

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Media Release: CSI announce the first cohort of leaders selected to drive and amplify positive social change

Monday, 11 July 2021

Today, the Centre for Social Impact (CSI) officially announces the first of five Social Impact Leadership Australia (SILA) program cohorts – a diverse group of 24 leaders and organisations who will participate in a series of immersive and dedicated training and support opportunities over ten months.

The #SILA24 will focus on driving positive change for society through individual and organisational capacity building.

In 2020, CSI announced the SILA program, a five-year national capacity-building and leadership program for the Australian for-purpose sector.

Built from a collective desire to support for-purpose leaders to positively influence their organisations and the sector, four major Australian foundations – The Myer Foundation, the Sidney Myer Fund, the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation and the Paul Ramsay Foundation – have come together to fund the $9.6 million SILA program over five-years.

SILA is an evidence-based program specifically developed to meet the needs of Australian for-purpose CEOs and build the capacity of their organisations directly and indirectly. Crucially, SILA builds leadership cultures and capacity within the wider ecosystem of for-purpose organisations, as well as within individual leaders.

SILA’s first cohort of 24 leaders is drawn from NSW and the ACT (listed below). The cohort will participate in a series of immersive learning experiences, a tailored sabbatical – a unique offering in Australia – one-on-one coaching and dedicated organisational capacity building support. Crucially, the leaders will connect and learn from each other, creating a strategic network on which to build and amplify their social impact.

In 2022 SILA will be offered to for-purpose CEOs in Victoria and Tasmania. In following years SILA will be offered to for-purpose leaders and organisations across the breadth of the country.

SILA aims to improve economic, social, cultural and environmental outcomes for individuals, each participant’s organisation and the broader for-purpose sector within Australia. It will be delivered by leading academics and practitioners, in a range of nurturing and conducive environments.

The first cohort has been selected through a rigorous and competitive process, with a focus on diversity and representation from both metropolitan and rural and regional areas in NSW and the ACT.

The selection committee comprised Jenny Wheatley, CEO of the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation, Robbie Macpherson, SILA Program Director, and Sarah Davies, CEO of the Alannah & Madeline Foundation.

Mrs Wheatley expressed her excitement at the calibre of the first SILA cohort saying the interview panel was required to make tough decisions to settle on the 24 participants from many strong applications:

“The cohort consists of experienced leaders with strong track records and great potential, not just for future leadership of themselves and their organisation, but for the sector and system more widely. SILA offers an opportunity for leaders to build a strong professional network that will support them well past the completion of the program, and this aspect is particularly important for those participants who work in rural and regional areas.

“The application process confirmed the need for targeted professional development opportunities for the really good people doing really good work in the sector. I am confident the return on investment for the four funding foundations will be high.”

Successful candidate, Penny Dakin, CEO of the Australian Research Alliance for Children & Youth, said she was excited by the potential of the program after being selected in the first cohort:

“The benefits to the for-purpose sector are enormous. For the first time in Australia a broad cohort of the for-purpose sector will have access to the highest quality professional leadership development as a group. It will strengthen relationships and collaboration, provide common language and common frames, help address silos and ensure that we’re all thinking with an ecosystems lens. This will enable us to adapt how we lead to embed these same things in the organisations we come from.”

Fellow participant, Melinda Phillips, CEO of BackTrack Youth Works, agrees: “I was particularly impressed that this program recognises the challenges CEOs traditionally face and allows leaders to continue learning, manage their personal wellbeing and collaborate with a network of social leaders to activate change and impact across the sector.”

A full list of the first SILA24 cohort can be found below.

SILA Cohort 2021/22 NSW/ACT Participants
Melissa Abu-GazalehTop Blokes Foundation
Kathi BoormanOne Door Mental Health
Nick ChapmanPolicy Cures Research
Janet CousensAct for Peace Ltd
Frances CrimminsYWCA Canberra
Penny DakinAustralian Research Alliance for Children & Youth (ARACY)
Annabelle DanielWomen’s Community Shelters
Jodie DargeProject Youth
Rory GallagherThe Behavioural Insights Team
Cassandra GoldieAustralian Council of Social Service (ACOSS)
Michele GoldmanAsthma Australia
Michelle HigelinActionAid Australia
David KeeganHOST International
Alice LansNoah’s Inclusion Services
Jordan O’ReillyHireup
Melinda PhillipsBackTrack Youth Works
Suzie RiddellSocial Ventures Australia (SVA)
Liz RitchieRegional Australia Institute
Antonia RuffellAustralian Philanthropic Services
Frances RushAsylum Seekers Centre
Fiona StrangHealthWISE
Leanne TownsendNational Aboriginal Sporting Chance Academy (NASCA)
Jarrod WheatleyProfessional Individualised Care
Jess WilsonGood Things Foundation Australia
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Media Release: SILA Launch

Friday, February 5, 2021

Sydney, Australia: Four major Australian foundations have announced they will be collaborating to create a national capacity-building and leadership program for current leaders in Australian for-purpose organisations.

The Social Impact Leadership Australia program is a five-year, $9 million program, and will be delivered by the Centre for Social Impact (CSI).

The Myer Foundation, the Sidney Myer Fund, the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation and the Paul Ramsay Foundation have collaborated to fund Social Impact Leadership Australia and in doing so unlock leadership potential to improve the wellbeing of Australians.

The program was created by a collective desire to support not-for-profit and for-purpose leaders to enhance their capacity, positively influence their organisations, and create a strategic network of like-minded leaders across the country.

Leonard Vary, CEO of The Myer Foundation and Sidney Myer Fund, said that the idea stemmed from the recognition of a damaging and persistent lack of investment in the leadership of the for-purpose sector in Australia.

“We’re inspired by the success of programs in the United States, supported by foundations which see the value of investment in building the capacity of for-purpose leaders.” Mr Vary said.

“Beyond mere professional development, Social Impact Leadership Australia is a powerful way to influence whole organisations, while ensuring the next tier of leaders is ready to take the reins and lead for social impact.”

Jo Taylor, Chief Capability Officer of the Paul Ramsay Foundation, said the investment in Social Impact Leadership Australia is a reflection of the Foundation’s long-term commitment to breaking cycles of disadvantage.

“The exacerbation of disadvantage we have seen in the wake of a cluster of once-in-a-generation disasters – the bushfire, drought and COVID-19 pandemic – have strengthened our collective resolve to build more effective offramps from the cycles that trap people in poverty.

“To break complex cycles of disadvantage, we have to enhance the capability of the for-purpose sector which plays an increasingly central role in developing new approaches and delivering support to those who need it most,” said Ms Taylor.

One third of participants for the program will be drawn from rural and regional areas, a focus that Jenny Wheatley, CEO of the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation said was “exciting and important”.

“It is critical that we develop a truly national program. By broadening our reach in this way, we are ensuring we will be available to a diverse group of leaders and organisations from across Australia.” Ms Wheatley added.

The program will be delivered by the Centre for Social Impact, a leader in social impact education. Professor Kristy Muir, CEO of CSI described the program as “visionary” and applauded the collaboration.

“We know that people are an organisation’s most important asset, and we know that there is persistent underinvestment in the professional development of for-purpose leaders.” Professor Muir said.

“This program helps change that. We’re incredibly honoured that CSI has been selected to create and deliver this ground-breaking program and can’t wait to work with the first cohort of leaders.”

The cutting-edge program design is based on international best practice and covers leadership of the self, the organisation, and the system. SILA includes a series of immersive learning experiences, a tailored sabbatical, one-on-one coaching, and dedicated organisational capacity building support. The curriculum is delivered during three retreats by a faculty of leading academics and practitioners.

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Impact2021 Social Impact Leadership Program Launch

5 FEB 2021, 10:30 AM – 5 FEB 2021, 11:30 AM

In our first impact2021 webinar for the year we’re thrilled to be launching a new social impact leadership program for the Australian for-purpose sector!

Borne out of a collaboration between The Myer Foundation and Sidney Myer Fund, the Paul Ramsay Foundation and Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation, this groundbreaking program will focus on the leadership development and capacity building of Australia’s for-purpose leaders with the aim of disrupting our usual ideas of leadership, to ultimately create greater social impact.

The fully-funded program will be delivered by the Centre for Social Impact and initially offered to CEOs in NSW and the ACT.

We invite you to attend the program’s official launch to hear more from the program’s founders and facilitators.

Program details will be provided at the webinar, including information on how to apply and future locations.

Please note: This webinar will commence at 10:30am (AEDT) and registrations will close an hour before.

The webinar will be recorded and made available shortly afterwards. Please register to receive the first release of the recording.

This impact2021 webinar is a free event presented by the Centre for Social Impact. A recording of the webinar will be available on CSI’s YouTube Channel.