Aussie Rules football

Playing football for Western Australia, Ross Kelly AM FAICD was always mindful of his father’s warning that he would never make a living out of the game. “Although football was incredibly important to me and I played at whatever level I could, I made sure I was building a more reliable career at the same time,” he says.

“I played my last game for West Perth Football Club when I was 27. If I’d been playing today, and I’d been good enough, I might have played more, or for longer, because the rewards are now so high that the priorities have changed.”

Despite playing his last game at 27 years of age, Kelly didn’t retire completely from the game. His business acumen made him a valuable asset, first as a member of the West Perth Football Club Committee then as inaugural chair of the Fremantle Football Club and, as part of that role, inaugural chair of the Fremantle Football Foundation, where he helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for facilities at Fremantle Oval. He was commissioner of the WA Football Commission from 2002 – 2012 and has also been recognised by the WA Amateur Football Hall of Champions as a high achiever.

Today, he is a director of public and private companies and chair of the Clontarf Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation which taps into Aboriginal boys’ passion for Australian rules and rugby league to keep them at school, build their self-esteem and teach them the discipline and life skills that will help them find work and lead meaningful lives.

Making a difference

Kelly’s work with the Clontarf Foundation began when he was approached by Gerard Neesham, a former Australian rules footballer and coach in the West Australia Football League (WAFL) and the AFL. Neesham is also a qualified teacher.

Sixteen years later, there are 4,00 boys at 70 Clontarf academies across Australia.

“Gerard and I met at the Fremantle Football Club when I was chairman and he was coach,” says Kelly. “Then, in 1999 when we had both moved on, he agreed to do some work at an Aboriginal college, Clontarf, that was failing because so many of the boys were disengaged from school. He quickly saw that befriending the boys, setting goals that they were expected to meet or beat – and, of course, talking about his experiences in football and having a kick about with them – could inspire them to change their behaviour. He decided to develop a football-based program to help keep at-risk boys at school and, when he got in touch and explained what he was aiming to achieve, I was happy to help.”

Together, Neesham and Kelly raised $35,000 – enough to run the program successfully for a year. Sixteen years later there are 4,000 boys at 70 Clontarf academies across Australia and the program is achieving school retention rates of 90 per cent or more.

“When we started we had no idea that disengagement from school at an early age was such an endemic problem,” says Kelly. “Now we believe there are 12,000 – 15,000 Aboriginal boys across Australia who could benefit from our program. Our goal is to reach them all, but growing to that size has inherent risk. Our board is attuned to that and we’re doing everything we can to mitigate it.”

Foundations for growth

Kelly has identified three factors that are critical to Clontarf’s successful growth. The first is people. “We can teach some techniques but our program is all about the men who work with our boys, providing them with the care and attention that, for various reasons, they might not get elsewhere,” he says. “Fortunately, as the organisation gets bigger, we’re finding that there are more and more people with the skills we need with a desire to work in this area.”

The second factor critical to growth is maintaining coherence in a distributed organisation. “I spent my working life sorting out problems for companies that had failed to put appropriate systems, controls and procedures in place,” says Kelly. “Here, I had the advantage of being able to establish a sound governance framework from the outset to ensure we don’t fragment into a loose collection of separate organisations. We remain committed to maintaining the systems, standards and accountability that you would expect from a public company of the same size.”

Kelly says the third factor is money. “It costs us just over $7,000 a boy per year so we currently spend about $30 million a year,” says Kelly. “To provide the service where it’s needed, we need $90 million a year, which takes fundraising to a very different level.”

The Clontarf Foundation receives a third of its money from the Federal Government, a third from state governments and a third from the private sector, mostly from 60 or 70 large corporations. “We believe that this contribution is very important because it allows us to maintain our independence,” says Kelly. “Our private sector partners are also very valuable sources of advice and they often provide jobs for our boys when they graduate.”

Both state and federal governments appear willing to increase funding as long as the foundation continues to deliver such significant outcomes – and Kelly is confident that good governance is their strong suit in raising the balance.“There has always been competition for corporate money but, quite rightly I think, corporates and philanthropic organisations are increasingly looking for evidence that their generosity is achieving results,” he says. “Showing potential partners that your outcomes are measurable and that your stewardship of their money would meet the highest possible standards can give them the confidence to invest.


Ross Kelly will be speaking on the panel 'Taking your NFP from good to great' at the 2017 Australian Governance Summit.

Want to find out more about the Australian Governance Summit? View the 2017 program here.

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in Company Director magazine.