10: The Power of Saying Yes with Peter Gordon, CEO Hands Across Canberra

In this INSPIRING interview we look at:

  • The power of collective giving
  • The challenge of harnessing people hours in organisations for social good
  • What tips people over from 'that sounds like a good idea' to following through and actually do something

Read more about Hands Across Canberra here

Book your spot at Edge of Leadership UnConference Here

Peter Gordon is the principal in Economic Futures Australia formed to bring together a number of Australia’s leading economic development professionals to help Governments, research organisation and companies to achieve their economic development and community engagement ambitions.  It operates at the interface between institutions, business and the community.

Community engagement

Peter also plays a significant role in the Canberra community as:

  • CEO of Hands Across Canberra, a community foundation making an impact by keeping local generosity local and in raising the capability of charities
  • Immediate past President of Duo Australia, Canberra’s largest provider of respite and other services to people in need;
  • Chair of the Gullen Range and Crookwell 2 and 3 Wind Farm and Patons Lane Resource Recovery Centre Community Consultative Committees;
  • Board member of the National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature; 
  • Board member of the Canberra Area Theatre Awards; and 
  • Board member of SmartStart for Kids and the Indigenous Marathon Foundation

Transcript of the Interview

Zoë Routh:

Hi, this is Zoë Routh, and this is episode 10 of the Zoë Routh Leadership Podcast, and I'm here today with Peter Gordon of Hands Across Canberra. Peter is going to be a table host at our event, The Edge of Leadership, coming up in March 2017, and some lucky people are going to get to spend a couple of interactions with him, dueling down on what social contribution and business can do together in the community. I'm so excited to hear his story. So, welcome to the podcast, Peter.

Peter Gordon:

Zoë, pleasure to be here.

Zoë Routh:

(laughs) Can you start by telling us a little bit about your background and your current role?

Peter Gordon:

I am a Canberran. I did my last three years of school here, and I've been here sort of on-and-off ever since. Longest time I spent not here was six years in Perth, and I've also lived in Bangkok for a little while, but Canberra's home. I've worked for the Federal Government, the ACT Government, and the West Australian Government, and for the last 10 years I've worked for myself. So I set up a company called Economic Futures, which is a consulting business, working, essentially, in the space between universities, training organizations, research organizations, and the rest of the world. After identifying the fact that universities generally weren't very good at doing business, and so we sort of did a lot of work in that space, formed research coalitions, that sort of thing. For the last six years I've also run, at the same time, Hands Across Canberra.

Zoë Routh:

Okay, so tell us, what is Hands Across Canberra? How did you set it up and what's its purpose?

Peter Gordon:

I wish Hands Across Canberra was my idea. It wasn't, sadly. A friend of mine, Sandra Lambert, was, up until five or six years ago, the CEO of the Community Services Department here. She and I had worked together previously, and she had just got back from a trip to America, and sitting in the plane realizing that, even if the government gave her three times as much money to do what the Community Services Department needed to do, it still wouldn't be enough. So it dawned on her, not unreasonably, that we needed to activate the community.

So when she got back, straight off the plane, she rang me and a couple of others and said, "We need to talk." So Sandra and I, and a couple of others, sat down and sort of worked through the issues, what she was thinking about. We said, "Okay, so how do we activate the community? What does that mean? What do community service organizations, what do they need?" So we ran this series of seminars with charities, service providers, asking them what they needed. They were a little bit incredulous to start with, if you like.

Zoë Routh:

Because you list ... Because people were asking what they actually needed?

Peter Gordon:

Yeah, and budgets, government budgets are always tightening and they're under threat. Governments want to do deal with fewer number of larger charities and larger organizations. Anyway, so we had this series of workshops, and it came down to three specific needs that they had. Firstly, they needed the opportunity to become less invisible. In other words, to become their need and their opportunity to be identifiable in the community. They needed money, of course, but they also needed professionalization, whether that's professionalizing of their boards, professionalizing of their staff, whatever it might be. The whole capacity building is the euphemism that is used in the sector. So they needed visibility, money, and professionalism capacity building. So then we set up a structure, the Hands Across Canberra structure came out of that.

So we started with this idea of a government leader saying she couldn't do it all on her own, and the government shouldn't be required to do it all on its own anyway, which is generally accepted. Talking to the service organizations themselves, you get a very practical sense of what they needed, and then we formed a structure after that. So the Hands Across Canberra foundation was set up.

We went through the normal processes of tax deductibility and constitutional formation, and all that sort of thing, and we've been going six years. This year, we feel as though we've sort of almost made it. Last year was in the startup,in the tech startup world. There's a period of time after formation where the founders get to the point and look at each other, and they look straight across the valley of death. Most startups actually end up in the valley of death and never survive. We survived that, which I think was about this time last year, and as a result of some really major initiatives, particularly the Master Builders Association building a couple of houses in our name in Deakin. A stupendously successful lunch, the biggest speaker at which was the Melbourne Lord Mayor's Charitable Foundation CEO, so that's our role model, they've got $200 million that they use. They've got the ability to spend nine or $10 million a year in grants. They're at the forefront of social innovation, and that's where we want to be in 50 years time.

Zoë Routh:

Fantastic. So rewind a little bit, I'm curious about the Master Builders Association project. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and how Hands Across Canberra fits into the picture with them?

Peter Gordon:

The Master Builders Association is a leadership organization in the building industry. They have had, in their relatively recent history of the last six or seven years, have built, previously, two houses for charity as their contribution to the community. Relatively modest comparatively outcomes. I think the first house made the surplus of one or two hundred thousand, the second one made a surplus of about, I think, five hundred thousand. As a result of a whole series of influences, the government donated two adjoining blocks of land to them in Deakin for their latest charity house project, and the world's just aligned beautifully. The government was embarrassed because they mucked around too long, so therefore they gave them two good blocks of land in Deakin instead of a modest block of land in Molonglo, or some of those other suburbs where we don't even know where they are.

The builder that demanded the right to do this project on behalf of the NBA was Renaissance Homes. Stupendously terrible story about the founder of Renaissance Homes. They're a large, really large Canberra home builder set up by the Kerec family. Lud Kerec, who's the father, fit, healthy, charming man, three years ago was on his bike doing an exercise on the son's pushbike. Went around the corner and crashed into another cyclist. Quadriplegic. The most terrible, devastating story. Anyway, as a result of that, the Kerec family know what it's like to have a loved one completely incapacitated, in Sydney, in hospital for a long time, and wouldn't have been able to come back to Canberra, except for the fact that Hartley Lifecare was there and was able to assist, and then they had the resources themselves, as a family, to provide all the services that a person in that condition would need. So because of their personal, tragic circumstance, they know how people in the community are just one pedal stroke away from being in the hands of community organizations.

So Andrew Kerec, who now runs the business with Mark Newman, said he wanted to do it, so he project managed the building of the two most beautiful houses. The total sale price was about three million for the two houses, and the total cost, because the suppliers and the subcontractors almost virtually done it at everything for free, so the total cost of building was about 800,000. So the surplus was 2.2 million, which comes straight into our accounts, and it's the single biggest donation in Canberra's community history, full stop.

Zoë Routh:

That's just an extraordinary story of people caring, who want to do something for the community, and I love how the profits go into Hands Across Canberra so that it can be leveraged across many charity organizations. So how many charities does Hands Across Canberra actually support?

Peter Gordon:

We have 150 charities registered with us. Support, you know I don't know what support means. We love them all, so is that support? So the idea of being in an emerging network with your leadership conversations, we want to have Hands Across Canberra be at the center of all that. So it's not just support money going out, but it's look to leadership and guidance and connections. So the 150 charities, we give away $100,000 a year or so in direct grants to about 10 or 15 charities a year. That'll increase now that we've got more money. So our plan is to try and find a way to spend about a million dollars a year directly into the community, invest some, and create a corpus over time which looks out for itself.

Zoë Routh:

That's amazing. So MBA, Master Builders Association, has a big role to play in that, so does the individual business. So I'm curious about your perspective on how business can, and might, connect communities. So where do you see the link, and how do you see it working?

Peter Gordon:

Well now, the great thing about doing what I do is that not one person that I've ever spoken to has asked me why I'm doing it. Because once you sit back and think, ugh. So that you're [inaudible 00:10:16] that Canberra should look out for itself. Businesses have got a part to play in that, yep. Individuals have got a part to play, everyone's got a part to play. I've done lots of jobs, you know, we've all done lots of jobs in life, and people say, "Why are you doing this? Your event in March?" And some people would say, "Why are you bothering, you know?" Not one person, not one human being, of the thousands of people I've spoken to, bored them senseless about what I'm doing, has said, "You're not doing the right thing." Or,  "Somebody else has got that covered," or, "You're wasting your time." No one, not one person. So the opportunity to turn that lack of negative ... Is that a proper word? Is that English?

Zoë Routh:

I don't know (laughs). Lack of negativity?

Peter Gordon:

Yeah.

Zoë Routh:

Sure.

Peter Gordon:

Into action ... You know, I think that's my trick, is to convert people saying, "Oh, fair enough," into, "Okay, what do you want me to do?" So if I can get 300,000 people in Canberra to say, "I have done something," not, "I have thought a good thought, I have actually done something," we're home and hosed.

Zoë Routh:

I'm curious about that question, actually. What goes from a good thought into action? Because clearly you're a man of action. You took this idea of Hands Across Canberra and actually brought it to fruition, and have done something with it. So if we're talking about people who have the same calling, same passion to make a difference, and yet are still sitting in, "I'm having a good thought and good intention," what does it take to actually tip somebody over into taking action?

Peter Gordon:

The right question.

Zoë Routh:

The right question?

Peter Gordon:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Zoë Routh:

And what is the right question?

Peter Gordon:

I don't know.

Zoë Routh:

(laughs).

Peter Gordon:

But I wish I knew. Are you going to help me with that? So we are allowed to talk about the lunch?

Zoë Routh:

Yeah.

Peter Gordon:

So every year, we have this big, grand lunch at the National Gallery. They've been a great supporters of ours ever since inception, really. This year, we did a couple of novel things. Part of the novel structure is that we sell corporate tables, but we only give the corporates eight seats, and we plant two charities on each table there, for it forces a conversation between business and charities, which is fabulous. But this year, we introduced two innovations. One is that we had some videos of real people doing real work, real charities doing real work, and the beneficiaries of those charities. But we also asked a man who has gone through the domestic violence process, from the perpetrator's side, to stand up and tell his story, and we thought, oh God, how is this going to go? I vetted his scripts beforehand, I coached him in the delivery, but I thought, oh, I just don't know.

Anyway, so he stood up and said what he had done, and how organizations that we had helped had saved him from losing two families. That stopped him from being homeless, stopped him from having AVOs and DVOs taken out against him, and the whole place was just mesmerized. That sort of very practical illustration, I think that's a substantial part of the storytelling process. There's no good in me, good old Peter Gordon, standing up and saying, "I need your help." People can see where there $10 or their $1,000 goes, that's where the S comes from.

Zoë Routh:

You said something, before we turned on the recording, about why some businesses do and why some businesses don't, and your answer to that was?

Peter Gordon:

It's the power of getting to yes. So as I said, no one has told me I'm not doing the right thing, but when I talk to people, they don't reach in their pockets and say, "Here, do this." So I've got to find a way of turning good thoughts and good wishes into action, whether the action's money, builders building a kitchen in the community center at Charnwood, whatever it might be. I can do that, but it's not Peter Gordon just having every conversation, and getting this person to do that and that person to do that. We've got to create a whole sense of people in the community looking out the window and saying, "Hmm, I haven't done anything for a while, what can I do?"

Zoë Routh:

I love that concept, the power of saying yes, and I think that's where you sit. When we're talking about some people do, and some people don't, that cusp of having a good intention and following through with action, it is really only a simple decision, which is to say yes. "Yes, I will do something, I will contribute something." I think, often, people don't have a sense of what they can do, or they feel overwhelmed by the massiveness of the issue that they're looking at, whether it's homelessness, or people with disabilities, or whatever the cause that they feel drawn to. They feel, I suspect, insignificant in contrast to making a difference there, and I think what you're demonstrating with Hands Across Canberra is that a lot of little yeses make one big piece of action. So you don't need to be a multi-billionaire in order to make a difference, and you said earlier that if every person in Canberra helped by giving $100, that would be, what? Three-

Peter Gordon:

30 million.

Zoë Routh:

$30 million.

Peter Gordon:

Per year.

Zoë Routh:

Per year, for the Canberra community, and you're right, the world does shift when we have that kind of leverage, and that's a small yes that, when you combine together as a whole, makes a big lever. I think that's the power of the concept of Hands Across Canberra. So it doesn't require everybody to be gazillionaires in order to make a difference, though I'm thrilled that there are gazillionaires making a difference in a big way with their own handful of cash, or several handfuls of cash. Small handfuls do actually add to the bigger pot, and I think Hands Across Canberra as a collective, as a pool, can make that grow into something enormous.

Peter Gordon:

Yeah, so if it was $10 a year per person, it's three million a year, and that'd be pretty good. So the Melbourne Lord Mayor's going to give away about 10 million a year with their big investments. I think we can get to that quite .... That's taken them a 100 years, to get that big, and Melbourne's obviously much, much bigger than Canberra. I reckon we could get to five or six million dollars a year, if I find this trick to the S.

Zoë Routh:

I think examples of people saying yes, and the opportunity to say yes and making it easier for people to say yes is helpful, and people knowing that ... I think, as you said, showcasing the videos of where the money actually goes, that's the stuff that is meaningful. I was at that lunch, and when that gentleman stood up and told his story of domestic violence, and how he found himself caught in patterns of anger and negative behavior that were destroying his family, and how he had the courage to seek help and to deal with that, that is a pretty astounding amount of courage. To stand up in front of 300 people and tell that story, which would've been very difficult in terms of reliving those painful experiences of shame and, I'm imagining, anger and betrayal and devastation, and to be transformed through that experience, through the support of different local charities that Hands Across Canberra help with.

There's a lot of people going, "Wow, it actually does work, it does actually make a difference to this man and to that man's family," and that matters. I think that's compelling, and to think my little contribution can be leveraged with everybody else's to help more and more people. You feel like your less isolated and more part of something bigger.

Peter Gordon:

I'll give you another example.

Zoë Routh:

Great.

Peter Gordon:

I've got a million examples. In most Australian major organization or enterprise agreements, or whatever they're called, workplace undertakings ... Many people, if not most in public service organization and the white collar organizations that categorized the Canberra labor market, all have at least one day, sometimes two, sometimes up to four days paid volunteering days in their agreements. Because of this I don't know what to do thing, with the absence of the S, my guess is that probably less than 25% of those days are actually used. So here we have this volunteer work force, paid volunteer ... that's a proper English expression of a paid volunteer workforce of, just say, 100,000 person days available, which evaporates every year because of the lack of, whatever the right word is.

Zoë Routh:

Don't know what to do, where to do it, how to do it, yeah.

Peter Gordon:

Don't know what to do, it's too hard, yeah. 100,000. So if I had 100,000 people for a day, I could change the trajectory of the orbit of the earth.

Zoë Routh:

Oh, that gave me goosebumps! (laughs).

Peter Gordon:

And that evaporates in Canberra every year.

Zoë Routh:

Ugh, that's so frustrating.

Peter Gordon:

It is. So, somehow or other, we've got to find a way of unlocking the economic potential there.

Zoë Routh:

So it's not just about the $100 or the $10 per person, it's also about the time and energy that people have, that they can contribute to different causes.

Peter Gordon:

Or the willingness of employers to embed that gift in their employment agreements, which has never, I wonder what the right word is, it's never realized. The gift is never realized.

Zoë Routh:

Yeah. I love that, to embed it into the corporate organization, and when I interviewed Andrew Sykes from RSM, he talked about having a social agenda incorporated as part of your DNA of your business, and I think this whole idea of releasing people for a day, as part of their enterprise agreement, is pretty critical. Certainly I know Konica Minolta, based out in Sydney, the managing director there, David Cooke, he's actually instituted that as part of his business platform, as part of their social giving, is that the staff are released for a number, I think it's more than a day, a number of days throughout the year to go and do hands-on charity work, if they want to. Not everybody wants to, some donate their money instead, and some donate their skill.

I think all those things, and Di Kargas talks about this all the time, treasure time and talent, if you find a way of helping employees do one or all of those three, as part of your business DNA. I know what Dr. David Cooke found is that the sense of fulfilment at work, through your work, is enormous. So there's a benefit to the individual employee, there's a benefit to the organization, because they create an environment that has multiple purposes for the stakeholders, the clients, the business owners, and also for the community. It's a powerful recipe for feel-good factor, and also making an enormous difference on the planet. So I love that. So incorporating a people-power days as part of a businesses enterprise. Looking at tangible returns, the cost-benefit analysis is enormous, really, in terms of having staff feel loyal and proud of their enterprise. That's a difficult thing to buy, and to create and to legislate, and you're just given the opportunity to have a heart-centered activity. That's brilliant.

Peter Gordon:

The challenge with that is that having ... there are four thousand people in the employment department here, so can four thousand people just walk out one day and go to the YMCA and paint fences? That's the challenge. So part of my reflection is that maybe there is an alternative way of unlocking that potential. Maybe it's not four thousand people, maybe it's a couple of people for a longer period than a day. It's different. Maybe we say, "I don't want you to come, just give me the money for the day." What's a day's wage, $500? I don't know.

Zoë Routh:

Depends where you work, I suppose, but I think it comes back to the individual. Not everybody wants to do hands-on volunteering.

Peter Gordon:

So they should be paying, they should pay me not to.

Zoë Routh:

(laughs) Yeah, that's your get out of jail free. Well, let's change that terminology. That is your ticket to feel good, and there's different ways of doing ticket to feel good. I think the important thing is to say yes to at least one of them. Give yourself the chance of the feel-good factor, and the opportunity to make a difference in somebody else's life.

Any advice you have for local businesses, in terms of getting involved in community?

Peter Gordon:

Well, yeah, to do it. Find something and do it. For example, the Canberra City Care at Charnwood, they operate this fantastic facility. They've got a food rescue service, they've got an Op Shop, they've got a technology facility where people that donate all their own computers, they get fixed, and sell them back into the community for $100 each. So people never have to be isolated, electronically at least. They've got a financial advisory service, but they want to build a community kitchen. I met with them for a variety of reasons, and I said, "Why don't you build a kitchen?" She said, "Yeah, that's a..." The first thing they had to do was put in a $20,000 grease trap. $20,000 for a grease trap?

Zoë Routh:

Wow.

Peter Gordon:

Anyway, so they're expensive things. I said, "Ah, I reckon I could get you a kitchen." So I went to my builder friend and said, "Yeah, yeah, come with me." So we went across the road to his mate, who runs a stainless steel business, and apparently he makes every commercial kitchen in Canberra.

Zoë Routh:

Oh wow.

Peter Gordon:

So for every commercial kitchen he makes, he's put that in and taken out the old one. So you've got all the second hand ones as well. I said, "We want...", he said, "Oh, okay." Just had to be asked, had to be given the opportunity to see a need, something that he could do, which wasn't particularly painful. All of a sudden, the old tongue-and-groove kitchen's going to be at bloody Charnwood.

Zoë Routh:

That's fantastic.

Peter Gordon:

Doing good work. They needed to be shown the way. Why people don't look, I don't know. People just get ... They're all busy doing their things, they're busy being busy. No one says no, but they've got to be found a way, got to be shown the way to turn good thoughts, decent thoughts, into actual action.

Zoë Routh:

I think it's the power of saying yes, and creating the opportunity to say yes, and I love that you're doing that with Hands Across Canberra, and it's what we're doing at our events, at The Edge of Leadership in March. Giving people the chance to explore how they might say yes to the different charities, and social contributions they could make. So it's more meaningful for them and makes a big difference in the community. I think that's a great place to end. Thank you so much for coming and chatting to us about Hands Across Canberra.

Peter Gordon:

It's a pleasure.

Zoë Routh:

I'm thrilled that people are going to get an opportunity to spend some time with you at our event next year. So thanks, Pete.

Peter Gordon:

Okay, thank you.