Tag Archives: corporate donation

ByCara Varian

Get to know Cara Varian – HMEF Executive Director

Q&A with Cara Varian

You have a varied background including a chief of staff role for the NSW Leader of the opposition.  What attracted you to the Foundation?

Good morning. I have had a varied career, most notably as the Chief of Staff to the NSW Leader of the Opposition. But I’ve also worked in the Australian Army, as a Federal public servant, as a political adviser at the Federal, State and Local Government levels as well as a consultant in the insurance industry. Today I am the Founding Executive Director of the Harding Miller Education Foundation and I am here to talk a little about how that career pathway came about.

I have always been driven by the idea of making the best use of my time. Even as a teenager, I liked the idea of a purposeful career where I could look back at something that I had achieved. It was this drive that initially took me to the Army and then back to Canberra for the federal public service. While I was finishing my bachelor’s degrees, I spent a lot of time thinking about what made Australia a great place to live and how I could use my time and career to protect and enhance our society and our country. At the time, I had a low opinion of politicians (one that is probably shared by many these days). I figured that politicians turn over regularly and that, if you took a long term perspective, the changes of government did not seem a great shifts in public policy. And so, I decided that contributing to a smart, energetic and dedicated public service would be a more effective way of making my contribution to Australian society than through the parliament.

But I got to Canberra and I was quickly worn down. So much bureaucracy. Slow moving, opaque and infuriating. And after a couple of years, I decided that I would need significant seniority to make change. My best guess was a mid-level member of the senior executive service is where I would need to be to feel like I was shifting anything. It could take me a whole career to get there. I could have been very bitter and twisted if I stayed.

And so, I started making plans to change my career. I looked at journalism, the legal profession, diplomacy, international development. And in the midst of all of that I was asked to fill in as a Departmental Liaison Officer for the Minister for Defence. It was a role that was classified two levels (and a whole category) above what I was doing at the time. And I am absolutely sure that I was asked because they couldn’t find anyone to agree to take on what was known to be a very demanding role.

I went and I stayed. I worked for a Liberal and Labor Defence Minister (and was one of only three DLOs who survived the changed of government).

All of sudden, while I wasn’t working at that very senior level that I had aspired to I was working with people at that senior level and having influence at that level. It reinforced my view that I needed to be quite senior to have influence but also gave me a taste of being able to shift those levers to affect change. I was hooked and I stayed in advisor and chief of staff roles for quite a few years. It was hard work and I loved it.

It was during these years that I realised I wanted to work in education. I am inspired by the ripple effect that education creates across society and across generations. Universal access to a great education drives a reduction of inequality in society, better health and wellbeing outcomes and greater economic productivity. It is not the only area that can achieve these, but it is the one can do all of these things and one that connects with me.

I had attempted to move across to that portfolio a couple of times while I was in the federal and state parliaments. I even secured jobs but for one reason or another I was compelled to focus on the defence and transport portfolios. After I left my parliamentary roles, I attempted to move into the education portfolio and found it was a closed shop. They wanted teachers and I wasn’t a teacher. So, I worked as a consultant and strategic adviser while I tried to work out how to get into the education sector. I volunteered at education foundations. I joined education policy advocacy groups. I read avidly about education policy and issues.

But these were disheartening times. I’d been travelling overseas for year and the capital that I had from my time in parliament has somewhat dissipated during the time that I was away. I had used up much of my savings while I was travelling. I was doing jobs that I found underwhelming. I had a couple of difficult bosses. I had certainly started to question my choice to leave my political roles. And then I got the call.

Some philanthropists wanted to start their own scholarship program. They had met me through one of my volunteering roles and wanted to talk to me about heading up the program. It was undefined and ambiguous. It was an idea, not yet an organisation. The role went from being part time to full-time in a conversation – and that made me worry that it could change again just as easily. It was difficult to find any information on the philanthropists as they are incredibly private people. It was a risk and, obviously, one that I decided to take.

How has your previous experience helped in your current role?

My previous experience helped me get the job and be good at the job.

I stood out to the philanthropists as a leader because of my ability to coordinate and negotiate with panellists and stakeholders. These are skills that I had honed during my previous roles.

But more importantly, my previous experiences have helped me succeed in my current role. The two skills that I have found the most transferable is judgement and decision making on one hand and communication and relationship management on the other.

My capacity to build and maintain relationships has driven the organisation to what it is today. We 300 hundred students in 130 schools across four states. We have positive working relationships with 3 universities who provide our students with experience and guidance to support their career choices and university pathways. We have over 100 individual volunteers,  and 30 small, medium and large organisations who collaborate or support the work of the foundation. Our number of donors grows annually and our public fundraising has quadrupled in the last year.

Being a Chief of Staff is a busy job and it is done under much scrutiny but ultimately it is a lonely experience. You need to make calls every day and be able to defend them forever. I made between 50 and 100 decisions every day in that role and I never knew which one of them was going to attract media attention or criticism from the myriad of parliamentary, party or community stakeholders. Learning to make those decisions quickly and under scrutiny has helped me make good decisions as an Executive Director in a new organisation.

And incidentally, running a cabinet has also put me in good stead for running a board.

Do you think experience in the NFP sector is something everyone should consider having on their CV?

I have found my NFP experience valuable and interesting. I enjoy moving sectors and industries. Like all moves between sectors or industries, there is much to learn about how and why people work the way that they do. There are also skills and experiences that you can bring to the sector. I find the process of growing the breadth of my experience and skills useful, challenging and rewarding. And working in the NFP sector ha always been on my bucket list.

In fact, being a CEO of a NFP organisation that focused on education was a dream job of mine. But this is not a fairy tale and not everything works out perfectly. There are trade-offs.

I took a significant pay cut to take the job. When I was hired the Foundation was an idea and it was my job to make it a sustainable and effective scholarship program. It was a start-up and I learnt huge amounts about setting up a company, a charity and effectively a small business. I am still learning. In that process, I did mountains of very unglamorous tedious work and in the early days I did it by myself. I consider myself quite self-sufficient, but I found that lack of support and collaboration difficult at times.

If the NFP sector interests you, I would encourage to do your research and work for an organisation that fits your values. Be confident that you can step back into whatever you were doing beforehand if you don’t love the work or the pay is not something you want to accept in the long term. I have been away from the corporate affairs and strategic advice world for four years and I still get recruiter calls regularly.

If lower pay and lower resources means that an NFP job is not up your alley I would strongly encourage you to consider volunteering. You can volunteer on the frontline, as an expert, as an adviser, or as a board member… in fact you can mentor girls on my program if you want. But choose something that you personally care about and contribute to it. Studies have shown that volunteering can help you reduce stress, find friends, connect with the community, learn new skills, and even advance your career. And the process of volunteering also helps to protect your mental and physical health.


Each quarter the Foundation will profile a staff member – all interesting career paths that have led them to work in education.

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