E21 - Business and Community: An Advocacy Opportunity, with Susan Helyar, ACTCOSS

Susan Helyar is the Director of ACT Council of Social Service Inc (ACTCOSS), and a Table Host for the the upcoming Edge of Leadership UnConference, March 28 here in Canberra.

In this interview we dive into:

  • Why community advocacy is critical in maintaining the compassionate heart of the community
  • The hidden story in the strong average cost of living in an affluent community like Canberra, and how many are stuck in a cycle of poverty that goes unseen
  • When you are asked, 'does this bother you', what are you prepared to do to make a difference in complex social challenges? A little goes a long way.


Zoë Routh: Hi, this is Zoë. Today, we're looking at social agenda from a completely different angle. We're looking at it from an advocacy point of view. We've got the amazing Susan Helyar from ACTCOSS here in Canberra to talk to us about how business and advocacy can work together for the greater good of the community. It's fascinating and influential work. Let's get into it. 

Introduction: Welcome to the Zoë Routh leadership podcast, your source of strategies and insights to make you a better leader. Influence, improve, inspire.

Zoë Routh: Hi, this is Zoë Routh. Today I'm here with Susan Helyar of ACTCOSS. We've got a really different kind of interview, because we're talking about the intersection of business and community and advocacy in Canberra. It's quite an interesting dynamic space to play in. Welcome, Susan.

Susan Helyar: Thank you.

Zoë Routh: I guess the first question, for those who aren't familiar with it, can you tell us what is ACTCOSS, and what is your raison d’être? Your reason of being.

Susan Helyar: We're the ACT Council of Social Services, and we've been around for 54 years now. Formed to provide a place for people who are interested in community development, care about social justice, and are working in the community either as volunteers or in paid roles, to come together and to collaborate on making Canberra a better place.

Zoë Routh: Okay, so that's like, different community agency, people working in different community agencies coming together and discussing big picture issues. 

Susan Helyar: Yeah, and not just agencies. We have individual members, so ranging from people who are in very senior professional positions to people who are living with the impacts of discrimination and disadvantage. They join us because they want to be part of an advocacy agenda and a public voice. We also have service providers, and we have self-help groups that are members. It's basically for people who are interested in social justice and central change, and particularly focused on the experience of disadvantage and poverty, how can we work together to influence policy, to influence decision makers, and to shape the community in which we live?

Zoë Routh: How do you actually do that? I'm just in the advocacy space. For community organisations to advocate for their services and the agenda, tell me what that actually looks like in practical terms.

Susan Helyar: Yeah, so what it's looked like over the last five years is we've worked really hard on finding a shared agenda. It involves talking with our members to find out what they think are the most critical things that need to change in this community. For us, that's been, housing has been at the top of that list. Making sure people get access to housing, access to homelessness support, access to support to secure and sustain affordable, accessible housing. In some ways it can be that really practical concern that people coalesce around, but also it's about human rights. Thinking through more broadly, what is it that we share as some core values that we want to see expressed and asserted in the way government operates, in the way businesses operate, and in the way the community evolves?

Zoë Routh: Hmm. Speaking of Canberra and the community, there's this perception I'm imagining out there that Canberra, a very wealthy community, full of public servants and government, how big or small is the homelessness situation, the people living in poverty in Canberra itself? 

Susan Helyar: Yes, it's one of the challenges we face. Canberra has excellent averages, so on average we're paid, on average we're well-educated, on average we're healthy. That averages really mask the experience both at the top and the bottom. What we see is that whilst averaging counts can be quite good in Canberra, that then sets an average cost of living that's quite high. If for some reason you're not in the average, you really can become quite marginalised. That's what we've tried to really have people understand. It's a good thing that we're a relatively safe, relatively healthy, relatively well-educated place in Australia. That's all great. We do celebrate that, but that actually creates an even stronger imperative, we think, to deal with the gap. The gap still exists, and the fact that we're one of the richest cities in one of the richest countries in one of the richest times in history, actually puts an added imperative on us to do something about inequality and discrimination and poverty.

Zoë Routh: Do you find that people are really being left behind as a result of that? Is it the classic richer getting richer and the poorer getting poorer, is it that dynamic? Or simply that there is a gap and we need to close it?

Susan Helyar: I think there's a gap, I think it's growing in terms of cost of living, because our employment patterns are changing. If you're in a full-time, secured job, and in fact if you've got two of those people in your household, you can do well in Canberra. We've got good public systems and we've got a commitment to things like better public transport and good public health services, which everybody benefits from. If you're not in a household where you've got two incomes and they're both secure, then the gap is widening. The largest number of people, the biggest growth in the number of people that are going to emergency assistant services, or places that provide food packages or help with your bills, isn't people who are in jobs. It's not that they haven't got a job, it's that their job doesn't have enough hours, or is not, you're coming in and out of work as you get temporary contracts. You just can't keep up all the time.

Zoë Routh: It's the temporary nature of the contracts that's driving this weird up and down cycle.

Susan Helyar: Absolutely, it drives things like the poverty problem. It's hard to predict your income over a year. Your income can be really patchy. Of course your rent comes out every week, or your mortgage payment. That's one thing. The other thing that's creating a gap is both your access to credit and your access to risk protection. We know that if you've got one of those more patchy work histories, you're not a good bet for a bank. You might not get access to the good quality, secure, low cost of credit. You might be using your credit card, you might be using a payday lender to get access to credit, because you don't get it in the mainstream market. The other thing we see is that people don't have insurance.

Zoë Routh: Right, because insurance can be really expensive.

Susan Helyar: Absolutely. It's one of the things people jettison out of the budget. It is more discretionary than your keeping a roof over your head, keeping the electricity on, and having food on the table. Insurance is one of those things that gets jettison, that if you don't comprehensively insure your car, and you've got a shift work job, and you smash it up, then you're kind of stuck.

Zoë Routh: Yeah, that's pretty devastating.

Susan Helyar: Yeah. That's what's creating the gap. Then people that are back at the wrong end of the gap, they're even more vulnerable because they're there. That's why our advocacy work has really focused on understanding who are these people, and who's got an opportunity to do something about that? We advocate to government, but particularly on housing, we've advocated really hard to the private sector and have said, we're not a command economy. We're looking to be a lower-tax place, so if you're not, if we're not prepared to give money to government and authoritative government to fix the housing system, then it's up to the market to fix the housing system and to fix it for those people that are being locked out at the moment.

Zoë Routh: I'm interested in that partnership with private sector, or instead of just turning to government to fix the solution, turning to the private sector. How does that work in practical terms? What kinds of things do you go to a private sector with, in terms of helping to solve this community challenge?

Susan Helyar: One of the things we've done is not dissimilar to what we've done with our own membership and colleagues in the community sector is to say, does this bother you as well? To take the opportunities, to engage with the leaders in the private sector or leaders in when it comes to housing in the property sector, around does this bother you? Some of that's about getting people information, explaining to people these issues, sharing with them research. We did some work with ACT shelter, the youth coalition in the Women's Center for Health Matters, where we asked about, had a news poll of a thousand people and asked them what they were doing to keep a roof over their head. What we found was families with children are doing nothing other than go to school.

Zoë Routh: What do you mean by that?

Susan Helyar: No family on teams, no extra-curricular activities for the children. People in work who are in housing that's too expensive for their budgets, they do nothing other than ...

Zoë Routh: Go to work and go to school.

Susan Helyar: Go to work and go to school, which is a problem, particularly for children to have no social networks, no social activity outside of school. It's not good for their development. It's not good for the family to not have ways of building and growing and sustaining their informal networks of support and connectivity. It's not just oh, they're missing out on an outing. It's actually, that's core to doing well in life is that you've got those connections, those relationships, and you're exposing yourself to things, particularly children, to help them grow and develop and learn and become good citizens.

Zoë Routh: Oh, absolutely. 

Susan Helyar: That sort of research we present, where we came to people in the sector, we've been very grateful for the opportunity that the Canberra business chamber has provided for us to address their post-budget breakfast. We've had a chance to talk with the business audience about how we see the ACT budget and what we think our priorities and risks and good things that have come out of the budget, or areas we want to see gaps. We worked with the business sector both directly and more indirectly around raising awareness and finding the people in the business community that might care about this. There are people who care about this. 

Zoë Routh: In their caring, does that translate into action? If so, what kind of action?

Susan Helyar: What we were really pleased with was that we had developed some dialogue with some of the industry buddies in the business sector that related to property and construction. Then in the lead up to the ACT election, we got a group of people that included the unions, the property sector, the construction industry, and the community sector to come together and to agree a position that would be brought to the new government around what was needed in terms of the housing strategy for the city.

We were able to translate good will and concern into some commitments to a shared agenda into the future. We think that's actually critical, that government needs an understanding of where consensus lies, and an opportunity to work with people who have prepared to work together to deliver on what the agenda consensus is.

Zoë Routh: If you were to make a call out to local businesses here, what kind of local businesses would you be inviting to come and engage with you, and what kinds of things would they be doing? What you just talked about was a high level agenda piece, so putting voice and muscle, I guess, or presence, behind a proposal that's got a broader concern. That's strictly advocacy work. Is there other tangible things that people can do? Tell me a little bit about how you see business contributing.

Susan Helyar: Sure, and we've seen it a lot in the increased awareness and response to issues around domestic and family violence, where people wanted to be very practical. I heard one story of a business that did window security treatments. I had contacted the service and said, which women need their windows made more secure so they can be safe at home and not have, you know, and have an ex partner with whom they're having a legal dispute come and threaten them. Businesses kind of ... It's really valuable for us to say here's the problems, and for businesses to talk about where they see they can contribute to the solution.

The other thing that happened around the domestic and family violence was one of the big issues is access, dealing with the financial problems that come from many people would know when you split up, sorting out the finances, one of the more awkward and difficult things.

Zoë Routh: Yeah, my husband's a divorce lawyer, so I know about that.

Susan Helyar: Yes, exactly. Imagine if it's not just that you have decided to split up, that you've left under the circumstances of escaping violence, and then you have to negotiate your financial arrangements. Also that you can have what's called sexually transmitted debt, where you might, the person who leaves might be carrying debts that they didn't even know that they were liable for. There's a whole lot of things that can go on there. Working with the finance industry about where would be a place for them to engage and to have some practical interventions and some services and some products that would make a difference for that group of people.

Then we can go down to the really basic, you know, there is ongoing, unmet demand for just the material assistance. People on very tight budgets, not because they waste their money, but because they've got low incomes and they've got high expenses, or expenses that don't match their incomes. Food parcels, assistance with bills, no interest and low interest loans, all of those things we can always do more of, and many in the community can make very practical contributions. We're often looking for that. I got a call a little while ago from a man who'd seen our media presence around homelessness. He said, oh, he ran a small business and he said, "We've decided we're raising money for swags. Who shall I give some swags to?" Yeah. That's just as welcome as people joining a big advocacy campaign. I think ...

Zoë Routh: My sense is that people gravitate to the tangible and practical because it feels like they can get a good, tangible win, or easy win out of it, and yet the bigger work of the advocacy piece is also really important. Harder sell, in terms of getting people involved, necessarily. Is that what you find as well?

Susan Helyar: Yeah, absolutely. I think the swags is a good idea, or the construction industry here has raised $2 million building houses that they auction off. Those practical things are the things people can grab hold of and see a result from, but what we know is even if you did all those things, there would still be people who become homeless, due to circumstances, due to crisis, due to just life. There will always be that. Advocacies to sustain funding for homelessness services so that they can work well with people to help them stabilise, recover, and move on with their lives. That's undoubtedly absolutely critical. I suppose the reason why, I'm a social worker by training, so I loved doing the very direct work, but I actually saw that doing the advocacy work is as vital, even though it can be more frustrating, and you have this kind of obvious line of sight between your work and an outcome. We can't just do the practical things.

Zoë Routh: You're absolutely right. Advocacy is really working on the next, like if I have in my mind this visual of a mountain, top of the mountain is the pointy end of the problem, which you just described. People at the pointy end who are out on the street, they need some immediate assistance. Then the next layer down is addressing the systems that create some of those problems, or sustain some of those problems. The advocacy work is working to manage or change those systems, and it's a longer journey. It takes a bit more time and effort. You're right, you don't get quick wind out of that necessarily.

Susan Helyar: No, but I think it's ... I think it's absolutely critical work. It could benefit from some more diverse engagement across business and communities. For example, one of the things you have to do is some tactical leveraging of resources.

Zoë Routh: What does that mean?

Susan Helyar: Well, we're a small organisation, but we've worked, the example I gave you before of that research that we do, we do it with four organisations. 

Zoë Routh: Okay.

Susan Helyar: We pull together a shared pitch. We were able to, between us, access resources from government for research. It was a small amount of money. A senior official in our city government is that could spend that much on one project with a private sector firm. We funded four projects over those years we had good engagement and good access to the community through those projects because of our roles and our relationships. We created material that hadn't been produced before. 

That sort of tactical leveraging of resources is critical in our work, and probably we could learn from business around that. Businesses are doing that all the time as well, to different ends for different purposes, but it's some shared work around how you maximise advocacy through understanding from other industries or other practices would be welcome, I think.

Zoë Routh: Absolutely, because you're playing with the similar systems and similar structures. Sometimes you're trying to, in business, trying to deliver a service to the similar audiences. Just my brain is going overload at the moment. I'm thinking that if we work together to fix the system, it would serve the greater community, and therefore the way that business benefits from that is that they have more robust, healthy, wealthy community, businesses prosper. It's kind of a synergistic positive cycle. If business takes part in building a better community, business gets better and therefore could help increase community. It's an interesting dynamic. Having worked in not for profits for 30 years myself, I know that we often had a dynamic between the not for profit, then the audience that we're trying to reach in service, the government industry, and then business was kind of left out on its own. You go cap in hand for business and you go, please help us, whereas I think the true partnership model is something that's much more effective and much more long term in terms of long term benefits to all parties involved. That's great.

Susan Helyar: Much more respectful. You know, we don't want to be the cap in hand, we're the dodgy community sector coming to you for money, actually. We're a sector that delivers enormous social capital and human capital development to the economy. We can partner with business in a shared value framework that understands that's what we bring to the partnership and what business bring is their experience and their role as producers and sellers of goods and services, and come into it that way and then having government as a third party who has a role in regulating how things happen, setting the policy frameworks and determining community expectations and priorities.

I think we're looking for that shared value relationship rather than the cap in hand. I think the proposition to business is there's a customer base here that either you don't understand, or you're not attending to, and potentially a talent pool that's not well tapped into because of discrimination or trauma or a stigma or whatever. We work with those people all the time. We're keen for them not to be our business forever. We want them to be, and they want to be, part of the world and having agency in their own lives and how we have a role for business, the community, and government in making sure that happens is I suppose the sweet spot.

Zoë Routh: Absolutely. I love what you're doing in terms of working to change the story around the community sector, and also to change the story about the people that you service, and that they're not just poor old recipients. They're individually working actively to become agencies themselves, capable of managing their own lives and so on. Changing the story of the community sector as shared value partners from cap in hand, how much of a stigma, or how much of a current story do you think there is about the community sector? What do you think is the dominant paradigm around the community sector?

Susan Helyar: I think if I read the newspaper, the dominant paradigm is that we're worthy but potentially not very savvy, and that we would do better if we were more like corporates. We would do a better job if we had a more corporate approach to life, and that we need to not rely on government for our continuation. That seems to be the broader narrative that's out there.

Zoë Routh: What does it mean, be more like corporates? In what way?

Susan Helyar: I think to have more financial acumen and to be more thinking about how to engage in a competitive market, which are reasonable and not a problem. What I see is the problem with that narrative is thinking that we should become less committed to social capital. 

Zoë Routh: Is that part of the ...

Susan Helyar: Well, I think that's a risk.

Zoë Routh: Okay.

Susan Helyar: I think that is a risk, because what we've seen with the ... With some programs is as government cuts back on them that entities that work really hard to keep things going, which they see as critical in their community, are seen as making poor business decisions.

Zoë Routh: Yeah, right.

Susan Helyar: I think we need to understand when is it ... We exist because we're not just going to make decisions that work financially. We're going to make decisions that work in terms of building and sustaining social capital, decisions that are about asserting and affirming and progressing human rights, and those things often have a financial cost. That cost is worth bearing.

Zoë Routh: Right. Do you feel that the community sector is being pushed into the social enterprise model? Do you think that's part of it, or is it a separate thing?

Susan Helyar: Actually, community service has been running social enterprises for a hundred years. There's many that have been operating like that, and we have mutuals and cooperatives that have some of the same qualities and social enterprises, some of them really huge in Australia. I don't think it's that people are uncomfortable with social enterprise or not willing to go to that space, but I think we have to be really clear about what activities would the social enterprise business model work for. I think what we're seeing mostly is it's quite, for a lot of the newer ones, that they're quite small. They're quite niche, and they're often not long term. They fill a need, they develop a model of working or a product or a service, and then that need changes and that business model no longer works. That's okay, but I think we need to really think about to, which activities are suited to which kinds of business models, and how do we make sure we've got a fit for purpose operating environment that allows for different business models to operate, and doesn't preference one over the others.

Zoë Routh: Yeah, right. I'm curious now, just to change tack a little bit, about leadership. You've been a social worker by training, and you've been in the advocacy space for awhile. What is important to you in leadership?

Susan Helyar: I think you have to be yourself in a leadership role, and you have to find a way to lead that feels authentic to you. Authentic is an over utilised word, but I think that feels right for you and feels genuine to the people with whom you engage. For me, it's important to be a leader. I like consensus. I think consensus is a useful paradigm. I lead using a consensus model. In the leadership role in that cause it's been about building partnerships and collaborations and shared agendas.

Now someone else could've come to this role and led it differently and achieved similar outcomes, but I think leaders need to work in a way that feels right for them. Also an important part of leadership is to be deeply willing to be reflective and willing to be aware, so having humility and ability to listen to others. That's a challenge for leaders, because we're given lots of entitlement to talk and to be a voice. How as a leader you work on sometimes not talking and being really willing to listen is I think important for a sustainable leadership role. 

Zoë Routh: It certainly is if you're moving into, if you were leading from a collaborative space, because you can't grandstand and push authority when you're working in partnership, in shared value arrangements for sure. You have to actually work in that space where I listen, I respect, I hear, I value, and find a way together.

Susan Helyar: Yes. Yeah. It can mean that some things are more possible than others. I think that's where you need to think about do I need to adapt as a leader? Is that paradigm, that all relevant or useful? I don't think you can ever adapt to the point where you're not being true to your own strengths and personality. I think then you lose credibility as a leader.

Zoë Routh: Absolutely. You've got to find yourself and be open to others.

Susan Helyar: Yeah, I think so.

Zoë Routh: Susan, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. I find it fascinating, it's very difficult, complex work that you're doing in terms of advocacy and looking to change the system and build a broader human social agenda, all working towards a better community that we can all enjoy and be inclusive with. Thank you so much for joining us and for your work itself.

Susan Helyar: Thank you, Zoë. It's great to be able to share.