Chris O’Neill – The Future of Charity

Chris O'Neill

This is the first in a series of interviews with not-for-profit leaders in partnership with Better Boards. Chris is also the first New Zealander we’ve interviewed on Ideas Hoist – so make him feel welcome! If you’re a New Zealander making ideas happen we’d love to interview you – click here!

Better Boards

Chris was born on the other side of the world, and moved to NZ as a kid. Currently living in Wellington, he tries to spend as much time as possible in sunny Nelson where most of his family lives and where he discovers most of his good ideas.

Chris regularly talks at conferences across Australasia, and you can find his musings on the non-profit sector at @futureofcharity linkedin

It’s not good enough that we donate money to ease our guilt about the problems other people have. We have to take action to ensure that those we donate to are doing the most they can, with the resources available.

Tell us a little bit about your idea and what made you decide to take the plunge and make it happen?

The non-profit sector is in dire need of change. We cling to outmoded business models, inefficient processes, and rely on diminishing funding streams. I’m on a crusade to change all that. As a sector we need to critically evaluate the way we do our work. Too many charities are run by boards with no ability to really think strategically. Those boards spend all their time discussing what sort of cupcakes should be at the cake sale, instead of asking how they are measuring their impact, or considering the possibility that they have become obsolete.

Seeing these things frustrates me immensely and drives me to make the changes I want to see happen. It’s not good enough that we donate money to ease our guilt about the problems other people have. We have to take action to ensure that those we donate to are doing the most they can, with the resources available.

Please explain your business model (How do you make money?)

I don’t… Well, not by telling people what they are doing wrong. I work in the non-profit sector as a General Manager, which is incredibly rewarding, and allows me to pay for groceries. The rest of the time I speak at conferences, and give advice to anyone who’ll listen.

What are you working on right now and what are you most excited about in the next three months? 

This year I’m heading back to the Better Boards Conference in Australia to talk about ‘The Data Driven Charity’. The session is focussed on how non-profits can exploit the data they have to measure impact and increase it. It’s a great conference and I really enjoyed it last year.

The next big project I’m looking at is how to evaluate the impact of non-profits to measure their social benefit. It’s a tricky subject, and one that not a lot of non-profits are willing to face up to.

How do you make ideas happen?


What does your typical day look like?

Depends what I’m up to. In my day job I run a theatre so it can anything from building a website to fundraising, to board reporting.

I’m also on the board of a non-profit organisation and am in the process of establishing an advisory board for a large NZ organisation.

I’m happiest when I’m working on strategy, so I try to fit a bit of that into everyday.

What is one idea you are willing to give away for free?

I get all my best ideas in the shower…. so we should all take more showers. Also, we should all get that clever shower water recycler so we don’t waste water while having ideas.

What people/companies/organisations do you think are doing really cool stuff in your industry at the moment?

I think we are on the cusp of seeing some really amazing analytical tools coming to the market. These tools will allow non-profits a much better insight into what they do and whether or not it’s worth it. Some of these are still in development so I can’t talk about them in detail, but I’m really impressed with what I’ve seen.

What role do you think business can play in affecting social change?

Businesses think that non-profits aren’t a good prospective market, but you’d be amazed at how much they are willing to invest in technical solutions. Non-profits need the tools to make change, and businesses can profit by providing those tools.

Name 3 websites you would recommend to our readers.

Stanford Social Innovation Review


Better boards

Are there opportunities for people to get involved with your idea (e.g. are you looking for funding, interns, marketing help)?

I’m always looking for other people who are passionate about changing the non-profit sector. One day we will rise up and make the world a better place.

What’s your favourite bar/café/restaurant?

Wellington has so many amazing cafes, it’s hard to choose. There’s an amazing new place called Spruce Goose by the beach that’s great. Sadly, it seems everyone in Wellington now knows about it so you have to wait half an hour for a table at the weekend. My secret shame is that every time I pop over to Australia I have to go to Grill’d to get a burger and chips.

We thought it would be cool to crowdsource an annual prize to award to the interviewee’s choice (each person interviewed gets one vote) winner for the year’s best interview. Are you willing to kick in a prize?

Sure, not sure what it would be.


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