How I lead: Jessica Macpherson, St Kilda Mums

St Kilda Mums distributes the ‘stuff’ that allows disadvantaged mums to keep their babies safe, warm, clean and well fed. With cots, car restraints, prams, nappies, breast pumps, linen and clothes, St Kilda Mums can help a family in crisis.  

The not-for-profit is the brainchild of Jessica Macpherson, who was visiting her local maternal child health centre with clothing her son had outgrown. A nurse directed her to the photocopy room to drop the clothes off, and she found it overflowing with donations the centre just didn’t have the time or resources to put to work.

The donations – piles of essentials for new families – weren’t making the life-changing difference they could have been. 

Macpherson organised a working bee to sort, clean and package everything. The nurses were so grateful and she realised then that she could do something of real, tangible benefit.

Here, Macpherson shares the insights, advice and expertise gained in starting and running a successful NFP with immediate impact on locals’ lives.

Know the rules so you can break them when needed

There is a lot to be said for coming at something with a fresh approach. A bit of naivete doesn’t hurt either. It stops you from buying into the existing patterns and constraints that are unquestioningly held to be true. I learned this lesson when I was working in the wine industry.

Originally a Kiwi, I came to Australia to set up Oyster Bay wines. This was in the early 2000s, well before NZ sauv blanc became the Aussie wine of choice! We were up against long-established brands but our goal was to become the number one NZ wine in Australia. 

Industry conventions dictated that to introduce a new wine label to a new market, you had to have a full complement of styles. We hit the ground with just three wine varieties, which was unheard of. But just a few years later, Oyster Bay was the leading white wine brand in the country. We had proved the conventional wisdom wrong and exceeded our goal. 

Just like any other industry, the charitable sector has its own set of established rules and constraints. For example, we were told that we couldn’t fundraise at scale without direct mail and that we would need to buy and swap donor acquisition lists. But we turned our backs on those rules. St Kilda Mums is 100% digital and we have never swapped donor data – we simply don’t believe in it. 

Some rules are meant to be demolished. And because I’d had success challenging rule-based thinking in the past, I wasn’t afraid to do it again.

What keeps me awake at night

Our growth is phenomenal and would be the envy of any start up SMB. Six years ago we helped 1000 babies a year. Today, we help more than 20,000 babies a year. Ninety eight per cent of what we distribute is donated to us and we have 100 volunteers for every part-time staff member – a total of 2500 volunteers across three locations. 

Moreover, St Kilda Mums is remarkably efficient. The average cost to provide a family with the essentials – pram, cot, linen, high chair, breast pump – is $126. Just imagine how far that would get you in a baby supplies store.

"As someone who likes to challenge expectations and break down constraints, it’s incredibly frustrating to miss opportunities or have to be cautious where I would normally be bold."

Our big costs then, are wages and rent. And while many like to think that charitable work just miraculously happens, the 20-fold growth in the number of babies we can assist is largely because of the highly skilled salaried employees managing our operations. 

So, as is the case with most leaders of SMBs, my greatest worry is money. We have no certainty of income and no recurrent government funding. We are currently plugging a couple of roles with casual staff because we are not in a strong enough financial position to offer a permanent role.

It’s a tough situation to be in and one that makes me more conservative in my decision-making than I would otherwise like to be. As someone who likes to challenge expectations and break down constraints, it’s incredibly frustrating to miss opportunities or have to be cautious where I would normally be bold. 

The people keep us going

In one third of the families we help, family violence is an issue, with violence often appearing for the first time in late pregnancy or after children are born. Mothers are often forced to move to other locations and rebuild their lives from scratch. The cost of doing so can be prohibitive and single mothers are twice as likely to be living in poverty. 

Almost a third of all new mothers in Victoria are born overseas, and cultural and linguistic diversity can lead to isolation and other difficulties. For example, where co-sleeping might be a normal practice in some cultures, here the lack of a cot can be seen by child services as a failure of a new mother to provide safe sleeping arrangements for her child. 

The families who need our help deal with a range of very serious and complex circumstances. St Kilda Mums, in partnership with social services, is just one source of practical help to overcome some of the challenges. 

Recently we met a 45-year-old woman and her husband who had come from Greece to work for a year after finding themselves victims to that country’s disastrous economic climate. But an unexpected pregnancy and no insurance saw them plunged further into financial crisis."

"You can’t fix people’s whole lives with ‘stuff’ but you can help them keep their babies."

Facing a hospital bill in the thousands and unable to work due to her ‘geriatric pregnancy’ status, the couple couldn’t afford the essentials they needed for their baby. This is where St Kilda Mums was able to step in via a social worker and provide all the items they needed to bring their baby home. 

Another couple, young and devoted, found themselves unexpectedly pregnant but didn’t realise until late in the pregnancy. Desperate to keep their baby but unable to afford essential items and worried for the baby’s well being, they thought their only option was to put their baby up for adoption. In partnership with social services, we were able to set them up with everything they needed – they were over the moon to be able to keep their child.

You can’t fix people’s whole lives with ‘stuff’ but you can help them keep their babies. 

It’s this kind of very tangible, immediate impact that keeps me motivated every day. It gives us the momentum to do more and the drive to look for innovative solutions.

The magic ingredients: automation, innovation, volunteers

Our Salesforce volunteer program has been crucial to driving that innovation, and automation has been key to maintaining our efficiency. 

We manage our waitlist of 500 and the supplies in our warehouses entirely on a Salesforce platform we built ourselves – using Trailhead to work out how to build it – with zero implementation costs. The platform allows us to automate everything from the letters that are so important to our donor stewardship, to our mobile communications with social workers who are often on the road and hard to contact. 

When a problem arises or we want to try a new way of tackling something, we send a message out to our Salesforce volunteer cohort – a diverse and highly skilled group –  presenting the challenge. Many are here from overseas for a spouse’s work and may not themselves be entitled to work, or are juggling looking after kids with no family or support network. They might have a masters degree in IT and want to keep their skills fresh or they may want work experience to get a look-in with a new employer. 

With St Kilda Mums they get fantastic learning opportunities and we get our problems solved quickly and creatively. It’s a win-win set up and many of our Salesforce volunteers go on to find jobs based on their time with St Kilda Mums. We’ve become a popular recruiting ground for banks and telcos!

The ripple effects

Eight years ago we decided we would give our IP away for free. At the time we were wrangling the legal implications of sharing our solutions and innovations with other charities and our Chair Maya Donevska said “why don’t we just make it freely available to anyone who needs it?”.

It was a lightbulb moment. What’s the point in constraining goodness? If even more people can benefit from our work, then all the better. We are about sharing, collaboration and cooperation. Today there are similar group of mums working across Australia with the help of our innovative systems. That we have been instrumental in getting this work done on a national scale is a legacy we are truly proud of. 

As for the future, currently we reach about one third of babies born into poverty in Victoria. We want to reach all of them. One in six babies is born into poverty. That means five in six are not – and that’s a lot of stuff we can pass on to support the ones who can’t afford it.