Last updated: 12pm 
Geelong, Australia

Scott Walters sees his recent appointment to the role of chief executive officer of Opportunity International Australia as the culmination of a 20 year “philanthropic journey” which has seen him serving in various roles across the not-for-profit sector.

Walters - who was previously chief fundraising officer with the Bible Society Australia (a role which also covered fundraising for the Sydney-based Centre for Public Christianity) and prior to that worked with The Smith Family as head of strategic partnerships - recently took up his new post following the departure of previous CEO Meredith Scott who had been at the organisation since 2018.

Founded more than 40 years ago, Opportunity International Australia now supports some 6.3 million families in developing nations in Asia to help them out of poverty, most notably through micro-finance loan initiatives.

Opportunity International Anjali

Anjali is part of the majority of Opportunity International’s small loan recipients - more than 95 per cent are female. For Anjali, owning her own small business has given her independence that, as a woman in Nagpur, in rural India, was hard to find elsewhere. For the past six years she has stocked and restocked her roadside stall, taking out and repaying Opportunity small loans to make improvements - a fridge for cold items, a printer to rent to customers - which allowed her to expand her business. PICTURE: Supplied.

Speaking to Sight from his home on the Central Coast of the state of New South Wales thanks to a current coronavirus-related lockdown, Walters - who has a background in financial services in both Australia and the UK - says he started his journey into the world of philanthropy and non-profit organisations as what he calls a ‘chequebook philanthropist’.

“I’d write cheques to anyone who knocked on the front door and give money to people who asked me for a donation without too much thought as to what they were doing or any strategic positioning," he says.

Scott Walters Opportunity International Australia

Scott Walters. PICTURE: Supplied.

 

“If I look back at my non-for-profit experience specifically and the roles I have taken, all the organisations in one way shape or form are involved in trying to stop the problem at the source and break the cycle of disadvantage."

- Scott Walters, new CEO of Opportunity International Australia.

But he gradually became more involved in the philanthropic sector – volunteering for organisations like the Red Cross in a breakfast program for vulnerable children and then sitting on the boards of organisations including The Benevolent Society, the Art Gallery of NSW and Goodstart Early Learning.

“Over the course of what was about 11 or 12 years, I went from simply making donations to thinking more strategically, volunteering, consulting, sitting on boards and then ultimately sitting in the executive.”

Walters, who is married to Nikki and has three adult sons, says he’s always had a sense of how well off he was and how others, both in Australia and elsewhere around the world “just don’t have many of the things that I take for granted”. He adds that his Christian faith - he grew up in a Christian family and attends an Anglican church - is also a driving factor behind his work in the sector and “certainly the grounding of Opportunity International in the parable of the Good Samaritan absolutely resonates with me”.

Walters first came across the work of Opportunity International about 20 years go. He says that, with his background in finance, the focus of the organisation on micro-finance and how it worked was of particular interest given the high repayment rates the organisation reported while helping communities break the cycle of disadvantage.

“If I look back at my not-for-profit experience specifically and the roles I have taken, all the organisations in one way, shape or form are involved in trying to stop the problem at the source and break the cycle of disadvantage. Now it manifests itself in different ways but [with] The Benevolent Society, The Smith Family, the Bible Society and now Opportunity International, I love the fact that all of them are involved in, not so much welfare work – in some cases that’s done in addition, but in real cutting-edge initiatives to break that cycle and ensure that generations to come will benefit from the work that’s being done right now.”



While micro-finance remains the key focus of Opportunity International’s work, Walters points out that the organisation’s role in addressing poverty around the world has also been evolving into areas including health, women’s safety and education finance.

“And, of course, through COVID, Opportunity International has provided relief and assistance to many of the families that we support by the provision of food ration kits, assisting with mass vaccinations, providing advice on health matters generally including sanitation  - clean water, handwashing, all that kind of thing. [It has] been a wonderful opportunity for us to be able to support families beyond micro-finance.”

That said, COVID-19 has disrupted some of the work the organisation is involved in, Walters notes.

“So we’ve provided moratoriums on loans, we’ve rescheduled loans, we’ve done whatever we’ve needed to do to try to help families go through this.”

Indonesia woman carrying seaweed

Seaweed cultivator Asri in Indonesia. When restrictions on receiving goods from out of town as well as price markdowns meant she couldn't sell fish, Asri was able to - thanks to micro-finance loans made through Opportunity International partners, invest in and increase the seaweed cultivation part of her business. PICTURE: Supplied.

The COVID crisis has also highlighted the important role of the partner agencies Opportunity International works with on the ground – “they’ve continued to reach out and support these six million people so they can continue to help them through this”.

“This is a time for organisations like ours to really stand up and acknowledge that if we think we’re doing it tough, we don’t know what that’s really like compared to what they’re going through on the ground.”

While travel restrictions have curtailed any overseas travel at present, Walters does intend to see the work of the organisation first-hand as soon as he is able.

“I want to sit in the dirt with the people that we support and with the partners that we work with and hear the stories firsthand from the lives that we are changing on a day-to-day basis,” he explains. “I’m a big believer that our team needs to do that also and our supporters - our donors, our partners, whoever is helping to fund us - they need to see it and feel it and touch it themselves.”

One of the big challenges for many organisations in the not-for-profit sector during the COVID-19 pandemic has been raising funds given the widespread hardship caused by lockdowns and other restrictions. Walters says that while every charity would always welcome more funds for its work, Opportunity International has been blessed by the support it’s received from its donor base during the period.

Keeping people engaged was another ongoing challenge, particularly during this time. But there’s also been some unexpected benefits.

“Whilst from a day-to-day work perspective, Zoom - and many of us are sick of Zoom, but it has been and will continue to be, I think, a good channel to keep donors in touch with work. And the beauty of it is that, unlike, say, a lunch or a dinner where you can give a presentation, people can be anywhere," says Walters. "And so being able to bring partners in who are based in India onto a Zoom call as well as donors who could be anywhere across Australia to hear an update on a program has been valuable. And I think it’s something that we will continue to do.”

While it’s still early days for Walters in the new role, he’s looking forward to working with the organisation he feels God has led him to.

“I hope where God has placed me in the last decade or more has equipped me well for this incredible privilege of Opportunity International.”

Clarification: The article was amended to show Opportunity International Australia works in Asia alone.