What does it mean to be a values-driven leader? The Pyjama Foundation’s founder and CEO Bronwyn Sheehan shares what she’s learned

Bronwyn Sheehan is the founder and CEO of the Pyjama Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that transforms the lives of children in foster care through education. Since the Foundation’s inception in 2004, they’ve trained 4,000 volunteers with the values-driven leadership Bronwyn has worked to embed in the organisation and its staff.

For her work, Bronwyn was awarded Qld Australian of the Year in 2009, and was a national finalist in the 2008 Telstra Business Women’s Awards. In the lead-up to her presentation at the 2016 Not-For-Profit People Conference, we spoke to Bronwyn about her journey, and how she’s managed to establish an organisation with such a committed volunteer workforce, from the ground up.

Can you tell us a bit about your career prior to establishing the Pyjama Foundation, and the skills that enabled you to start this journey?

I spent about 25 years as a nurse and then did midwifery, and along the way I did lots of professional development – things like seminars and Landmark Education. And my husband had also set up lots of small businesses, so I had experience in setting up organisations.

I really feel like my nursing career helped me in lots of different levels – organisation, communication, mentoring. So that really put me in good stead to start the Pyjama Foundation.

How have you approached leadership to build the Foundation to where it is today?

I’d like to think I’m a transformational leader. I really like to empower people in the organisation to work things out for themselves with my support. I’m not an autocratic leader – I’m very inclusive, so I like to have lots of different ideas from lots of different team members and then see how we can all work together with my guidance.

I’ve got about 20 staff members now and we’ve currently got 1,350 active volunteers – but we’ve trained about 4,000 in eleven years. I’m really about empowering everyone in the Pyjama Foundation – from the staff and the volunteers to the children – so we can all work together to get a great outcome for the children.

So why is it important to instil leadership values in the people you work with?

You can’t have just one person making all the decisions and running an organisation – it really needs to be an inclusive, group effort.

When people are empowered to take ownership of the organisation, which our staff are – and so are our volunteers (it’s really surprising how much ownership they have over the foundation!) – then many hands make light work.

We’re taking on a really big task of transforming the lives of kids in foster care by empowering them with education, and we need as many people on board to do that. So for that reason alone, we need to have all the staff and volunteers feeling empowered and feeling like they can positively contribute to the organisation. To achieve our big results, we need great leadership skills running through everyone.

How have you managed to keep so many volunteers happy and engaged as the organisation has grown?

I once heard a talk from the CEO of Volunteering Queensland in which he said in order to have volunteers engaged with the organisation, three things need to be in place. And I thought that’s exactly what we do with our organisation, and we need these three things to retain our volunteers.

One: volunteers need to feel like they’re very much a part of the organisation. Our volunteers have a lot of ownership over the organisation; they’re essentially the backbone of the Pyjama Foundation.

Secondly, they need to be recognised. And our volunteers are recognised a lot in our organisation; we try to recognise them in several different ways. They also get immediate recognition from the children, who are often waiting on the footpath for them to turn up for the day. So they’re getting an immediate ‘reward’ from the children.

The third thing that needs to be in place is the transfer of skills. Essentially, our volunteers are imparting their love of learning onto the children and teaching them new activities and doing it in a really fun, subtle way. And that’s really, really important for both the children and volunteers to stay engaged.

Volunteers don’t just perform basic tasks at The Pyjama Foundation – they deliver your core services. What would you suggest to other NFP organisations that would like to build that level of volunteer involvement?

I think it comes down to the values of your organisation. We have really strong values here – we really empower, appreciate and celebrate our volunteers. We’re also giving them something really meaningful to do, and I think that is really the secret of our success.

Happiness comes from what you do for other people, and what we’ve done is provided a program that allows volunteers to directly contribute to someone else’s life. So the model we’ve set up is very fulfilling for our volunteers and they really feel like they’re contributing positively to a child’s life – that’s the number one reason for the retention of our volunteers. We actually can’t really keep up with the demand!

And finally, what else will you be sharing about your leadership journey at the Not-for-Profit People Conference?

When I started the Pyjama Foundation, there wasn’t a lot of support for what I doing in starting up a not-for-profit. Results come from hard work, and I don’t think any organisations are lucky – so I’ll be sharing how results equate to the quality of work you do, and how having a clear vision and mission is important to that.

I’ll also be talking about how leadership really comes through values – like responsibility, contribution to others, and care and compassion. I think that’s the essence of our organisation, and it makes for a strong organisation and strong volunteer pool.

Hear exactly how to become a values-driven leader of staff and volunteers at the 2016 Not-For-Profit People Conference on 21 and 22 November. Bronwyn will be presenting her session ‘Starting from zero: lessons on values-driven leadership from the Pyjama Foundation’s founder’. Tickets are still available – find out more here.

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