Helping People Help Themselves

St Laurence Community Services

“The goal is helping those who are disadvantaged to become, or to remain, independent and active members of the local community,” CEO Toby O’Connor explains.

St Laurence supports a wide variety of people in a wide variety of ways. “We are a very diverse organisation,” Mr O’Connor remarks. St Laurence’s many services can be broken down into four broad categories. One key initiative is to provide housing to the elderly and to people who are at risk of homelessness. To do so, St Laurence runs a retirement village in Lara, where the organisation is based, and social housing in Geelong. The retirement village, which is for people aged 55 and older, allows residents to age in place so that they can remain within their community even as their need for assistance increases. And, when residents can no longer stay in their own homes, they are able to move into an onsite nursing home. The organisation’s social housing supports individuals with lower incomes in Geelong, so that at risk individuals have a safe, comfortable and affordable place to live.

St Laurence also offers employment and training services. This includes “getting people who are out of work back into work,” and training people so that they have the skills they need to land better jobs. A third St Laurence initiative is to support people who are ageing. “We help people in the community stay in their community by organising support in their homes,” Mr O’Connor explains. The team also operates the nursing home at Lara for senior citizens who need round the clock care.

Lastly, the organisation runs an entire suite of services for people with disabilities. Ground breaking programs like My Path are leading the industry in a new direction and offering significant opportunities for the disabled to become more independent.

Providing such a breadth of services isn’t easy, and St Laurence upholds a clear set of values to ensure that operations stay on track. In fact, the team has just undertaken a comprehensive, three year review of the organisation’s values to be sure that its mission is up to date with the changing times. “Essentially, we have five basic values,” Mr O’Connor reports: “Integrity, equity in access, inclusiveness, empowerment, and dignity.” After the three year review was completed, the team carefully outlined “what these values mean in terms of us working together as a staff,” so that the values could be properly applied. Mr O’Connor explains that at St Laurence, values aren’t just words written in a report or on a website – they are something that the entire workforce lives out in a meaningful way. “I expect people to live those values out in their daily lives and to make those values real in their workforce and to the consumer,” he says. “We actually take time to explain to the workforce how those terms can actually make everyday sense. We have outlined how those values might be applied if you are dealing with a consumer or a client. And, there is a strong expectation that we also use them to guide our own interactions with each other. So we treat each other with respect, we listen to what [others] say, and we try to be as inclusive as possible around decision making.”

The effort that the organisation puts into its values and employees has borne fruit. In fact, Mr O’Connor insists that the single most important factor behind St Laurence’s success is the dedication of its staff. “I’ve got a very committed workforce who agrees with our mission,” he explains. “And clearly, without them we would not be able to offer as much as we do to so many people. The key to it is our workforce.”

A second fundamental reason for success is that the team insists on keeping a business minded approach – even though St Laurence is a not for profit charitable organisation. “We understand that it has to be run like a business,” Mr O’Connor explains. “I have been in the industry for 30 years, and my message to the wider community is that charities should no longer be seen as some sort of ‘second best’ organisation. Good charities, those that are going to survive and those that are going to thrive, are well governed businesses that use business principles and models to underpin their operations.”

Indeed, St Laurence is at the forefront of applying leading edge business practices to its not for profit operations. For instance, the organisation spent the last 18 months developing a “very sophisticated and automated risk management system,” a feat that is a “little bit unusual for an NGO.” This system helps the team stay on top of potential risks, which is critically important considering St Laurence’s broad scope and geographical reach. “We are pretty proud of that,” Mr O’Connor reports. “We think that it is a really top quality product which we are happy to provide to other organisations.”

The nature of St Laurence’s work requires these kinds of superior business practices, Mr O’Connor explains. “We work in a highly regulated industry because we are spending tax payers’ dollars.” As a result, maintaining an efficient, well run organisation that provides the most value for money is absolutely crucial; in fact, the demand for high value, low cost services is only strengthening under the current legislation. “Federal Government is moving toward consumer directed care, so it is putting the emphasis back onto the consumer to make choices about how their money that comes from the taxpayer needs to be spent,” Mr Connor reports.

It is a simple market principle – consumers will want to put money into organisations that will give the most in return. “You really have to be more efficient in how you use taxpayers’ money,” Mr O’Connor points out. “People who rely on us see that we deliver good value for money. [This is] where the federal government is moving charitable services.”

In fact, Mr O’Connor suspects that organisations that fail to maintain operational efficiency will soon fall by the wayside. “Boards of charitable organisations that don’t understand the present policy environment and don’t understand good governance are unlikely to survive in the medium term,” he predicts. “I think, as these changes come in around aged care and disability, we are probably going to see a lot of smaller agencies go out of business. That is what happened in the employment industry when it became highly regulated and a market based delivery system, and I think that we are about to see that in other sectors.”

St Laurence refuses to fall by the wayside as the regulatory landscape evolves. The organisation has been offering a unique blend of consumer centred services for over half a century – and the team is determined to continue the good work. “We will see our consumers having a much greater say in the services they receive,” Mr O’Connor says of the future that St Laurence faces under the new legislation. “Having a greater say in services that they receive will also need to be accompanied by making us more accountable to how we respond to their needs.”

By upholding its rigorous set of values and maintaining superior business practices, St Laurence is confident that it can deliver. “At the end of the day, we like to think that we offer our consumers high quality services that respond to their needs.”

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July 20, 2018, 12:49 PM AEST

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