In addition to their drive to make change, a disciplined strategic focus and reliable information of the sector in which they operate can further empower non-profit organisations to achieve their social aims, writes SIMON MUMME.

There is a saying among philanthropic circles that a social entrepreneur will not give a fish to a hungry person, or teach them to catch one: instead, they won’t rest until they have revolutionised the fishing industry.

When more than a quarter of the 1,800 people in Australia on waiting lists for organ transplants die as a result of organ failure, and the country boasts one of the highest rates of registered donors in the world, it is clear that fundamental improvements in the transplant process could turn around the lives of many Australians who might otherwise die needlessly.

This scenario caught the attention of Marvin Weinman, formerly the chief executive of George Weston Foods. He co-founded Outcomes Australia, a group of professionals from the fields of business, finance, medicine, academia and entertainment, to solve specific community problems through independent analysis and the application of business principles and methodologies. The first initiative from the group, ShareLife Australia, was established two years ago and aims to produce a significant cut in the number of Australians dying while waiting for a transplant.

Their efforts contributed to a $136.4 million grant over four years from the Federal Government to improve the organ donation process, which was announced last month. The group has also proposed a national scheme to implement a global best-practice organ transplant system in Australia, and a national education and awareness program.

After learning that the organs of 202 deceased donors were used in 2006 – from a registered donor population of nearly 6 million – and that Australian medicos achieved a 90 per cent success rate for organ transplants, the “supply chain problem” became evident, Weinman says. “How do you go from six million to 200? … The medical science of transplants is great. We don’t need more donors, just a better conversion process.” In Australia, there are 10 successful donations per 1 million people. In Spain, which has the highest number of successful donations, there are 35.1 for each million. In France, the figure is 22.2.

In 1989, Australia and Spain had an equal number of donors for each million – 14. But by 2007, the number in Australia had dropped to 10 while Spain’s had risen to beyond 30. ShareLife also found no correlation between the number of registered donors in Australia and successful donations: an additional 1 million registrations since 2002 has contributed fewer deceased donors. ShareLife concluded that if Australia adopted international best practices, such as that practised in Spain, the lives of more than 100 Australians each month could be saved or improved.

The group has recommended implementing a coordinated, accountable national approach based on leading practices overseas. In this, a national organisation would be the central point for all donor and transplant processes. At each major metropolitan hospital, a specialist donor-coordinating doctor would be appointed who can advise and educate medical staff and donor families of the process. They would also ensure that medical training and donor awareness programs in hospitals. These hospitals would be reimbursed for the costs of donor management. Across Australia, a clear and consistent education program would be run, and ongoing care programs for donor families and transplant recipients provided.

Two major initiatives are currently underway: to implement a global best-practice organ donation system and a national communications program to inform and educate the populace. Weinman asserts that ShareLife’s identification of the ‘conversion’ problem was due to its use of “bullet-proof” data. From this reasoning, it focused on ‘outputs’ –generating a higher conversion rate – rather than looking at ways to gain further ‘inputs’ – such as money and donors. The group’s ability to formulate and roll out programs to combat the problem is founded on the eclectic professional backgrounds and skills of the people involved, and their networks – the initiative has been publicised through Channel 7’s Sunrise program and in Fairfax and News Limited newspapers.

This focused, business-like approach and the use of influential contacts differentiated ShareLife from the 70-odd other organ transplant charities in Australia. Although Weinman found that people working in the other non-profits are well-intentioned, the initiatives are fragmented and not highly focused, and much funding was misdirected.

The ShareLife story was profiled last month at a Perpetual Foundation forum themed on the governance of non-profits. Managing director of Perpetual Investments and chair of the foundation, David Deverall, urged non-profits to formulate disciplined strategies to achieve their goals, and to put greater emphasis on outcomes, rather than fundraising, since the results that a non-profit achieves in the community is the measure of their impact.

Satisfying outcomes are earned by non-profits that “know where they are going, how they will get there and who they need to influence to get there,” Deverall said.

He said that boards should remind themselves often of their focus. “What are we trying to achieve and how do we measure it? And what do we do if we fail?

Join the discussion