Laurie McCowan is chief executive and founder, with his wife Olive, of Compassion Australia, a not-for-profit organisation that specialises in aid for children’s development. From 1975 to 1985 he was regional director for Asia of Compassion International. He began his career in philanthropy as business manager for Leprosy International in Indonesia. He is a fellow of AIM.
AIM: What is the role of Compassion Australia?
McCowan: We work with disadvantaged and at-risk children and families, primarily in education, health and disaster relief. All our work is in Africa, Asia and Central and South America. We work through Christian churches in these countries (without considering their religion or background). More than 50% of the people we assist are of a non-Christian background.
AIM: How did you start?
McCowan: My wife and myself started it in 1977. We are a partner of Compassion International; we have partners in Britain, Holland, France, New Zealand and Canada. We are all autonomous entities, but we partner for the work in the field. And we have a covenant council that binds us all together. So we have one face and one administration in the field instead of six.
AIM: What is your turnover?
McCowan: We receive $9 million annually in donations. We are now listed in the top 30 charities in Australia.
AIM: What are your sources of funds?
McCowan: Mostly individuals. We have 25,000 regular donors. Our growth rate is more than 15% annually.
AIM: To what extent do you apply business principles in your management, considering that it is not strictly a business?
McCowan: Our management has to be run on a sound numerical basis. We have to submit to government requirements for reporting. We also have to commit to the donor base, not just to the people in the field. We expect to report to donors on every aspect of the organisation. We guarantee administration and fund raising costs will not exceed 25% (taken together). That means that 75% of the donation goes direct to the field. Of the overseas aid organisations we are about the lowest.
AIM: Why is that?
McCowan: Our salary structure is based on the clerks award for clerical staff. Senior managers salaries are based on pastors and ministers, who are not highly paid people. We also reach out to people in the churches for support, so we don’t have high promotional or advertising costs. Our promotional costs equal 11% when New South Wales best practice is for it not to exceed 40%.
AIM: What is your philosophy with clients?
McCowan: The average life of our donors is 10 years. This is something that we track. Our very first supporter from 1977 is still with us. Ten years is pretty high. My wife has been working for 25 years and we have three people who have been working for 20 years. We just don’t lose people.
AIM: How big is your staff?
McCowan: We have 37 staff, including part-timers.
AIM: What is the biggest challenge?
McCowan: To remain focused. It is easy to get diverted when you are dealing with war, disasters and poverty. I worked in Rwanda and it was an emotional experience more than a million people were killed. Emotion can get in the way. It is a big part of what we do, but it is easy to get diverted. Focus and passion are what we need.
AIM: Is the staff easy to manage?
McCowan: I found managing staff in this organisation easy, both here and in the field. We recently took five ladies to the Philippines and introduced them to the children they have been working with for years, and that fired them up. I am looking to take some of the long-term clerical staff to see the children, so they get really fired up and motivated.
AIM: Is it getting better or worse in Asia, which is supposed to be on the improve?
McCowan: I still see a lot of kids in poverty, a lot of prostitution, a lot of kids who can’t go to school. In Asia, you get a large proportion of the community who are quite wealthy, but a huge section that is very poor. For the segment of the community that we work with, I don’t think things have changed much.
AIM: Is there a risk of despair?
McCowan: If you look at the problems in a place like India the poverty and the cruelty in some places you would say that there is no way you would change that. I don’t believe you change communities by giving them wells. Communities change when you change people and give them a new focus. It takes longer, but it is sustainable.