Leveraging a scholarship to impact Australia’s circular economy
Scholar insights – Matt Davis
Matt Davis, CEO of The Salvation Army Salvos Stores, arrived at Harvard Business School for a week-long intensive and he had done his homework. But nothing could have prepared him for the rigour of the program or the impact of the experience.
When Matt Davis applied for an Australian Scholarship Foundation (ASF) – the Harvard Club of Australia
Non-Profit Fellowship – in 2019 he had a clear vision of the strategies he was hoping to develop for Salvos Stores.
“I wanted to establish a firm foundation for our organisation, which is going through a circular economy transition. This was really a platform to help galvanise the thinking around how to do that well,” he explains.
The Salvation Army has, for over 100 years, been involved in the collecting, sorting, and recycling of used household goods to support people experiencing hardship or injustice. But now, explains Matt, the call for a circular economy has never been greater.
“Beyond the amazing resource recovery already happening, Australia still sends 250,000 tonnes of clothing and other textiles to landfill every year. It’s a problem that needs to be fixed.”
Winning the scholarship
Despite his foresight, Matt says he was shocked when he received a phone call that he had become, alongside Karen Crouch, CEO of Feros Care, the 2019 recipient of the Harvard Club of Australia Ferris Family Not-for-Profit Scholarship to study Strategic Perspectives in Not-for-Profit Management at Harvard Business School.
Matt had been on the ASF mailing list and when the opportunity had arrived in his Inbox, he immediately recognised it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience not readily accessible in any other way, but he didn’t really believe he was in with a chance.
“I knew it was extremely competitive and there would be so many worthy recipients,” he says. “When I got the call, I was on cloud 9.”
Formulating strategies at Harvard Business School
Matt jokes that the program “bootcamp at the Hyatt” – an 8am to 9pm seven-day intensive where everything is done for you, except the hard work.
Alongside a deeply impressive cohort of 160 not-for-profit leaders from around the world, Matt attended lectures, did project work and gave presentations. He gained skills in management and strategy, worked on a personal project exploring policy challenges around textile waste and, memorably, learnt to drill down into his ‘why’.
“There was a module on Question Zero – why does your organisation exist? It was about gaining absolute clarity around that. In a not-for-profit context, if you’re not making an impact to the issue that you care about, every question after that doesn’t matter,” he says.
Impacting Australia’s circular economy
When Matt returned to Australia after the course, he became involved in the development of the Federal Product Stewardship Scheme for Clothing Textiles, an initiative that aims to improve the design, recovery, reuse and recycling of clothing, providing a roadmap to circularity in Australia by 2030.
The scheme is funded by the Australian Government and hosted by the Australian Fashion Council, with Matt volunteering as the Chair of Charitable Recycling Australia, a key consortium member, during its inception.
In this role, Matt has been an active stakeholder in the dialogue around how to enhance Australia’s circular economy, sharing the analysis on strategy and policy that he honed during the program.
“It has been an absolute privilege and we are all really looking forward to seeing Australia become a leading light in clothing circularity,” he says of his engagement with the scheme over the last four years.
“My journey since the course – alongside a group of great and passionate people, of course – has meant that Australia now has a voluntary product stewardship scheme for clothing and textiles, with a vision for totally changing the [circular economy] game in Australia.”
Leadership at Salvos Stores
Closer to home, at work Matt says the course has both impacted his leadership and the leadership of Salvos Stores in the circular economy space.
Personally, he has become more open to bringing in external voices to support his decision-making and problem-solving – from chatting with his closest colleagues from the course to engaging specialist consultants.
He says he also has more of a belief that break-through solutions are possible.
“In the charity sector you can get a bit despairing at times – ‘we don’t have enough resources; we don’t have enough time’ – and it’s hard to keep facing up to all these challenges every day. So, recognising that there are others out there, just as passionate, getting it done, has really inspired me.”
Such optimism has supported a new community action Salvos Stores is taking on textile waste called Moving the Needle, a collaboration with other charities and retail brands.
“It’s been a great platform for us to elevate the issue, and it has certainly helped to place Salvos Stores as one of the leading organisations at the forefront of the conversation and future actions,” says Matt. “It’s wonderful to be part of this action that we’re taking for people and the planet.”
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