We recently spoke to Justine Colyer, the CEO of Rise Network. Their sole purpose is to help those who are marginalised by society to live the best life they can. Justine sheds light on the nature of her role as CEO and creating a continual balance between mission and margin. We also discussed the societal impacts of COVID, how Rise Network responded to the crisis, as well as their approach to corporate social responsibilities.


Just to kick it off, I guess. Can you just explain, our sort of listener base is really sort of business people in general, a pretty broad sort of stakeholder group, can you just explain what the Rise Network is and what your core mission statement is for the organisation as a whole?

 So, we are not-for-profit or as we like to now say, profit for purpose, because like any business, we need to be viable in order to grow and develop and improve constantly and to ride things like the COVID pandemic wave. So we exist to essentially help people live the best life that they can, but we focus on people who are more marginalised by society. So people with a disability, older people, people living with mental health issues, young people at risk, and people who have had some sort of contact with the justice system.

So we believe the people are fine, but it’s often it’s society and its structures and it’s discrimination that actually sets them back. And so we strongly believe that everyone in the community can contribute and we exist to help them live their very best life. In some cases, it really is supportive and very, very vulnerable, older, just making sure that you’re comfortable and secure and looked after. For other people, it’s really helping them get into employment, overcome some health issues, deal with some past mistakes, such as with the justice system, but we’re pretty focused on having everyone do the best possible thing they can. So we do that by providing personal support, one to one, group, but also we provide housing.


Okay, and your role, obviously, CEO, but how do you see in a not-for-profit, which is not-for-profit or to your point, profit for purpose, they’re so challenging to run in terms of there’s a lot of stakeholders, there’s a lot of moving parts. How do you see your role as CEO or how do you see what is the idyllic nature of your role in how you operate?

Yeah, so I think it’s a continual balance between mission and margin. So I think we’ve moved a long way in the past 10 or so years.

Cooper: That’s a good line mission and margin.

Mission and margin, yeah. So there was I think 10 or so years ago there was a cringe factor about a not-for-profit making a profit. And, you know, it was rare sometimes to see boards of not-for-profits pass anything other than a balanced budget. You know, you couldn’t possibly be seen making any surplus. But the fact of the matter is that all of our surplus doesn’t go to fund my trip to Brazil or anything or it doesn’t go to fund my trip to anywhere at the moment, but it goes right back into our business where we just deliver more and more value for the people we exist for. So it’s absolutely essential that we maximise our revenue and improve our efficiencies while still having a really, really clear understanding about the minimum level of quality standards without which we will absolutely not compromise. So if we can’t deliver a fantastic service, we won’t deliver it at all. But like many businesses, as you said, many of your listeners are business people, they exist to provide great customer service, quality, reliability, repeat business, and they do it and they need to make a margin as well. So we are not overly dissimilar to that. It’s just that our money goes back to just provide more benefit to the community as well.


Okay, so you’re really sort of heading it up from a strategic perspective, I guess, getting into more of the nuts and bolts of the organisation. How have you seen the COVID-19 pandemic or epidemic or whatever you want to call it. How have you seen it play out as far as Rise Network is considered this year? How has Rise Network participated in that sort of storyline that we’ve been riding this year?

So I guess one of the things, we’re a relatively large organisation for a not-for-profit, so we’ve had both the strategy and the governance structures to put a range of things in place that helped buffer us against incidents of this sort of nature happening. Although we couldn’t predict the pandemic, we had long invested in significant ICT upgrades, hardware, software. We had in place a business continuity disaster recovery plan that we’d played out in sort of real life examples, desktop examples and drills.


So when something hits, we weren’t trying to invent a whole load of governance and response structures. So obviously the flavor of what hits is going to be different. It could be. We’re used to working with bushfires, say in where we are in WA. This time it happened to be a pandemic. But having those good structures underneath and good teams, good processes, good delegations of authority. You know, everyone understanding their role means your full focus can be on dealing with a pandemic, rather than trying to build things like plans or understanding how you’re going to work as an organisation. 

The other thing I think, so there’s two things, how we worked on the organisation and how we worked for the organisation and the sector. So, as much time was spent leveraging our existing relationships with government to try and help influence them to change policy of the way they worked with us around funding or how we use funding for best results. So we were able to change and respond very, very quickly to changing circumstances and every day, new advice or new developments would come out and we were able to respond quickly. Government, by its very nature, is slower in some cases. So a lot of the time was spent lobbying the government to be less prescriptive around how they expected to operate and to trust us to do the best thing with the funding they’d given us to support the people we were there for.

So that was spent a lot of time, and a lot of time just communication, communication, communication. Being confident about making a decision with the information you had on that day, at that moment, knowing full well it could change. So you could start a meeting at nine o’clock in the morning, two hours later, you’d wonder how you’d even made the decision you’d made at 9:00 because things had changed so much. It was, which fool thought of that one and often that fool with me. You know, I thought of the idea of at nine. 

So it was about having the confidence to operate in an environment of extreme ambiguity and you can never, ever wait till you know everything because you never will. But being confident about acting what you have at the time, communicating it clearly and being equally confident or comfortable in changing that as new information emerged. So it was much about the sort of attributes of management and leadership as opposed to the technical issues of the pandemic, which were obviously very much handled by the epidemiologists. It was about how you act in those crises.


Yeah, of course, and in those crises and in this time of unprecedented change. Something I wanted to ask you about was, you know, anecdotally as sort of an observer, I’ve seen a lot of society morphing and changing how they interact with each other. People are much more respectful of each other. You know, if a friend loses their job, there’s so many people jumping to that person’s aid to help them back into employment. You obviously, to use your words, working with marginalised members of society and communities, have you seen the fabric of society change at all this year? And is there anything that you can pinpoint as a tangible, yes, we are acting differently in this way?

I did notice, I think there was so much in the media which showed just some of the more reprehensible elements of society, like people hoarding toilet paper and taking all the flour and things like that. And I understand that was driven by panic and anxiety. But it was a shame that in some cases it seemed to reflect the bulk of how society was operating and our experience is almost exactly the opposite. Clearly, there were a number of people in distress, but there were equally people, like the busier they were or the more they had on the plate, the more likely they were to reach out to others and check in if they were okay. 

We also noticed as well, that as much as you know we were used to providing services and support to some people who are very vulnerable in the community, in some cases, we were being welcomed into their world. So if someone’s lived, for example, with a significant mental health issue, they’ve had a lifetime of experience, perhaps, you know, anxiety, isolation, same with older people. Suddenly they were the ones who actually were the subject matter experts and how to cope with difficult circumstances. So were there going we’ve lived with this, we know how to deal with this. And then the ones giving back the information, which was really interesting because it suddenly put them in a much better position of power and the subject matter expert rather than, you know, being the ones done to. I think society started to see them differently and say, okay, you’ve been coping, perhaps you’ve actually got something useful and valuable to contribute to how we all get through this together. So I think some of those barriers were broken down and society started to value people a bit more. I think the other thing that was a real game changer were the images on the television of suddenly what everyone considered your normal average person queuing up outside of Centrelink to get the benefits. It went…

Cooper: Almost instant.

Almost instant. And so suddenly, I think, as well society can look at sometimes the deserving poor versus the undeserving poor. And they could have just been a bit you know, if you’re taking Centrelink previously, then you must have done something wrong, you haven’t got your life together, whereas suddenly everyone saw just, you know, could have been your neighbour, could have been you queing for Centrelink. So the empathy for people in that position suddenly realised it’s not always your fault. And then we saw a big shift from society, I think, in thinking that the Newstart Allowance or some of the government allowance is just trapped people in poverty rather than gave them what they needed to, you know, to move forward. So I think that was a big shift, which will not go fully back to the way it was pre-COVID. 


Yeah, that’s interesting. And something that I was chatting with a colleague about earlier today is, you mentioned that some people being trapped in poverty and things like that, there’s such a rapid digitisation of society. And it was moving pretty quick before COVID, now in both the B2B and the B2C Worlds, it is accelerating very quickly, predominantly due to COVID at the moment. Do you see that, and this is sort of, will come back around to what we were just talking about, do you see that as being something that is good or bad or a mix of both? Because some people are really against social media and digital communications and things like that. Others think that, you know, we’re connecting the world, we’re changing the world for better with it. Do you have any thoughts on that from what you’ve seen?

We are quite agnostic about the actual technology and more interested in how it’s used. Anything can be used well or not well. So it’s really what role it plays and it’s a balance and it comes back again to sort of choice and control. Do you get a choice of how you use it? So during COVID obviously, right in the heart of the pandemic when people couldn’t come into offices and had to work from home, that was their only choice. And I tell you what, like looking at yourself on Zoom for 16 hours a day, it’s just pretty dispiriting. I’m just sick of the sight of myself at the end of that. But, it got people through. I think the thing that we found is that we’d personally been encouraging our staff to work from home well before this. And oh, but I can’t work from home, I’m paper-based and dah dah dah dah. Okay, well, the opportunities there. Come COVID, the offices were shut so people had to work from home. 

Never waste a good crisis. I think that’s the thing. Suddenly people realised they could work from home and it was okay. So now I think what it’s done, it’s given them two choices. And we’ve just continued to say work wherever you feel most productive. If you want to be in the office, in the office and if you want to work from home, work from home. So what we found, like most things, is moderation is key. If people have choice and can choose where and when and how they want to work, there’s benefits from both, from using the technology and or seeing people. But it’s genuinely a hybrid. But let people choose. 

The other thing you find is that, you know, digital connectivity is fantastic if you have the means, but digital inclusion is a real issue. Often the people, again, who are most marginalised have the least access to hardware, software, ability to use it are even more isolated than they were before. So we’ve got to just make sure we bring these people with us as well.


Yeah, of course, that was something that we were sort of touching on earlier. Everyone thinks, oh, it’s almost a default to have an iPhone, but it’s a really expensive piece of technology and getting connected online is another problem again. So, those things that aren’t necessarily top of mind for a white collar worker and things like that. In terms of, just to sort of cap it off or wrap it off, what, you know business people, CEO’s, GM’s, marketing directors, things like that that are in for-profit businesses. What would your advice be to them in terms of their corporate social responsibility based on the work that you’re doing with the team there at Rise Network, what should they be thinking about and working towards?

So I guess a couple of things is, I think if people know, because I also am from the private sector and government background previously as well, is I think the more you work with the not-for-profit sector you find, the more you find you’ve got in common rather than difference. We’re all employing people. We’re all trying to make a surplus, we’re all trying to please our customers, we’re all trying to create something better. And I think the value in helping marginalised people in our community succeed is a massive social and financial return on investment. So if you can get someone into a job, someone healthy, someone into housing, someone out of a family in a domestic violence situation, it makes everyone’s lives better because you’re not spending money on fixing things and people are actually contributing to the overall benefit. 

The other thing, even just as I’ll just leave you one final example, people are actually more skilled and better in the workplace than people know. There’s still quite a lot of discrimination around employing people from certain groups. So just as an example, people with disability, systemically have far higher or far lower absenteeism than people with non disability from the workplace. They’ve also got a far lower rate of incurring workers compensation claims than an average person in the workplace. And there’s a range of factors to just go, oh, that all sounds a little bit hard, but if you work with organisations like us, you can actually find that older people, people with a disability, young people have a huge amount to contribute, even if you’re just interested in the bottom line. If that’s what gets you through the night as well as the social benefits there are massive economic benefits and partnering with the not-for-profit sector and all the people we exist to support. So I’d say they’re not mutually exclusive. It is, mission and margin can both be achieved. 

Cooper: Okay, so tie them closer together. 

Tie them closer together and feel good about doing it.