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Women in Leadership

7 Things Running a Charity Taught Me About Leadership

Alison VidottoIn 2006 I went on a family holiday to Vietnam. In 2007 I founded The Australian Charity for the Children of Vietnam (ACCV).

A life changing meeting with a young blind teenager, Quan, set the purpose and direction of ACCV. Quan and his mother lived in extreme poverty in a remote village outside of Hanoi.

Quan lost his sight at the age of ten after a childhood illness developed into a secondary infection that required antibiotic treatment they could not afford. The infection progressed to his joints and optic nerve, rendering Quan blind.

Alison Vidotto on being assertive

It was not only his sight that Quan lost, his happy childhood and education also came to a grinding halt. He sat alone at home without any intervention or support for eight years. His mother cried as she told me of her fears for his future. Thinking about my own sons of a similar age made me want to cry with her.

Alison vidottoI soon discovered that there were many young Quan’s out there living in poverty and isolation. Determined to do something, I went on to develop an English language program for young blind people living in poverty. Quan was one of our first students.

Over the past eight years ACCV has grown to support 200 families living in poverty. It has become a huge part of my life and my business. Our course was accepted by the Vietnamese government and now runs in five districts around Hanoi.

When I look back over the years I can see that ACCV has played an important role in my Leadership journey. I have learned valuable lessons and faced situations that have tested my skills in ways similar to those we face in the business world.

Here are the top seven things ACCV has taught me about leadership:

1. Influence is essential in leadership

A large part of ACCV is managed by our Hanoi office and Volunteers. When leading volunteers or a remote team they have to buy into your vision and purpose. You can’t physically be there to drive them or use salary and career goals to leverage off. You need to have influence.

2. Your inner-circle is vital to the success of the project

ACCV is based in Hanoi but run from Brisbane, Australia. We have a great team in each place. While it is necessary for a leader to build trust with employees, it is vital for a leader to HAVE trust in those they are working with. After a few lessons learned, I’m in the enviable place of having a wonderful team that I can rely on even when I can’t be there. You need a close inner-circle you can rely on.

3. Passion will keep you going when times are tough

There are definitely times that I could have given up, momentarily. I get tired of the endless administration, of trying to scrape the resources together to support these people in need. Then I chat to the young blind people we work with and I remember why we started. The passion soon kicks back in. There will be tough times in anything you do; passion gets you over the summit.

4. Team engagement is vital

There is no question that you have to engage your team. It took me a few years to get it right, but I did. I know that my team will make sure our goals are achieved; they will do what they need to do to get the job done. We have relationships built on trust, respect and open communication.

5. Leadership is about empowering others

The long term goal for ACCV is to do myself out of a job. I want to empower young blind people to step up and claim their place in the community. At ACCV we don’t hire expats, all staff are Vietnamese, we want our programmes to be run for Vietnamese people, by Vietnamese people. Empowerment is our long term sustainable goal.

6. You need a strategy

Running a charity is the same as running a business, except the stakes are higher. I realise that ACCV has to succeed. If it falls over I will go back to my nice life, but what will happen to the young blind people we support? Failure isn’t an option. I have strategic plans in place, as I do in business.

7. Leadership has nothing to do with title, position or wealth

Interestingly, working with young blind people living in extreme poverty and isolation has been a privilege. We have watched in awe as they grab an opportunity and tap into their self-leadership. They work hard to rebuild their own lives and empower others along the way. I have seen many examples of leadership in people who have no previous experience.

Running a charity has given me perspective and insight into what leadership really is all about. To lead well you must begin with the self first, share your purpose and vision, build a strong inner circle and carry out a good strategy. Strong leaders also empower others. It really doesn’t matter if you’re running a charity or a business.

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