As the sun set on Sydney on 20 June, 373 CEOs and senior executives prepared to bed down for the night at White Bay Cruise Terminal in Balmain for the Vinnies CEO Sleepout. Among them were Alex Wade, the CEO of AMP Wealth; Di Challenor, Westpac’s GM of global transaction services; Nathan Walsh, co-founder and CEO of Athena Home Loans; Jean-Pierre Gortan, MD of Simplicity Loans & Advisory; Dave Hyman, co-founder and MD of Lendi; and William Xin, founder and director of Xin Mortgage.
As temperatures plunged as low as 4˚C, the executives heard about the causes of homelessness, the extent of the problem and the many ways the funds raised from the event will help.
“Before tonight, we did a tour of Matthew Talbot Hostel with a group of employees, which was a big eye-opener for us all, and that then encouraged other people to donate to the sleepout,” says AMP Wealth’s Alex Wade, who was taking part for the first time.
Wade adds, “I lived in Singapore for a long time, and you don’t see homelessness at all there, for whatever reason. Then when you come back here, you see a lot, especially near our office in Circular Quay. The scary thing is, it isn’t even the same people every day.”
Each participant had their own reason for taking part, from personal experience to personal challenge. Two years ago, Westpac’s Di Challenor returned to Australia from a stint overseas. Already heavily involved in OzHarvest, she wanted to find another cause to support that she was equally passionate about.
“I’ve always donated books and clothes to Vinnies, so when I heard about this and somebody reached out and asked if I wanted to do it, I thought maybe this is what I’m supposed to be involved in,” Challenor says.
“The support I’ve had in fundraising is amazing – I’m quite overwhelmed. Next year I’m going to set a higher goal and go more aggressive.”
Lendi co-founder and MD Dave Hyman decided to take part after a walk through Sydney with his nine-year-old daughter.
“She was asking about the homeless people we saw, and I was explaining to her the different ways people land in that situation. Then, within a week, I had seen an advert online about the sleepout, and I thought it’s just time to give it a crack,” he says.
His fundraising was a companywide effort, involving trivia nights, a bake sale and “a whole bunch of other initiatives”.
“I was really humbled by the support we got from employees and others. A lot of people have been very generous, which makes a big difference.”
Close to home
Homelessness is increasing in Australia’s major cities – 68% of all rough sleepers are now located in the capitals, up from 48% in 2001. But that doesn’t capture the extent of the problem. Rough sleepers accounted for a mere 7% of the homeless population in 2016, according to the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute.
“We work in an industry that is all about helping people to get into a home, but sadly not all Australians have that opportunity,” says Athena Home Loans co-founder and CEO Nathan Walsh.
“This is about us getting a taste of what thousands go through every night, and also to support the wonderful work that Vinnies is doing. I’m really delighted to be a part of that.”
Jean-Pierre Gortan of Simplicity Loans & Advisory was inspired to take part by personal experience. “I have friends who have been homeless, so whatever I can do to shed more light on the topic is a great thing. Donating money here and there is good, but donating your time is much more valuable because you highlight the issues to your network,” he says.
Although this was Gortan’s first sleepout, he’s already planning to return next year.
“I‘m very proud of what we have been able to achieve, and my wife and kids are proud, too. I genuinely don’t think it’s that big a sacrifice to be out for one night, but to give back is important,” he says.
The event wasn’t just made up of solo participants; Genworth, QBE Insurance and CBA all had teams taking part. At Genworth, June is charity month, and the firm has sent a team to the CEO Sleepout for a number of years.
“In a firm of 260 people, it was easy to get a team together. We also have offices in Melbourne and Brisbane, and we have people taking part in those events, too,” says CFO Michael Bencsik.
“The executive teams are very enthusiastic about the sleepout, and we have been supporting the event for many years.”
Meanwhile, Phil White, chief customer officer for credit lines and CEO of QBE LMI, took part for the fourth time alongside colleague Vivek Bhatia, CEO of QBE Australia Pacific. They were joined by chief marketing officer Bettina Pidcock, who was taking part for the second year, as well as three team members sleeping out for the first time.
“I do it for a number of reasons; our business is all about helping people get into housing, and I think it is our duty and social responsibility to give back and help those who aren’t as fortunate as some of our customers,” White says.
“The support we get is amazing. Some of our customers have supported us with donations of $1,000, our staff have contributed, and even people we don’t know have pitched in $20. It all adds up.”
Making a difference
By dawn on June 21, Vinnies had exceeded its $7m fundraising target through 11 sleepouts across the country. Further events were held in Geelong and Perth on 27 June. For Sleepout founder Bernard Fehon, who received an OAM in 2018 for his work, the result was humbling.
Fehon was inspired to start the CEO Sleepout when he saw his children doing sleepouts for Vinnies through their school while he was organising fundraising dinners for CEOs, and he thought he could combine the two ideas.
“The idea was born in a little meeting room at a Vinnies facility in Merrylands in February 2006, and then in June of that year at Stadium Australia, on the longest night of the year, about 10 CEOs took part in the first event, and we raised about $40,000,” says Fehon, who today is the CEO of Blue Mountains Economic Enterprise.
The funds are used to support Vinnies’ services and facilities, providing essential supplies and practical support to those experiencing or at risk of homelessness.
“Over the years, money has gone to other places, too. For example, funds are dedicated to supporting older single women – that’s a growing area of homelessness. We work across the full spectrum of services,” Fehon says.