Country Education Foundation (CEF) recently welcomed Wendy Cohen to the CEO’s chair. Wendy is energetic, passionate and brings a bag full of sector experience to the organisation. Find out what makes her tick and what she has in store for CEF.
Tell us a bit about where you grew up? I had a bit of a nomadic childhood. My father was a school principal at small primary schools in regional NSW and so every few years we’d settle in to a new community. My family’s “tour” of NSW in the 70’s and 80’s took in Barry, Carrathool, Beckom, Monteagle and Nashdale.
I completed high school at Orange High School; not only did I receive excellent academic instruction and encouragement at OHS but I enjoyed fulfilling, and sometimes very successful, forays into debating, performing arts and sport.
The specific opportunities, challenges and benefits of a country-based education became very apparent to me during my school years. The lessons learnt and experiences had are among the most special and resonant of my life.
Did you go on to further study after school? Yes, I studied communications at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst.
So you didn’t start off in the not-for-profit sector. What did you do before you came to the sector? I had a short dip into public relations straight out of uni, before launching into a wonderful 12 year stint in the media. I worked in both Sydney and London in film production and talent management. I was fortunate enough to work with and learn from the best and most importantly I was able to hone my communication skills and develop an appreciation of a good yarn.
What first attracted you to the not-for-profit sector? Well it wasn’t particularly strategic… In fact, a horse led me to the NFP sector, (yet another sign that the girl had left the country but the country hadn’t left the girl).
I was working at Harry M Miller Management in Sydney and had just purchased a horse I hoped would take us to the Olympics, so when I saw an opportunity to work for Equestrian NSW I took it.
Eleven years later I was CEO of one of the most renowned state sporting bodies in Australia, working with dedicated riders, trainers and volunteers, trying to make a difference to the way Australian life and culture is shaped by sporting success and participation.
Another two NFP leadership roles in animal welfare and disability followed and then, in mid-2016, I saw an ad for the CEO role at Country Education Foundation.
What was your first reaction when you were offered the job at Country Education Foundation? When I first discovered the amazing work the organisation does, the dedicated board, staff and volunteers I thought it was a perfect fit for me. To then find out that the position was in Orange and would take me back to the scene of my beloved formative high school and uni days was such a bonus.
My convictions around education being a key enabler, my passion for social advancement and inclusion and the fact that I wanted to return to the country with my family have aligned with my career – that’s pretty special.
What’s your big dream for Country Education Foundation? It may be a bit early to articulate my “big plan” but I’m certainly excited about developing it with the CEF board, staff and volunteers. My immediate focus is to continue the amazing work done to date by everyone at CEF, including my fabulous predecessor, Sarah Taylor.
CEF is ready to develop and evolve into a truly national body with reach and impact across all of rural and regional Australia.
The organisation has done tremendous work to help country students realise their ambitions and think big. It’s important for it to now become a powerful voice for everyone with a stake in ensuring we have the best education system in the world that offers equal access for all.
We are in a wonderful position to help create meaningful and life-changing opportunities for young people – it’s just so exciting.
What’s the best thing about working in the NFP sector? That’s easy… the people. Some of the most amazing, inspiring, clever and impressive people I’ve ever encountered or worked alongside have been those working in the NFP sector. The shared desire to collaborate, make a difference and ultimately make the world a more interesting and fair place is a great reason to jump out of bed each day.
What do you see as the key challenges facing the not-for-profit sector in 2016? Getting your message and purpose to resonate with people and impact on their thoughts and actions when they already have thousands of competing messages in their day is the key challenge. This is particularly true of the fundraising space. There is only so much time and money people can give. The requirement for a unique value proposition, visible brand as a business and, ultimately, a great story is crucial if you are going to engage stakeholders, remain sustainable and help change the world.
CEF is fortunate to have all the necessary elements to effectively meet these challenges: our mission is so important and intrinsically linked to great social and economic outcomes for all of Australia; we have a purpose which is relatable for almost all of us; we have not only a powerful organisational story but inspiring individual journeys and successes to showcase; and we have an exceptional family of donors, volunteers, partners and staff already established. We are in great shape and will continue to develop.
Who or what inspires you? So much… I’m pretty passionate about and affected by many aspects of the big wide world. Generally it’s those in life who break down barriers and strive against the odds – those who return after failure and ultimately succeed, while retaining a sense of humour and perspective.
During my time in the disability sector I met some exceptional people who work to support people with disability every day in often challenging circumstances for little financial reward or acknowledgment.
I’ll spare you my list of my inspirational heroes from the arts, media and sport… Suffice to say, if Kathryn Bigelow made a film about horses starring David Attenborough and Rafael Nadal I’d be a happy camper!
But ultimately, my son. As clichéd as that might sound, he puts everything I do professionally and personally into context. He’s the battery I plug into when I need recharging. He reminds me how important it is to encourage imagination and ambition in young people and how vital it is that we all protect, nurture and inspire their futures.