Monday, December 8, 2008

Interview with Ross Allan of Well-Wishers

Intercept Poverty interviewed Ross Allan earlier this year.
Ross is Director of Oxfam, friend of Intercept and Founder of Well-Wishers in Ethiopia.

A former property executive, consultant and successful developer, Ross speaks with me on Re-inventing his work, Social Entrepreneurship, Leadership and Solving Problems in the world where it really counts.

At Intercept we are all about new ways of thinking to solve old problems. And, the concept of development struck me as having a few meanings here. If you’ve ever felt resourced and restless but haven’t been sure what to do next, this interview may help you gain some direction and clarity. Ross’s journey has been from developing property in the developed world, to developing people and infrastructure, where it counts, in the 3rd World.

I met Ross while exploring how Intercept might support the work that Well-Wishers are doing in Ethiopia. I found Ross to have compassion, business acumen, strong communication skills and natural leadership presence. He has transitioned his skills and expertise to a place that gives him great meaning.

We meet many CEO’s and Senior Business Leaders who are looking for the ‘what’s next?’. In each of us is a part that wants to make a difference and to use our gifts to fulfil ourselves and fulfil others. Here is one success story of that transition. And this interview may just be one model you’d like to follow, or simply a project you’d like to explore. Here’s some tips from Ross who has journeyed from Business Entrepreneur to Social Entrepreneur.

TL: Give me a potted summary of your business background

After a career with Lend Lease Corporation, I set up my own development & project management consultancy in 1982, concentrating on the redevelopment, extension and/or refurbishment of shopping centres.

Our role was to manage on behalf of our client, the total development process (planning approvals, major tenant negotiations, design management, calling tenders, managing the builder, hand-over etc). Clients were mainly institutional and included AMP, Commonwealth Bank, Prudential Insurance et al. I retired in 1997.

TL: What was the tipping point / catalyst for you to move into this work?

Retiring led to more time to think about the future, which in turn, lead to thinking about bigger issues in the world.
I walked the Kokoda Track in 1997 where my Father was during the war and I think that the physical and emotional depths I reached during those 9 days, was a major catalyst in shaping my future direction, although I did not realise it at the time.

TL: When did you originally have it on your heart to make a difference?

I believe it is always in a person, it just needs something to bring it to the surface. My wife and I have always supported causes, long before 1997.

It’s since 1997 that it has come more to the surface. We are born with nothing and die with nothing. We believe it is far more important to help thousands of those in need, than it is to enhance our children’s life styles – hence our decision not to leave an inheritance to our children (we also believe this will help make our children better people anyway).

TL: What is your definition of fulfilment?

To know that as an individual, I have done my best to help others less fortunate than myself. It has nothing to do with satisfaction but everything to do with knowing that I’ve done something positive to help my fellow human beings. It is pure luck I was born in Australia and bad luck that others have been born in lands where they don’t have the abundance of good fortune we lucky ones do.

TL: How do you define leadership? and How do people react to you when you explain your work compared to your more corporate life?

My current work is like cheese and chalk compared to my corporate life, other than having the opportunity to use my management and financial skills. My leadership is underlined by my utter commitment and passion to help the people of Ethiopia, and hopefully, I’m bringing others along with this amazing journey.

TL: Why did you chose Ethiopia in particular to problem solve?

It came from identifying which Australian NGO (Non-Government Organisation) we wanted to channel our savings through and that research led me to Oxfam Australia. (then Community Aid Abroad).
A further year went by before we identified a program that met our basic criteria – save and extend lives, women’s issues and education. This was the water wells project in Ethiopia.
When Oxfam Australia ceased working in Ethiopia in 2005, we decided to try to replace them as funders of the wells programme, having visited there in 2003 to see the results of that programme. We felt that it was too good a programme to let stop and we were determined to do what we could to continue Oxfam Australia’s good work in this area.

TL: What’s the most moving experience you’ve had since doing this work?

The most moving experience was when we visited the first remote village on our 2003 visit. We had funded a well in this village.

We were greeted by about 1000 to 1200 people of all ages – all there to thank us. It was very emotional (many tears were shed), very uplifting and very very humbling.

Our joy was mainly because we could see with our own eyes what it meant to all these villagers, to have been able to assist in beneficially changing their lives forever. As more than one villager said to us, “this is the start of a new life for us”.

The impact on all villages we visited with wells was obvious – clearer eyes, healthier skin, better hygiene, kids going to school, women fitter and less stressed. All resulting in a much happier, more dynamic community.

TL: What tips you would you give someone who has it on their heart to make a difference and wants to do something?

Never believe that one person cannot make a difference. Do not think about it – go and do it. Think of the unnecessary things you spend money on, then think about how that money (through your actions) would make a difference to someone else – often life itself. We all have an obligation to help our fellow human beings – it is our genes.

TL: What is your Vision? What is your end- game?

To bring as many people as possible along on this wonderful journey.
To see a world less selfish than it is today.

My end game? To be doing this until I am unable to do so, then ensuring someone will pick it up and run with it. If I live long enough to see the water problems in Ethiopia solved, then we would simply move on to another project.

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