Neil McWhannell, winner of the 2008 Equity Trustees CEO Award for First Year Achiever, has instituted a national organisation that’s quickly gained significant support for children’s heart disease. Natalea Iskra traces his success.

Neil McWhannell, winner of the 2008 Equity Trustees CEO Award for First Year Achiever, has instituted a national organisation that’s quickly gained significant support for children’s heart disease. Natalea Iskra traces his success.

In the short space of one year, Neil McWhannell, chief executive officer of HeartKids Australia, has nurtured the organisation from an idea on a page to a thriving charity boasting a handful of lucrative corporate partnerships and a growing bank of supporters.

McWhannell’s triumphs – which won him the 2008 Equity Trustees’ Not For Profit CEO Award for First Year Achiever, promise to be mere steppingstones for even greater things for the fledgling nonprofit, if his passion is anything to go by.

“I just love it!” McWhannell says of his role. “It’s a real honour for me to be involved. There’s such a need, and such an exciting opportunity to make a difference.”

Charity Leader Springs From Academia

HeartKids Australia began operations with McWhannell’s instatement as chief executive officer in June of 2007. Before then, HeartKids existed as a number of state-based associations, the first of which was established in Western Australia in 1984. All served the same mission, to support children with heart disease and their families, but each was governed separately.

When, in 2006, members of the various associations voted for unification, the constitution for HeartKids Australia was drawn up – and a suitably qualified CEO was sought.

Not new to the pressures of leadership, McWhannell had previously been chief executive of YMCA, and before that he was the principal of some of Australia’s leading independent schools. His experience is backed up by business and teaching degrees.

So why the leap from education to the charity sector?

“Being a principal was an all-consuming, 24-hour job – it left me no time for my family … the nonprofit sector presented an opportunity for me to transfer my skills, while also making a real difference.”

In stepping into the driver’s seat with HeartKids Australia, McWhannell has assumed an “extremely varied role, which requires input at all levels from operations through to management”. And it’s a job that’s come with its share of challenges.

Faced with the enormous task of raising support for an unknown organisation, as well as that of joining separate associations under the one umbrella, McWhannell began in virtual space.

He orchestrated the creation of the HeartKids Australia website, and at the same time created websites for the state associations that all duplicated the same brand and key message.

Passion Begets Partnership Success

Armed with a genuine national organisation, and a compelling cause, McWhannell was now in the position to approach corporates. The result was a partnership with Manchester Unity (now HCF) – which has committed $1.5 million over the next five years.

A host of other corporate partners have thrown their support behind the organisation including pharmaceutical companies Roche Diagnostics and Actelion, and a major grant from Newman’s Own Foundation.

McWhannell cites passion for the cause as a powerful factor for bringing about partnership success.

“You need to be able to make people appreciate the story you’re telling, to make them see that they can make a real and tangible difference,” he says. “To do that, you need to be passionate about the cause. That [passion] comes through to the corporates I speak to, so I’ve been told.”

Being a start-up organisation has also helped McWhannell in presenting a strong case for corporate support.

“Because we’re in a start-up phase,” he says, “corporates recognise that they can make a huge impact” – both to the growth of the organisation and, most importantly, to address a little-known, but hugely devastating disease.

Support from the corporate sector has provided a sturdy platform for HeartKids Australia to seek support from the broader community. “We’ve been lucky to receive funding from Pasta Master to cover all administration costs,” explains McWhannel, “so we are able to say to donors that 100% of their donation will go towards the services we provide kids, families, hospitals and researchers.”

Driving the Future for HeartKids

A gifted task-juggler, McWhannell has managed to set up a comprehensive fundraising program that includes regular giving, online giving, events, bequests, workplace giving, gifts in memory and merchandise. And all with only the help of a part-time administration manager!

With only around 2,000 supporters nationally, Heartkids is a tiny charity, but that is set to change over time, starting with the establishment of a direct mail program which launched its first campaign in March/April.

One of McWhannell’s priorities over the next few months will be to employ a fundraising manager who can oversee and grow these burgeoning activities.

And government funding is another blip on McWhannell’s radar. He has commissioned a white paper on child heart disease which he hopes to lobby government with.

Natale Iskra is a freelance writer and regularly contributes to F&P.