Sprout Cast Episode 1 with Rhys Williams - Founder & CEO, The Makers
Published: May 15, 2015
Read Time: 28 minutes
Rhys Williams is the founder and chief executive officer of The Makers. In this episode of Sprout Cast we explore Rhys’ experience founding the West Australian based social enterprise The Makers and his experience as a young person on non-profit boards. Rhys offers great advice and insights for aspiring social enterprise founders and non-profit board members.
Speaker 1: Welcome to SproutCast, where we speak with change makers, social innovators, and entrepreneurs about how to make the world a better place. Now here’s your host, Julia Duffy.
Julia Duffy: Welcome to SproutCast. My name is Julia Duffy, and today we’re speaking with Rhys Williams of West Australian organization, The Makers. Rhys has had a varied career in the non-profit sector, leading a number of organizations, as well as serving on several boards. He currently serves on the board of the Mandurah Performing Arts Centre, Regional Development Australia Peel, and Small Business Center Peel. He’s also an ambassador of One Young World. Welcome to SproutCast, Rhys.
Rhys Williams: Thanks for having me.
Julia Duffy: I thought I’d start by asking you, Rhys, how your relationship with NFP space kind of arose. Were you always interested in being involved in NFPs? When did this involvement begin?
Rhys Williams: It happened completely by accident. I was in high school. I was involved … I didn’t even know what a not-for-profit was, but I was volunteering for a local health promotion context with some mates.
Julia Duffy: Okay, wonderful.
Rhys Williams: It kind of grew from there.
Julia Duffy: I think that’s probably a similar story for a lot of people, that it begins with volunteering or perhaps fundraising drives at school. What was perhaps your more serious involvement with an organization beyond just that volunteering stage?
Rhys Williams: Yes, so for me, it was kind of an interesting progression where I was volunteering for this local project, as I mentioned, a health promotion project called The Youth on Health Festival, which was about working with high schools in my local area, to help teenagers use the arts as a way of learning about the important health issues that they always face with.
I started that when I was about 13, and then when I turned 17, the coordinator of that project had fallen ill and decided that she was going and wind it up. I was invited to sort of consider whether or not I’d be interested in taking on the project. From there I had started a non-profit organization, to take over the running of this project, and kind of at the same time began to identify that there was scope to actually start looking at other youth related projects all in the interest of helping young people build their own capacity. That was really how it kind of began.
It was interesting. At the time, I didn’t about boards. I didn’t know about balance sheets or profit and loss statements, but myself and the other people that were involved in kicking it off, it really were just keen to see this project continue. That’s sort of where it began. It was a backwards journey, but it some ways it was better to happen that way because it really meant that we were able to learn as we go and make the normal mistakes, but also, I guess, bring that young energy to work.
Julia Duffy: You kind of, sounds like, started with the starting of your own organization side of things really quite early on, rather than being involved at a lower organizational level. Why is it that when you said out of necessity you started your own organization, could you maybe tell me a little bit more about that, and a little bit more about this fist organization?
Rhys Williams: Yes. I think for us, as I said, we were running this youth health projects in high schools in our local area, and we were doing this in conjunction with the local Lions Clubs, which was so great because we were able to really learn about the value of governance as well as the importance of having that sort of fun funky project. There came a time in the project’s progression where, as I said, the person that was running ahead decided that it was probably the time to wind it up. There was this void, how do we continue on with this projects that we all love and that we all have this passion for? It was out of that, that we thought, “Okay. Let’s start a non-profit organization. Let’s kick it off from here.” That opened up other doors and really, for myself, open my eyes to the value of not-for-profits, and the contribution that the organizations that are structured that way can contribute to the community and society as a whole. That’s sort of where it came from, and we really diversified from there. Now the non-profit that I run now is, I guess, we like to think of it as a more mature version of that initial organization that we set up. Interestingly, still one of our projects, is that health promotion projects that I was involved in when I was starting.
Julia Duffy: Okay. Wonderful. It’s still a part of the greater whole of the new organization?
Rhys Williams: Yeah. That’s been great. The thing about non-profit is that when you don’t have the restraints of being fixed to government service, or having to deliver accounts for your shareholders. You can really be driven by the passions of the people involved, and also what the needs are of the people that you’re there to serve. We’ve grown with that. It’s just great. It’s such a fun space to be in.
Julia Duffy: Wonderful. It’s interesting, that point you made about the needs of the community. I’m just interested in some of the perspective of other people who might be thinking of starting their own organization. How do you gauge what the needs of the community are, and whether you’re filling those properly, or perhaps there are other organization that you could contribute to work with, or whether there does need to be a specific organization addressing this, perhaps, need gap?
Rhys Williams: Sure. I think that’s a really important point, because I think one of the things that can happen, and you see it happen probably too often, these people way, “I have this idea” or “I’m going to start a charity, and off I go.” It dilutes their resources because you have lots of different small organizations trying to fight for the same amount of resources to fulfill the same service. I think it’s really important that people don’t just jump in, but actually have a look and say, “Is it about starting something new, or is it about contributing that someone else is doing?” Whatever it might be, but I think in terms of identifying the need, I’d love say that it was as easy as going out and collecting data and determining, “Yup, this is the gap. This is how we need go about filling it.”
I actually think it’s more organic than that. I think it’s usually based around the fact that passionate people will draw passionate people together. This sort of meeting of the minds that you see happen in communities all over the place, and it’s of that connection, and out of that coming together that the best seems to come out of. I think that’s the really exciting about the social enterprise.
I guess when I talk about non-profits, I’m not talking about the large government provision non-profits, I’m really talking about that social enterprise level. That’s the exciting thing about it, is that it’s really driven from bottom up, and it’s driven out of an organic made. You know what? It’ll fulfill the service or fulfill the role that it needs to fulfill until it’s done. Then it’ll evolve into something else. It’s an incredibly dynamic part of the world.
Julia Duffy: Yeah. It’s definitely an interesting point to make about an organization pursuing a particular mission or fulfilling a certain need, and then maybe evolving into something else when times change. It’s something that’s very interesting, to watch organizations doing that. Interesting to hear that that’s something that you’ve got in mind, and that’s something that you’re keeping an eye on, I guess. Is that, perhaps, something that you’ve thought of in the different changes that you’ve had throughout your career and the different organizations you’ve been involved in?
Rhys Williams: I certainly think it’s important and possible that at that grassroots level to be able to be adapted and flexible. I think it’s also really important to know and to be really clear within that adaptability what your key purpose is. I think the last thing that we need as a society is people saying, “I’m going to start an organization and I’m going to be whatever the world needs me to be. “What tends to happen then, from what we’ve all noticed, is that organizations move on around and try and find the dollar here or a dollar there, and deliver this and deliver that for the the object of just existing.
I think adaptability and flexibility are really important, and it does make it exciting. It does mean that you can be strong for that community need, but I think it has to be done within the realms of the purpose you set out to achieve in the purpose or really the problem that you anticipated that you’d be solving. I think that’s really what it’d about. Social enterprise should be about solving problems, and as long as you’re still looking at solving a similar group of problems, then for sure that adaptability is a real asset.
Julia Duffy: You were talking about before the early stages of setting up both of these organizations we’ve been discussing, and getting together with other passionate people. Could you maybe discuss in a little more detail the process of going from a great idea and finding those passionate people to perhaps the more formal stages of launching the organization and … Because I understand that’s a process that you’re in with The Makers at the moment, is that true?
Rhys Williams: Yeah. I think that’s a really interesting example, I’ve sort of explained it and The Makers has grown out of an evolution that began with a project we thought was a good idea and has evolved from there. Now we’re at that stage with The Makers where really we reflected on the model or on the way that we’ve gone about working out what it is that we’re going to do next in this space of social innovation and community transformation, and identify that actually that model in itself is something worth grabbing on to. What we’re going to do, is we’re going to go about setting up an organization that is about empowering people to be Makers themselves in their communities, work out what social innovation what they might need to be able to solve some of the problems that they face locally. Often we rely on they to do something about it, they like government or whatever it might be. I still think in this kind of changing world there’s a great opportunity for that collective way to do something about it. We’re looking at that and trying to work out how you really empower and enable communities to take responsibilities for their own problem solving. Once we realize that that’s what we wanted to do, then it was about, okay, setting up the formal structure, working out what organization we need it to be in terms charitable status and that sort of thing. Appointing a board, I think, is a really important part of that. The thing about social enterprise, the thing about small social enterprises, is it doesn’t work at the same way as large organizations in that you have an established board. You actually have to go and find board members, and you have to find the right board members that are going to fit the culture of the organization. I think that’s a real important part and something that we’ve fortunately been able to find attract a really great group of people to be involved in that. Then, I guess, it’s about making sure that the brand is a good one. Making sure that you have a business model that is going to be sustainable. Interestingly, I don’t necessarily think it’s about having that great five year strategic plan. I actually think you don’t need to know what step three looks like. I think step one and two are enough, because part of that flexibility and adaptability is being able to say, “Let’s focus on starting really really well, and then as long as we know where I am going to this in terms of the vision that we want to achieve, the path roll will become more clear as we go. That’s a risk for sure, but I think that has become more and more of … It’s not being afraid to jump in and just get started.
Julia Duffy: Do you mean particularly for smaller organizations that are not-
Rhys Williams: Absolutely. Again you wouldn’t say … Look like another organization that I chair, the Mandurah Performing Arts Centre, that’s actually quite a large organization, and you would want to just be figuring out as you go. I think one of the things that makes social enterprise unique, and especially small organizations, easily you can actually do that, you can actually take a risk and I don’t think it’s reckless. I think it’s the best way to achieve really dynamic outcomes. Certainly I think it’s a long way from, in terms of taking the idea and turning into a reality, that’s the difficult part. It’s actually easier to come up with the innovation, or not easy, but easier to come up with the innovation. Getting about, surrounding yourself around the right people, having a good plan of, at least in the short term, how you’re going to get up and running, and having a business model where it is going to ensure your sustainability, I think it probably the three really important components.
Julia Duffy: These things that you mentioned just then about getting some of those things locked in, this practical elements, was that something that you sought a lot of advise about in the process of starting the organization, and about the technical side of things? Just from the perspective of some who’s thinking of starting their own organization, do you perhaps have any advise or insights about where to take this type of advise? Then also how useful this type of advise is? Rhys Williams: Yeah. I actually think it’s crucial, because there’s the two different part of this. I spoke before about kind of being innovation, but not necessarily having to have the whole plan. I think on one … That’s definitely true on the side of the actual innovation itself, on the side of the project, or whatever it is that you’re trying to achieve. I think in order to be a successful organization you have to have a great idea with a great vision, and flexibility, and ability to be able to draw in passionate people. You also have to have strong confidence and a structure that can withhold the kind of responsibility that you do hold as a company. Even though you’re a non-profit you’re still a company. I’d like to say that it was always easy. I think the first time that we did it back in 2006, mostly, there was no way that we did all right. We made plenty of mistakes and fortunately we had surrounded ourselves around really great mentors who were able to point us in the right direction. I think out of that we’ve learned lessons along the way, and so in setting up The Makers, we had a good feel for where we needed to be and how needed to go about it.
What I would say to people interested in getting started is come up with the idea, know what the idea is, and what you’re intending to achieve. Don’t be intimidated by the fact that you didn’t have to go up and set up the structure and having accounting system and all those things, because even though they’re essential, and there’s plenty of people out there who, given the opportunity to be involved in supporting a great idea, will want to help. I would say there’s mentors, those people that can give you advise and guidance, probably a crucial part of it.
Often as a young CEO running a non-profit, I certainly don’t have any formal training in accounting, but I have a pretty good understanding that if I didn’t do it well … If my organization didn’t do it well, then we’d be in bit of a trouble. It’s about pulling in that capacity. I would say that that’s what it is, it’s just like get the right people onboard, and they’re out there. People will sign up to great things, because we all love being involved in great thing.
Julia Duffy: You spoke a bit about mentors, just then, how have you gone about seeking mentors? Is it people who you already had a connection with, or had some involvement in organizations with, or a little bit more outside the box?
Rhys Williams: I think that’s a really crucial question, and I think that will be different for everybody. For me, it’s been varied, some of my mentors have been people that I’ve worked with earlier, I was under City of Mandurah Council. The mayor at the time was just this outstanding community leader here in the community that I live in, and she gave me some incredible, and still to this day, gives me some incredible mentoring, and I’m blessed, that whenever I need it.
Sometimes they do pick people that you know, that you work with, that you’ve build that close connection with. Other times it would be asking, and other times, for me, it’s been identifying that I might need some advise or some support in a particular area. Then it’s finding somebody through the networks or somebody that you don’t know, inviting with a letter and saying, “Hey, do you mind meeting with me for a coffee a few times, or next few months to give me some advise.”
I guess, then there’s the mentors that you never need to meet. The mentors that you … The books that you read at, and then invite people who have done great things or whatever. I think mentors come in really various forms, but what I would absolutely is I couldn’t put a big enough value on the value of the mentors that I’ve had. I think the contribution that add to the success of our organization, and the success of so many organizations that I’ve come across, it’s a really crucial part of the puzzle.
I think that’s two forward, I think one is if you’ve got a need for some extra support or you just needs some answers to some questions, go out and ask people for mentors, and people will want to be involved. I think that in the other side of it is if you’ve got the capacity be a mentor yourself. If you’ve got the ability to be advocate, if you’ve got skills, and knowledge, and wisdom. You don’t have to be rather late, you don’t have to be 70 years old to be a mentor. Anybody can be a mentor. if you’ve got that capacity then do it, because that’s the way that it works. That’s how we make sure that things continue to keep ticking over, because we all have to recognize that we have something to contribute and not be apologetic for that.
Julia Duffy: I might just step back a bit to something you’re speaking about earlier, it’s your attitude to strategy in your organization. I was wondering how you think that that relates to funding in non-profit organizations, and how to balance the wanting to be adaptable and flexible, but also needing at least some security for your organization, and how to tie in the different,, perhaps, funding streams you have, or just ensuring that you have security?
Rhys Williams: I definitely think that there has to be a balance there. In an ideal world, I would say what should happen is that innovators, and entrepreneurs, and social entrepreneurs in particular should be able to come up with an idea, collect some evidence over pilot to be able to demonstrate that that idea has legs, and then we’re attracting investment into those projects, because that’s what we need at the time. I’m not necessarily sure that we’re there yet in Australia. I think that there’s some countries that are there, and there’s some interesting work that people can look at, coming out of places like Finland, where that empowering those non-profit organizations to innovate is actually leading the world. I think that’s okay that we’re not there now in Australia. I think what we need to be aware of is, as young innovators maybe that’s where we should be aiming to get to, but in the meantime there’s two parts to it I would say.
The first one, yeah, you have to have a plan. You have to have a plan that clearly shows a funding organization, whether that be it a corporate or a government agency, that you have the credibility, that your idea has the capacity to deliver, you’re talking all four of that. I think that’s really important. It’s not about being reckless, it is actually about saying, not withstanding the fact that this might look a little different when we get to the end as it does today. We still have the ability to be able to pull this off when we’re hardly capable. I think that’s really important.
The other thing that i would say is, you actually have to … I think this is beginning to happen, which I would say is really exciting, you have to look at alternative options, because, really, probably in the next phase on Australia is relationship between government and non-profit. There’s not going to be a huge amount of spare cash lying around to … We’re actually moving into a time where unless we can clearly demonstrate that we can provide a surface the government is comfortable with, it may be that there’s going to be a challenge getting those funds there. We could either take that as, “We’ll only provide things the government is comfortable with.” I think there’s a risk there, because I think if you stop innovating, you stop looking for new ways to solve challenges, you come into a longer term struggle.
I think the other thing that we need to do is look at philanthropy, and I think that’s begging to really take shape. I think things like The Giving Circles, The Impact 100s, and the idea of bringing philanthropy to a citizen’s level, and not necessarily having to rely on super rich is a really exciting trend. I think that’s where the innovation is going to come from in the next decade. I think it’s going to be innovators taking ideas to potential investors on the ground. Citizen philanthropist who can say, “You know what? Collectively we’re going to give you ten grand and help you get this part of the ground, and once you’ve shown us that it works we’ll give you the hundred that you need.”
I think that’s probably … There’s a couple of things in that, but I think we’re looking at providing services where they’re comfortable, being able to demonstrate that credibility, and then if they’re real detained on innovating, looking at how we can support that from the bottom up.
Julia Duffy: You mentioned the situation in Finland with startup organizations there with innovation, is that something you could speak on further? It’s something I’d be interested to hear more about. I don’t think that that’s something that we’re very aware of here necessarily.
Rhys Williams: I think one of the things that’s happening in other countries is really interesting. These idea of being comfortable with supporting innovation, and what does that mean, I think that what it means is that innovation has this rebellious streak about it. It’s like being able to challenge the rules sometimes, challenge the status quo, and do it a bit differently. That’s a risk for government, I think, and it’s a risk for corporates too, because if you’re investing in something, you’re supporting a project that may fail, is that going to reflect badly on your corporate social responsibility, or your use of taxpayer’s money. I think some countries, and I think Finland is a good example of one, and certainly other Scandinavian countries and countries that are winning that battle, there seems to be a more accepted approach to failure. In fact, I heard one social entrepreneur, who was speaking in a conference I was at last week, talk about failure as a badge of honor in his country. He spoke about the facts that you break the rules and in breaking the rules essentially what you’re doing is saying, and when I say break the rules, I mean not break the rules but I mean like if you challenge the status quo and you do it differently, their response to that if it works is great, and the response to that if it doesn’t work is great. I think that’s a paradigm shift that we, perhaps, need to, as young startup entrepreneurs who are going to be listening to this and going to be involved this summit, that’s one of the things that we really need to think about, is how do we begin to position ourselves as we gain influence and credibility as a sector? To make sure that people understand that failure is okay, that these cheap wins or cheap failures are fine. Really that’s where innovation comes from, we actually have to push the boundary. How does that relate to non-profits? I think non-profit is really a good place to innovate, because you can still have market during the process but it’s a little less risky and it’s also a great place to sort of play, which is really what innovation is about. It’s just getting it together and playing.
Julia Duffy: Yeah. It’s sort of interesting, and then perhaps now might be a great point to move on to speaking about the role of the board in non-profit organizations, and perhaps your involvement in a few boards. Perhaps if you could just outline some of the board positions you held, and have held, and ones that you’re currently saving on? What was your first board position?
Rhys Williams: Sure. I remember having been involved in setting up a non-profit, by just trying to run one. I should’ve had a bit of idea of what it looks like, but I probably the answer is I didn’t really. I was asked to stir an important, as I think the token young person, I was 18 when that … I think that’s what happens when you’re 18.
It was the Peel Youth, this is Peel being the name of the region that I live in south of Perth, at Peel Regional Youth Services, it was. It was a great organization doing some really awesome stuff in the local season around homelessness for young people and development programs for at-risk kids. I was a total eye opener to be sitting at a table with board members talking about strategy and governance and all those things, but I have to say, I study commerce at Curtin Uni, and I think I probably got more out of being a board member. In terms of understanding of the way that business operates, because non-profit is still business and I think people don’t remember and know, than I have probably in my years of study in Commerce.
Moving on from that first organization, involved in some other youth organization which is great. Then at 21 was elected to the City of Mandurah Council which kind of a big board, that was a fascinating role, chairing the Community Planning and Economic Development Committee, which is a first for one out of a chair and dealing with interesting conversations with residents who were unhappy with the cracks and efforts, but also being at the forefront or part of the team that were the forefront of leading the long term strategy of a city is really fascinating.
I just say my favorite board position is probably the one that I’m currently fulfilling, and that is as chairman of the Mandurah Performing Arts Center. The Mandurah Performing Arts Center is a dynamic organization that recognized throughout Australia in the art sector for it’s innovation and interesting approach to audience engagement in the arts. It’s just such an honor to be a part of an organization that is so dynamic.
I think being under the chair in organization is something really special because essentially it gives you the chance to be able to really get into that strategic thinking and strategic implementation, and look at new ways of doing, and all of those components without having the responsibilities of the CEO. I mean, [inaudible 00:29:00] have been responsibilities, but in terms of that day to day role, it gives yo the chance to be outside a little bit. It’s a really … People who just have the opportunity to be involved in board director positions, I’d say grab on to it because … Great for ourselves personally as board directors, but also really important to have fresh minds coming through organizations, I think.
Julia Duffy: Is that, perhaps, something that you contributed to the boards that you’ve been on? I guess especially some of the younger ones, you mentioned that with the first board that you served on you thought perhaps you were like their youth representative, I guess, could you speak, perhaps, on the pros and cons of being involved in that kind of position? What someone might do if they were also in that position?
Rhys Williams: What I’d say is I don’t think that’s a good reason not to do it. Lots of organizations are looking, and I’m understandably cool, and token young for the position. I thing those kind of just like there’s this feeling amongst some organizations that would have a young person on the board. Look, for whatever reason they decide to do that for, the reality it’s probably a good idea.
Even if they do it because they’re going to be writing a project plan in engaging young people, and they have to demonstrate that they’ve got the credibility on the board or whatever the reason is, it doesn’t matter, it’s really important to have fresh minds at the board level.
Julia Duffy: They have positive effect, even if that’s what they were intending.
Rhys Williams: That’s exactly right. When you look around at the significant changes that the entire world has gone through in the last decade, it just, for me, drives home that message of … Look it’s not about being young and having all the answers and it’s not about being young and inexperienced and having to stay quiet and not contribute. It’s actually about recognizing that age doesn’t necessarily mean anything and that as fresh minds coming into professional times we actually need to be able to recognize that you have something to contribute and to contribute again. That cycle as I was saying about being a mentor. If you’ve got the ability, if you’ve got the capacity then you can actually do it.
Julia Duffy: It sort of what define themselves in this position, with perhaps not very much experience or knowledge of the role of the board. What would you suggest, perhaps, that they do to prepare themselves for this role, and how could they find out a bit more?
Rhys Williams: I think get to know the organization, and make sure that it’s a passion for you. It’s really hard. Lots of board directors … You’re on a board and you’ve been asked to join, you say yes because you think that’ll be a good experience, and then you get there and you [inaudible 00:32:17], like I’m not really passionate about this. I think that’s the thing.
Start looking for things that you’re passionate about. Recognize that your contributions to that organizations has to be based on something that … At least planned. It might not necessarily have to be like this, but plan to contribute something to the board that you think others would probably don’t. What’s your niche? What’s the thing that you can contribute? Too often we talk about our world of young people being into social media, so that’ll be great, but it’s whatever, and it might be that, but it could be anything.
I think start with the passion, recognize the thing that you can bring to it that’s unique, and then start asking. There’s so many boards out there that no only would like to be, but needs to be refreshed. I would say no shortage. Again, I heard this summed up by someone once, and he said to me, “Being on a non-profit board is like …” It was a four year term for this person, and he said, “It was like forty years worth of life experience.” I thought, “That’s cool.” That for me is … That’s actually true.
Julia Duffy: Sounds like you had a similar experience yourself really.
Rhys Williams: Absolutely. It’s twofold and we shouldn’t pretend that it isn’t. As board directors there’s an opportunity to contributing right through and I think you could into it with the right head space than you will. There’s also the other component, which is you can actually get a lot out of it. It’s a win-win, which is perfect.
Julia Duffy: Wonderful. Thanks very much for joining us on SproutCast today Rhys. I think your insights have been really invaluable and it’s wonderful to have someone speaking on more than one perspective of a non-profit organization. Thank you very much.
Rhys Williams: Thank you so much. If you haven’t got your tickets, to anyone that’s listening, if you haven’t got your tickets to the Sprout Summit yet, make sure you come along, it looks like it’s going to be a great day.
Julia Duffy: Wonderful. Thank you Rhys.
Rhys Williams: All right. Cool.
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