Spring-Summer 2019

Seeing with New Eyes: Reimagining Youth Leadership in The Society

I have been a ‘Youth Representative’ in the St Vincent de Paul Society somewhere between five and seven times, depending on who you ask and how they count. Quite a bit has changed about the Society in the time between my first youth representative gig and my most recent one. (And I still love and respect the 12 elderly, Anglo-Saxon men who were my peers on the Toowoomba Regional Council as much I do the more ‘balanced’ National Council from which I recently departed!)

It’s not just the Society that’s changed – I have too. Not only did I manage to finish secondary school, but I’m also on my third career, and I’ve managed to live all over Australia since I left Toowoomba. I’ve grown up a bit. Some of the people who have taught me the most about what I believe in, and the kind of person I want to be, are the resilient, impressive people that I’ve met during home visits; others are the leaders I’ve met at Society boardroom tables.

The values at the heart of our movement have provided me with a sense of constancy in a world of change. Being Vincentian has made me who I am, someone I am proud to be.

But that’s not the whole story. For all of the youth representative roles I have held and all of the other projects I have taken on outside of the ‘youth’ area, at the tables of those councils on which I have served, I regularly felt that I was a guest rather than a member of the family. Why? The uncomfortable truth is that these roles – and the individuals who occupy them – can be treated as tokenistic.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that youth representatives play an essential role in our councils. It’s just that I don’t think the role for younger people – and let’s be honest, in the Society, ‘younger’ covers a fair range – should be limited to those representative roles. If we are serious about embracing young people, and the future of this organisation, we must move beyond platitudes and get serious about diversity.

Assessing the need for change

To find what that would look like, a couple of years ago the National Youth Team started studying this in more detail. We asked young Vincentians what might hold them back from putting their hand up for a council role other than a youth representative gig. One of the most common reservations was young Vincentians feeling they weren’t qualified in governance and the types of decision making that happen at a council. They also assumed that older Vincentians had those skills and would, therefore, do a better job than they would. At the same time, we asked all the members of state and territory councils around the country, and the National Council, to complete a survey on their prior training and experience, and what they thought was essential training ahead of council role. It turned out that two-thirds of the councillors who answered our survey had not undertaken any prior training in governance (though they all considered it a vital component for future councillors to have).

In short, our findings meant that younger Vincentians assumed that older Vincentians had skills that they did not, and on that basis self-selected out of putting their hands up for council roles. Our findings also revealed that the majority of directors on our Society’s boards had not undertaken key governance training prior to or as part of their roles.

So what?

Our survey results reflected research from the United States at the time which found that 56 per cent of nonprofits considered that they struggled with board governance.1 (There were no comparable Australian datasets available at the time.)

Whenever I talk about governance in the Society, I experience some resistance, so I want to be clear that ‘governance’ is not just about financial management. In fact, governance is about every decision that we make, including ensuring that our mission is at the centre of those decisions. Recognising that we need greater governance capability across our councils is not akin to becoming corporatised or losing our organisational identity. It is fundamental to our role as a contemporary organisation with our own unique mission orientation at the heart of our decision-making.

In case you need further persuasion, in the last couple of years, two Royal Commissions in Australia have told us that some of the most important indicators of an organisation’s health (or otherwise) are its governance, its culture and its leadership. The health of our Society isn’t just a concern for the survival of our movement, but for being worthy of the trust that our companions and the broader community place in us.

What’s so special about the young ones?

I mentioned platitudes earlier. For as long as I can remember, older Vincentians have said things like ‘We have to listen to the young people, or the Society will die’ as though it is a radical notion. For decades I’ve heard it said that young Vincentians are not only the Society’s future leaders but the leaders of the Society right now. Well, while I have met many a remarkable young Vincentian leader, I have not met many of them as peers on our councils and boards in positions other than often tokenistic ‘youth representative’ roles.

That matters. It matters because research tells us that ‘there’s a causal relationship between diversity and groups that are more innovative, creative, problem-solving and better performing overall’. It matters because we know that when it comes to listening to different voices and getting real about making a change, good intentions and tokenism are not enough.2

If we are to move beyond platitudes to meaningful action in the Society, the first step is naming the problem that we are trying to fix. While it might be inconvenient and uncomfortable to contemplate, the future of this movement depends not just on an uplift in governance capability, but on having more genuinely diverse groups of leaders equipped to honour the Society’s mission and history as we adapt to become a contemporary, innovative and sustainable movement.

Of course, real diversity requires more than the representation of the difference in age brackets and life stages on our Councils. But this is an important first step.

Now what?

Enter the Emerging Young Vincentian Leaders Program – EYL for short.

In 2017, a dedicated group of young leaders from across the country, supported by some equally dedicated project sponsors, took the research we’d done within the Society and combined it with literature and case studies about programs in peer organisations to develop the EYL program. The design and development took over a year and involved multiple consultations with the National Council. We realised that while governance training needed to be a key component of the program to reduce one of the barriers young people had identified, we needed to take a holistic approach to leadership development. So, the design of the program included experience in reflective leadership practice, change management, program design and business case development, as well as some elements particular to the Society, including Vincentian values-based leadership, mentoring and a grounding in the challenges facing the Society in our region and around the world.

The program was promoted throughout the first half of 2018, with applications open to Vincentians aged 25 to 40 years and looking to take their next steps in Society leadership. Ten young Vincentians from around the country were accepted to participate in the pilot of the EYL program, which commenced in July 2018 and will run until December 2019.

So far, the participants have:

  • undertaken extensive pre-work and participated in training from the
    Australian Institute of Company Directors in Governance for Not-forprofits and Reporting to the Board. That training was then grounded in the context of the Society in Australia through an open forum with the then National President;
  • reflected on their individual objectives for their Vincentian journeys, as well as the goals to set, and networks to cultivate, to achieve them;
  • been matched with Vincentian mentors, based on their objectives throughout the EYL program;
  • learned about the weird and wonderful world of SSVP and the Oceania region from the International Territorial Vice President for Oceania;
  • engaged in elements of project design and development;
  • actively contributed to a social media page, which has developed into an interactive learning forum;
  • engaged in a range of teleconferences to set expectations about the program and include the group in dynamic feedback, so that real-time adjustments can be made to the pilot to better meet participants’ needs.

During the program, participants will complete training in practical approaches to change management in the Society’s context and engage in workshops on Vincentian values-based leadership.

What does it take to make the EYL idea a reality?

The existence of the EYL program and its day-to-day operations are the result of major investment. One element of that is the strategic financial investment by the National Council to fund the costs of the program, including expert trainers and essential travel. Without this support, the program simply could not run.

However, the most significant investment in this program is that of volunteer time. Here’s a snapshot:

  • four project sponsors guided the design of the program;
  • ten highly experienced Vincentian mentors have generously contributed their insights to our participants;
  • ten impressive participants have demonstrated their commitment across the course of almost 18 months, in a mix of face-to-face, teleconference and online engagements; and
  • finally, a core group of inspiring young leaders in the Society have invested a huge amount in this program. The design phase alone involved 250 hours, volunteered across one year and a team of six passionate people. The day-to-day operation has been even more significant: by the end of the pilot four talented, driven women will have committed upwards of 500 hours. These hours are on top of their day jobs and day-to-day volunteering commitments.

That much investment from so many people is a big deal and even a bit overwhelming. Like me, those generous souls all think of their contributions as just that: an investment. Not just an investment in ten worthy pilot participants, or in young Vincentians in general, or even in our councils. This is an investment in the future of our movement, and the capacity of the Society to do good works and bring about change for the better for years to come.

What difference does the EYL make?

As the EYL pilot draws to a close I am looking forward to some rich discussions about the experience of our participants and mentors, as well as those who have come into contact with the program along the way. Those discussions will form the basis of an evaluation for the National Council and no doubt inform decisions about whether the EYL will be run into the future.

While there will be many observations around aspects of the program that worked well and things that we might want to adjust, it is too soon to measure the extent to which the EYL model is successful. Its success has only a little to do with how bright and passionate and outstanding our participants are – and believe me, they are. Rather, it has everything to do with how councils and Vincentian leaders at every level seize the opportunity to work with young people who are completing or have completed the EYL program.

Building the governance capability of our leaders, and particularly our young leaders are something to be proud of. I am certainly proud to have been a part of this initiative. But, having been involved from the start, I realise that I’m a little biased. So, when it came time for questions on the last of day of a three-day course that our EYL participants undertook in governance, strategy, risk and finance from the Australian Institute of Company Directors, I asked the facilitator to share his impressions of the Society. He answered honestly that he had not known much about it prior to facilitating our sessions but ventured that we had a great culture. When I asked him to unpack that comment, without hesitation he said that the quality of the conversation, the questions, the diversity in the room, and the fact that we had sought out governance training with such interest, spoke volumes; that based on what he had witnessed in that room, the Society must have a culture to be proud of.

I can’t tell you how refreshing and heartening it was to hear that. Having been validated in my pride, I offer some closing thoughts on what I know to be true of young Vincentians in Australia.

Our young people cherish our charism and The Rule. They can reconcile the tensions – and the beauty – of belonging to an organisation that at once upholds the principle of subsidiarity and the concept of One Society.

Our young people are learning. And fast. They crave the wisdom their fellow Vincentians have to offer, and the knowledge that our connected world places at their fingertips.

Our young people are diverse. Not just in age; in cultural backgrounds, personal circumstances, perspectives.

Our young people are visionaries and they are makers. Empower them to share their gifts with you. You will not regret it.


Cathryn has been a Vincentian for 15 years. She currently plays a leading role in the international commission to review and reform Part 2 of The Rule. Her day job is in the Victorian Public Service, where she works on strategic reforms to improve the responsiveness and accessibility of the justice system for victims of crime and other vulnerable Victorians.

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