Thirty-three-year old Jessica Bulger was not seeking an opportunity to join her first board – but the chance came her way and now the Director of Engagement at CareerTrackers Indigenous Internship Program has carved out a unique role at Outward Bound Australia (OBA).
The independent educational not-for-profit was undergoing a board renewal and she was asked to apply to be a director. Now her unique skills are “pivotal” in helping OBA to achieve fresh goals, especially in terms of social impact. OBA offers adventure-based, experiential outdoor education programs to schools and other agencies, including communities at risk and in need.
In 2015, Outward Bound chair John Atkin, FAICD was appointed (he is also chair of the Australian Institute of Company Directors). In 2016, he began a board renewal process and discussed the need for younger and more diverse directors with a contact who introduced him to CareerTrackers and then to Bulger.
“Joining the Outward Bound board was really daunting and a really steep learning curve,” says Bulger. “My main context on what a board does, prior to the Outward Bound experience, was my relationship with our board at CareerTrackers as a member of our leadership team.”
Outward Bound deputy chair Jon Bradshaw, MAICD, who takes over as chair in November this year, says Bulger brings unique skills to the board with her Indigenous heritage but also her other areas of expertise.
“We are fortunate in Jess that we got both Indigenous insight and a younger perspective, but also some core skills that any board should desire. As well as her big understanding of Indigenous culture, and issues in that community, as a business professional, she is an expert in engagement, culture and communication. That’s her role at CareerTrackers - managing a large student body and making them feel involved and engaged in the organisation, as well as making sure their needs are met. She has amazing professional skills in an area where nobody else on the board really has expertise. Her youth and heritage are a bonus.”
Since 2016, the entire board has been replaced except for outgoing chair John Atkin. “When I joined the board in November 2016, I was the only woman, and the next oldest person was about 15 years older,” says Bulger. “We’ve just added three more women to the board and brought the average age down in the process.”
Bradshaw says the board renewal based on diversity has brought positive change. “What we have with this new board is a group of people almost over-eager for change, but I would rather have that than a bunch of people happy with the status quo,” says Bradshaw, who joined the board in 2016.
The board also brought in sales and marketing expertise, plus people experienced in philanthropy and fundraising. This is to help Outward Bound realise its aim to do more philanthropic and social impact work, which includes the Indigenous sector.
“We are still going through a growth transformation process, so growth is my single-minded focus for the organisation,” says Bradshaw. “We want to have more impact with more young people….We currently impact around 6,000 lives a year. Our short-term horizon would be to come close to doubling the social impact we are having, whether that is through the schools programs or with a more diversified range of client organisations.”
“In the longer term, we are talking about helping to build the next generation of leaders of our country, so I see no reason why we should not aspire to impact 20,000 or 30,000 people every year within a few years.
Bulger’s skills will be pivotal to maximise Outward Bound’s social impact, says Bradshaw. At CareerTrackers, she deals with other Indigenous organisations such as Adam Goodes’ and Michael Laughlin’s GO Foundation, which focuses on Indigenous youth mentorship and education.
She has already been active in broadening and deepening Outward Bound relationships with Indigenous bodies. “Our work at Outward Bound has a focus on environment and citizenship, and that is closely linked to Indigenous knowledge and connection to country. Building relationships to bring these together takes time but it’s worth it.”
Hailing from the Tumut area in NSW, Bulger’s mother was born at Brungle Mission and she was one of 11 children. “So, I'm from a massive, proud Aboriginal family, and a small community.” Her aunt is also the CEO of the local Aboriginal Land Council and works with a board.
Starting out on the board
Bulger believes that strong support from other Outward Bound board members and Atkin as chair helped in the first stages of her board career to learn about finance, legal and other board matters and believes younger directors joining boards would benefit from a similar intensive mentoring approach to fast-track their development. “When working in non-profits you can be dealing with vulnerable communities and young people. To be able to contribute meaningfully I had to build my knowledge of the board’s role really, really quickly.”
She spends two to three days per month on her voluntary board position, which includes four board meetings per year and her roles on two Outward Bound board committees - the development committee, which is about fundraising and community programs and the audit risk and governance committee. She also sat on the CEO search committee as well.
She believes she brings to the Outward Bound board a perspective on what's relevant to young people. “Not just the young people in the Outward Bound team, but the young people who are our participants.”
At CareerTrackers, she works with university students who are mainly 17 to 25 years old, which parallels with the age bracket of clients at Outward Bound. “So I'm able to shed light on the experience of being a young person. Outward Bound’s programs suit young people who are perhaps overscheduled, or experiencing mental health issues but arwe at the core, striving for more in themselves”.
“I'm in love with the potential of the product at Outward Bound. If I wasn't, this would have become too difficult, really quickly.
“I'm not an expert in finance, I'm not an expect in risk, but I think it's about accepting that I don't have to know that to the level of a CFO, or to a level of a lawyer. We have a finance expert on the board, we have lawyers on the board. We have a risk person on the board. I’ve learnt to focus on what I am good at and our skills all complement each other, so it works.”
Challenges lie ahead, and the organisation operates on slim margins, but so far the transformation program is paying off, with profit being delivered in the past two years. “It’s nice to see the benefit of better governance at Outward Bound Australia,” says Bradshaw.
The AICD published this year the 10th Not-for-Profit Governance and Performance Study. The study identified that recruiting younger directors is a key challenge. Access the report here.