Innovative approaches to social change

Elliot Costello urges accountants to listen to their own hunger and desire to bring about change and to have the courage to respond.

Former accountant and now change-maker Elliot Costello has a passion for alleviating poverty, as well as tackling inefficiencies in the not-for-profit sector. Here he shares leadership lessons with INTHEBLACK.

Good leaders need a strong sense of purpose, and that’s something Elliot Costello, co-founder and CEO of YGAP, has in spades.

It’s what gave him the conviction to throw in his day job as senior advisor for PPB Advisory in 2013 in order to transition from voluntary to paid CEO of YGAP, a social enterprise that he’d been building on the side, dedicated to alleviating poverty.

“I’d been waking up every day going to work, knowing my passion lay elsewhere. I knew I wasn’t being congruent, so I had to make a choice,” remembers Costello. “One in 10 people in the world still live on less than A$2 per day. It’s difficult to digest that fact and not want to respond.”

Helping local leaders end poverty

Elliot Costello, CEO YGAPYGAP finds, accelerates, supports and grows early-stage ventures run by local leaders with solutions to poverty in their communities.

It has 25 staff in five countries and has touched close to half a million lives in Australia, South Africa, Africa, Kenya and Bangladesh.

“The best thing about doing work that is now aligned with a strong sense of purpose is the pure enthusiasm I can feel on waking and going to work. At times, I enjoy the week more than the weekend,” says Costello.

He was 23 years old when he founded YGAP, and 28 when he took on the paid CEO role. Just how did he develop the leadership skills needed to run a successful fledgling enterprise, tackling some of the world’s worst social problems?

“Mainly by trial and error,” he says. “I’ve learnt the hard way, for example, how important it is to build in practices that ensure my own sustainability and that of the organisation.”

Leaders who don’t know what they’re doing

In 2016, after eight years of total dedication to the cause, Costello burnt out and had to crawl into a six-month sabbatical as a result.

Today, his frank view of leadership may be unsettling for some. “Most leaders don’t know what they are doing, but they are a few per cent ahead with the vision, and have the confidence to take people on that journey.

“Good leaders don’t assume they know it all or have all the answers,” says Costello. “I think that’s one of my leadership strengths – I’m very democratic and will consult broadly before making a big decision.”

Not-for-profits need innovation

Since entering the not-for-profit (NFP) sector, Costello has acquired a new passion: addressing the need for innovation and leadership in NFPs.

“The NFP sector needs a huge injection of innovation – there seems to be an assumption that the best way to do things is the way we have always done it.”

The NFP landscape is full of duplication, he says, with many organisations addressing the same issue, which leads to a high level of inefficiency and waste.

Should not-for-profits merge?

He would like to see a healthy slant towards mergers and amalgamations, to free up capital that could be invested back into solving social problems.

“Instead, this kind of thinking seems to be frozen in the not-for-profit sector, with ‘tribes’ forming around individual organisations that want to keep doing things their way.”

Costello points to the UK, where anyone wanting to start a charity needs to register online and validate that their NFP is offering something unique. “That in itself is a great innovation,” he says.

The way services are delivered could also benefit from a fresh mindset.

In the international development sector, Costello says that a neo-colonial approach to development predominates, where Westerners think they are best placed to solve problems due to their higher education or better technology.

“The best agents for change are the ones living in the community. That’s why YGAP offers a different approach that involves finding and backing local leaders who are solving local problems.”

Costello calls upon all businesses to play a role in bringing about social change. “We can’t leave systemic social problems to the public sector anymore.”

He urges accountants to listen to their own hunger and desire to bring about change and to have the courage to respond.

This doesn’t have to entail throwing in your job. It could involve encouraging your firm to offer its skills.

Accounting firms are one of best types of organisations to support social enterprises because they have such a needed and practical skill to offer, Costello suggests.

“Irrespective of where you are at with your career, you can effect social change.”

Elliot Costello will speak on this topic at CPA Australia's National Not-For-Profit Conference 2018. “Good Causes, Great Leaders” will be in Melbourne, March 7 and 8 2018.

How do leaders foster innovation?

Costello encourages his team members to speak their mind on how the organisation can improve.

YGAP has internal meetings, discussions and threads on platforms such as Slack, where any staff member can critique any aspect of the organisation.

“Through facilitated brainstorming sessions we collectively look for better ways of doing things.”

He says creating a good social environment is critical for an organisation dealing with some of the world’s worst social problems.

Regular team and social activities keep staff connected and they also have the opportunity to visit projects to see YGAP’s work in action.

Read next: Better together: why charities should merge

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October 2021
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