The Observatory

Q&A with Brian Doolan (CEO, The Fred Hollows Foundation)

In the third interview of our Q&A series, Vision 2020 Australia talks to The Fred Hollows Foundation CEO, Brian Doolan about The Foundation’s recent win of The Australian Charity of the Year award, principles for running an effective charity business and key projects in Indigenous Australia and abroad. Mr Doolan has wide ranging experience with Indigenous health and education, and has also worked extensively overseas—even receiving the Friendship Medal for his “significant contribution to the economic and social development of Vietnam” from the President of Vietnam. Mr Doolan is currently a member of the Board of Trustees of the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB) and a member of the Advisory Council of the Nossal Institute of Global Health.

  • Mr Doolan, congratulations to The Fred Hollows Foundation for recently winning a national award for leadership in business practice. What does winning The Australian Charity of the Year 2013 mean to The Foundation?

It is always an honour to win awards, but this one is especially important as it is the Australian Business community saying they value not only the work of The Foundation, but the way we conduct the business of our organisation. Most people don’t realise that the little organisation Fred and Gabi started at their home in 1992 has grown into a significant employer of over two hundred people and manages donations from over 150,000 Australians each year. Our “business systems” include our international accounting and reporting systems, our people and employment systems, our information management and IT systems, and these all have to be focused on ensuring maximum impact around delivering on our business goal of ending avoidable blindness. An organisation like The Fred Hollows Foundation relies on Fred’s credibility and our continuing ability to deliver on his dream. Our business systems allow us to do that. This award is an important recognition that we are doing it reasonably well.

  • Can you share The Fred Hollows Foundation top three principles for running an effective charity business?

Number one is about clarity of purpose. For us that is about staying true to Fred’s dream and continually driving to achieve an end to avoidable blindness. If our public messaging, our country level outputs, our internal processes are not contributing to that goal, then we know we are probably drifting and need to get back on course. Number two is about inspiring our people. We do a lot of internal checking, and one piece of feedback we constantly receive is that staff are highly aligned with the Vision and Goals of The Foundation and motivated to achieve them. It is people who make the organisation work, and we try hard to look after them. And the third principle is to recognise that to achieve our goals, we need to ensure we build a strong organisation around a solid business framework that ensures we can sustain our efforts, identify and manage risks, and not just deliver the results but also report and acquit so we can demonstrate our outcomes. That is why the business systems are so important.

Brian Doolan. Photo credit: Michael Amendolia/The Fred Hollows Foundation
Brian Doolan with people receiving eye care. Photo credit: Michael Amendolia/The Fred Hollows Foundation

  •  Professor Fred Hollows worked tirelessly to tackle the crippling health conditions and inequities experienced by Indigenous Australians. Can you talk about how The Foundation is working to improve Indigenous health in Australia today?

The Foundation has a large Indigenous Australia Program based out of our Darwin office which manages projects in the NT, South Australia and western NSW. The Program is also very active in national efforts such as the Close the Gap campaign and the Vision 2020 Australia Indigenous Committee. Over the past 10 years there has been a lot of effort to improve nutrition by working with remote stores and remote communities around maternal child health. And of course a lot of work establishing support services to make sure major hospitals in places like Alice Springs, Katherine and Darwin are able to ensure eye health services, including surgery, is available and accessed by Indigenous people.

Like Fred, we strongly believe it is the Australian Government’s responsibility to deliver excellent eye health services for all Australians, but where we can see a crack, maybe something like a problem with travel, availability of interpreters or patient support services, we step in to work with locals to identify and demonstrate a solution. Right now, for instance, we are providing support for Community Based Workers who can ensure the Commonwealth/State program to eliminate trachoma is understood on the ground and people are participating. We are also funding research into distance management of chronic disease, including diabetes and diabetic retinopathy.

  • The Fred Hollows Foundation operates programs in over 19 countries throughout Africa, South Asia and South East Asia.  What has been an especially effective project recently undertaken in tackling avoidable blindness in developing countries?

There are so many! One that has caught my attention over the past couple of months is in Cambodia where we work with other partners, including RANZCO, in delivering training for local doctors and eye health workers. Recently our Country Manager, Sith Sam Ath, negotiated an agreement with the Ministry of Education to train over 12,000 teachers in recognising and referring eye health problems, developing an eye health curriculum for schools and ensuring over 600,000 kids get their eyes checked. The Ministry are planning to take the program to a national level. It is a huge and quiet revolution that is putting eye health on the agenda in Cambodia and a potential model for many countries.

  • The Fred Hollows Foundation is an integral part of the Vision 2020 Australia Global Consortium. What has The Foundation found to have been the main benefits of this collaborative approach to date?

The eye health community in Australia really is a world leader in its support for international development work aimed at ending avoidable blindness and vision impairment. The Consortium has enabled those of us who want to build local capacity in the countries in which we work to come together and coordinate and collaborate. We don’t support “fly-in, fly-out” approaches which don’t support and strengthen local health systems. So we have been able to share and learn from each other. It has also given us a strong delivery arm for AusAID’s efforts to support the work of avoidable blindness in our region.

  • Mr Doolan, you have an important role within an amazing organisation, what do you love about your job and what inspired you to work in this area?

I knew Fred, I had worked for many years in Indigenous Australian organisations in NSW, the NT and South Australia, and I had been privileged to work in international development organisations in the Middle East, South East and South Asia. So when they rang me to see if I’d be interested in this role, I jumped at it as it brought together all the strands of my working life. What I didn’t fully realise when I took the job, but I do now, is that The Fred Hollows Foundation is a part of a much larger international community of organisations committed to ending avoidable blindness.

The challenges are enormous, but so is the appetite to address them. The absolute numbers of people living with avoidable blindness are dropping. Serious global efforts are being mounted to eliminate trachoma and search for ways to deal with the tsunami of diabetes and diabetic retinopathy. We are sending teams from Nepal into North Korea to train doctors, working with the Government of China to develop a national eye health plan for the world’s most populous nation, rolling out a mass drug administration and trichiasis surgery campaign to 30 million people in the province of Oromia in Ethiopia, training medical staff from South Asia in a range of sub-specialities. Who wouldn’t want to get up in the morning. And I still get to see the patches come off – and the hair still stands up on the back of my neck every time!

  • Finally, on a personal note…can you tell us something that most people don’t know about you / or would be surprised to know about you

In 2010 my son, Luke, was nominated for an Academy Award for a short film he made called Miracle Fish. I got to walk the red carpet with him, even bumped bums with Meryl Streep. We laughed all night.