Autumn 2018

New Vinnies CEO says focus on service encompasses all

Susan Rooney is CEO for St Vincent de Paul Society Western Australia. Susan has held senior management and board positions in a range of non-government and government organisations throughout Australia. She is a passionate advocate for people most in need and is working to make a difference.

Susan Rooney
St Vincent de Paul Society Western Australia CEO, Susan Rooney.

Susan has had a busy nine months since being appointed the CEO for St Vincent de Paul Society Western Australia, with her focus being to keep the organisation financially strong and ensure it continues to provide services and programs that improve people’s lives, restore hope and dignity.

Susan explained that the recently implemented five-year strategic plan articulates how the Society is striving to develop further as a caring, Catholic charity that offers vital support and guidance to people in need, making a real difference to the lives of thousands of Western Australians. To do this, key strategic objectives will focus on the organisation’s strengths and how, working in partnership with others, it can deliver a range of effective programs and services to meet the needs of some of the most disadvantaged people in our community.

The numbers speak 

The numbers are impressive. Susan explained that the members and volunteers are at the core of the work that the Society does, and last financial year these remarkable people assisted over 38,000 Western Australians. Much of the work undertaken by the St Vincent de Paul Society is through local parish-based groups known as ‘Conferences’. The wonderful Conference members, or Vincentians, provide practical support including food, clothing, bedding, furniture and assistance with utility bills and rents, as well as advocacy and friendship to the most vulnerable within our community.

Susan explained that in addition to emergency relief support, the Society also has specialised support services and programs, including retail and distribution centre operations, a recovery-focussed mental health service, services to prevent or alleviate homelessness, programs for young people, financial counselling and refugee and migrant services.

Financial services are a growing need 

‘The need for all our services is growing and no more so than for our financial counselling service,’ Susan said.

The Society’s financial counsellors provide free, independent financial support and advocacy for people struggling financially. A considerable number of client referrals for financial assistance are made to the counsellors, the majority being from conference members. The counsellors work with their clients to achieve positive financial outcomes, helping them to work their way out of debt and preventing them from ending up in a situation of homelessness.

In 2017 over 6000 counselling sessions were provided by the Society and with its assistance over 1.4 million dollars’ worth of debt was waived. In addition, last year the Society was the only WA-based organisation to be recognised in the top 10 by the Financial Ombudsman Service of Australia. The service is partly funded by the Australian Government’s Department of Social Services.

‘Financial counselling is a trusted, free-of-charge service provided to people in financial difficulty. It provides an essential role in assisting people with their unmanageable debt, limited resources and increasing cost of living,’ Susan said. ‘The advocacy services include negotiating on behalf of the client to lower payments and interest rates with creditors and helping develop the client’s skills and knowledge, so they can make informed and effective decisions with all of their financial resources,’ Susan explained.

Causes are complex

Susan further explained that the need for financial counselling can arise from a diverse range of incidents and events in people’s lives, with individuals coming from all areas of the community.

According to St Vincent de Paul Society Senior Financial Counsellor Suzanne Long, financial stress does not discriminate and clients include accountants, teachers, professionals, engineers, migrants, single parents, people with disabilities and the working poor, who have such little disposable income that it may take only a minor event to push them into serious fiscal stress. She explained that many of the clients are good at managing their income but are receiving insufficient remuneration due to the rising cost of living.

Early intervention is key

‘Some have an unexpected change in their lives, such as a redundancy or a medical crisis, while others have multifaceted behavioural and social concerns,’ Ms Long said. She noted that the consequences of a financial crisis often go beyond the budgetary factors and can lead to emotional and physical distress and relationship collapse. In these situations, Ms Long said, ‘financial counselling is a key early intervention that can help to prevent a crisis escalating’.

An integrated response

Ms Long explained that in some cases their financial counsellors are part of the integrated response to assist people affected by domestic violence.

Susan shared a recent client’s experience: this individual had suffered years of domestic and emotional abuse and was seeking assistance for severe depression and anxiety with another agency. Her support worker suggested she contact the St Vincent de Paul Society for assistance through its financial counselling program. The financial counsellor assessed her situation and was able to help her secure parenting payments from Centrelink. They then negotiated with the bank on her behalf, successfully obtaining a full debt waiver due to severe financial hardship and domestic violence. She is now able to focus on getting back on her feet financially and is looking for part-time work. The client participated in a budgeting session and was assisted in creating a spending plan to help her with her finances going forward.

Susan also explained how relief from financial pressure can help to support a family’s overall wellbeing and that early intervention may alleviate the potential future strain on limited community resources.

St Vincent de Paul Society Western Australia’s financial counselling services branches are in the Perth CBD, Canning Vale, Rockingham and Mandurah. All staff are experienced professionals with access to a comprehensive suite of resources. The Society encourages anyone in Western Australia to call on (08) 6323 7500 or if they would like assistance.

Susan looks forwards to working with all of the Society’s staff, members and volunteers and the broader Catholic community in advocating for a more just and compassionate society for all.

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