After 14 years at the helm of ChildFund Australia, CEO Nigel Spence stepped down at the end of December 2019. The Australian Council for International Development just recently named Nigel as the recipient of its Outstanding Contribution to the Sector Award, celebrating his 40 years of commitment, enthusiasm and tireless advocacy for children. ChildFund Alliance Secretary General noted his dedication and years of service when presenting him with a parting gift in Bangkok in November, where he attended his last CEO Forum. Following the meeting, Nigel shared key reflections of his time with the organization, which he joined in 2006.
After spending nearly a decade and a half as CEO of ChildFund Australia, what will you miss most when you step down?
More than anything, I will miss the extraordinary people whom I have met and worked with including children, young people and parents in diverse communities. Also, the wonderful colleagues who are committed, principled and determined to make a positive difference. I am incredibly fortunate to have spent time with these people and to have enjoyed so many rich experiences over the years. I will miss them very much.
What first drew you to ChildFund and how have you seen the organization evolve during your tenure?
I didn’t know ChildFund before I joined the organisation in January 2006. My previous career was in the Australian child protection field and I was unfamiliar with international development NGOs. When I accepted the position as CEO, ChildFund Australia was an organisation with strong fundamentals but in need of modernization and reform. Since that time, ChildFund Australia has changed dramatically. Most noticeably, it is much larger, with more than twice the revenue, and with new country operations in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, projects in the Pacific, and expanded programming in Vietnam and Papua New Guinea. A strong emphasis has evolved on revenue diversification, program quality, monitoring and evaluation, clear policy and management systems. These changes have brought about important reforms that ultimately have strengthened our effectiveness and reputation. I am very proud of what our team has achieved.
Thinking back on your travels with ChildFund, is there a trip or experience that was particularly memorable or perhaps one that affected you deeply on a personal level?
The visits to communities across the Asia-Pacific region have been profound and are some of the best experiences of my life. Walking all day up a mountain range in Papua New Guinea, meeting local people from small villages who had never seen foreigners before, experiencing their generosity–this was all quite extraordinary.
Just last month, in a remote part of Vietnam, I was struck by the adversity and resilience of a young mother and her 11-year-old son who was recently diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Theirs is a very poor household where the father moved away to find work. There are no available support services and the mother is struggling to provide for her family. It brought home to me the importance and enormity of the challenge that ChildFund and others face if the goal of leaving no child behind is to be achieved.
The resourcefulness of local people has also impressed me. I recently talked with a group of teenagers in Cambodia who are planning to migrate for work. They are participating in ChildFund’s Safe Migration Project and are equipping themselves with crucial knowledge and coping strategies. I felt deeply concerned about the risks they face, but I also was very impressed by their support for one another and their determination to create a better future for themselves and their families. Their energy and optimism were infectious.
You and your team recently celebrated a major achievement with ChildFund Pass It Back. Describe the impact the sport of rugby has had on children and tell us how you think the partnership with World Rugby helped to better position ChildFund as a global organization?
ChildFund Australia’s willingness to experiment with innovative programs and non-traditional partners are some of the reasons why the partnership with World Rugby became a reality. Also, sheer hard work, perseverance, and outstanding leadership by some exceptional individuals.
Pilot testing sport for development in Laos in 2012 found a clear resonance with Rugby’s values, which led to the creation of ChildFund Pass It Back—a comprehensive rugby and life skills program for children. The success and expansion of ChildFund Pass It Back attracted the attention and support of Asia Rugby, then World Rugby. Ultimately, it helped us secure the prized opportunity of World Rugby selecting us as its official charity partner for the Rugby World Cup.
Without doubt, the regional and international visibility for ChildFund, the fundraising opportunities, and new corporate connections have all elevated ChildFund’s reputation as a global actor. Most importantly, the youth leadership emerging from this program is very exciting. Young people across Asia are getting the opportunity to play a sport that allows them to learn and grow, and in turn, they pass back the benefits of their growth to their own communities.
What advice do you wish to share with your CEO colleagues who will continue to carry the torch on behalf of children’s rights?
My ChildFund Alliance CEO friends are highly experienced and don’t need my advice! But I hope they will stay true to the cause by retaining and building a deep, authentic engagement with children and young people.
The intense pressures on CEOs force them to constantly think about revenue-raising, however I believe the starting point always should be consideration of the issues (and strengths) of our primary stakeholders – children, young people and families. Revenue raising will continue to be extremely challenging. Ultimately, the quality of ChildFund’s engagement with people in need will be what provides the compelling cause to which people will donate.
What advice do you offer the Alliance in terms of remaining relevant—particularly now, as it is in the midst of shaping a new five-year strategic plan?
The Alliance is going through a robust strategic planning process. Thoughtful analysis of the options the Alliance members are generating will be very important because the Alliance has to be willing to modernize in order to respond to the issues of today. However, no matter what focus, campaign or direction the Alliance chooses, I think the voice and experience of children and young people deserve the utmost prominence.
What do you look forward to as you think about the next chapter in your life’s journey?
For the immediate future, I am looking forward to taking an extended break. Beyond that, I will continue with my PhD and consider new opportunities that may come my way. I very much hope to stay connected with the many great friends I have met through my time at ChildFund, and I hope to continue to contribute to the vital work of social purpose organisations. Their role is more important than ever in a conflictual world where the rights of excluded groups are ignored. And of course, I will follow the Alliance’s progress with great interest and look forward to keeping in touch.