Vision and courage: the ripple effect

Fairley Leadership Program’s legacy is immeasurable

I was privileged last year to write about the reflections of the people who helped shape the nationally renowned Fairley Leadership Program.

The ripple effect of the program, regionally and beyond, was a common theme through my interviews with the visionaries and chief executives for the program’s 20th anniversary booklet.

The impact of the program is immeasurable. In its first 20 years, more than 500 people from all walks of life graduated from Goulburn Murray Fairley Leadership Program.

Many others have graduated from similar regional programs modelled on The Fairley Leadership Program template. It’s a profound legacy for communities of all sizes in regional Australia.

After its first decade, an independent review of the program showed nine out of 10 Fairley Fellows (91 per cent) did volunteer work for community groups and organisations, nearly three times as much as the average for adult Australians.

The Achievements of Fairley Leadership: An Independent Review (August 2007) also showed Fairley Fellows were more likely than the typical Australian volunteer to be involved in managerial and strategic planning activities for community groups.

It’s little wonder, other regions throughout Australia have been inspired to emulate the program.

However, it took qualities of leadership ̶ vision and courage ̶ to sell the concept to the Goulburn Murray region before the program’s 1997 launch.

Among those I interviewed for the 20th anniversary booklet was the program’s inaugural chair and now Fairley Leadership Program patron Ross McPherson.

"...we realised we had to start developing our own community leaders."

–Ross McPherson, Fairley Leadership Program inaugural chair and now patron

In the wake of the recession, Ross said the region had faced “the double whammy” of governments and corporates centralising and withdrawing offices and top-tier managers.

“These were the people who brought outside skills and contacts to the region; sat on school councils and hospital boards and local government,” Ross said.

“Country people were very good at running things themselves ̶ working bees and raising money and helping each other ̶ but they benefit greatly from the nourishing of outsiders coming in.

“This was drying up and we realised we had to start developing our own community leaders.”

Ross and then principal of Goulburn Ovens TAFE Peter Ryan had recently completed state-run community leadership programs and were particularly impressed with Ross’ 1995 experience in the Williamson Community Leadership Program.

They wanted to mirror the program for Goulburn Murray people and the vision was realised as one of Australia’s first regional community leadership programs.

However, it was a challenge securing seed funding for the “airy” concept of replenishing the region’s leadership capacity.

Ross and Peter approached local councils and successfully pleaded for seed funding and later the Sir Andrew and Lady Fairley Foundation agreed to annual funding. In-kind sponsorship of regional companies and institutions and hundreds of guest speakers was, and continues to be, vital to the program’s ongoing success.

"There was nothing extravagant about the project. We did it all on the smell of an oily rag."

– Anne McCamish, Fairley Leadership Program's first executive director

While the program is now widely acknowledged, its first executive director Anne McCamish had the challenge of selling the steering committee’s vision to the community while also creating its operational template.

Despite funding constraints, Anne and the steering committee did not compromise on delivering a high-calibre program with quality speakers, a benchmark which continues to this day.

“There was nothing extravagant about the project. We did it all on the smell of an oily rag,” Anne said of its inception.

In its infancy, while establishing the program’s credibility, Anne had much to explain as she canvassed support in the Goulburn Murray region for free high-quality speakers, venues and catering.

“I feel proud to be part of a regional community which embraced a visionary idea in good faith,” Anne said.

Ross said the program had far exceeded his expectations.

“I have been surprised we still get so many good quality cohorts. A lot of them are very active at different times.

“They are on local councils, in parliament, on water boards, hospital boards, school councils and any number of community and sporting bodies and non-profits.”

See full stories in the booklet

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