For more than half a century, Guide Dogs Australia has been one of the most well-known and trusted Australian charities, helping millions of blind or low-vision Australians gain independence.
Nexia Edwards Marshall has been the audit partner of Guide Dogs SA/NT for the past decade, a period of fundamental change for the charity, including the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
Chief Executive Aaron Chia joined us to talk about what the NDIS means for the organisation, and what the future holds for Guide Dogs, while he also explained to us that – believe it or not – Guide Dogs work is about a lot more than dogs.
Easily the most common misconception about Guide Dogs is that the charity focuses on dogs and dogs only, according to Aaron.
And while that may be understandable, given the name, Aaron says that part of his job is to help stakeholders understand that every client has different needs and Guide Dogs’ role is to address those needs in the most effective way for the individual.
“We’re a client-centric business in every way,” Aaron says.
“The breeding and training of highly skilled guide dogs is a central element of what we do, and always will be, but it’s certainly not the only aspect.
“We’re in the business of helping people living with blindness and vision impairment lead as normal and independent a life as possible.
“We do that by offering a range of bespoke solutions, via a broad range of means and tools, of which dogs are but one.
“We have to offer a range of options to meet different needs, but also because each individual’s needs change over time – from pre-school, to school age, to adulthood and beyond. Our role is to consider how the support we offer has to change with those needs.”
Additional to the well-known support dogs, the organisation offers a range of different technology-driven applications to enhance Guide Dogs’ support capability.
“It’s important for us to stay attuned to technology developments and remain at the forefront of innovation, to ensure we are customer-centric.
What is different is the way in which Guide Dogs is funded, and how it uses those funds, Aaron says, with the charity now at a critical juncture in terms of its future pathway.
The introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) several years ago had a fundamental impact on the way Guide Dogs operated and forced it to make significant changes.
“The NDIS is an important development for Australians living with disability, and we fully support it,” Aaron said.
“However, it has made a lot of charitable organisations change the way they operate. While there’s good reasons for that change, many have struggled to adapt.
“Using NDIS funding requires very prescriptive reporting, for each specific item or service. We can’t simply allocate funds that come from grants or donations to deliver services, as we may have in the past. The positive is that the client has choice and control.
“This was a fundamental shift that required major changes to both our business and staffing model. We’re fortunate that we had a strong platform and were able to pivot.
“The challenge is to keep servicing the needs of clients who don’t qualify for government funding, so we can continue to deliver services that meet their needs. That’s why we still rely heavily on fundraising and donor contributions, so we can deliver services outside of the NDIS.”
Aaron says that this is where Guide Dogs long-standing partnership with Nexia is most valuable.
“As a trusted charity, it’s really important when fundraising to have reputable partners helping to keep the business moving. Nexia’s brand value is very important in this sense – they’re equally well respected as an audit partner, and our donors trust that their money is in good hands.
“While we’re a charity, there is actually a high cost of doing business, given the complex regulatory environment in which we operate, and the statutory reporting required.
“It’s critical in that sense that our audit partner understand the business and its complexities. Their service goes beyond auditing the books – they need to know how the business operates.
“Given the importance of fundraising and contributions to allow us to meet the needs of as many clients as possible, Nexia’s service to us is crucial. It’s an important relationship for us in every sense.”
Guide Dogs SA / NT