Seeing is believing: Australia

The Fred Hollows Foundation is an Australian charity that focuses on restoring sight to some of the world’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged people. GC’s Harveen Kaur sits down with the legal brains behind operation, Katrin O’Sullivan, to discover the important role general counsel play within the not-for-profit sector.

It’s been a busy day for Katrin O’Sullivan, I manage to catch up with her in between two conference calls after having back to back meetings for hours. Yet O’Sullivan is no stranger to managing a busy schedule, having spent most of her legal career as in-house counsel for some of the most prominent not-for-profit organisations in the world. Her work with the United Nations took her to places such as Sudan, Afghanistan and post-tsunami Indonesia. Currently based in Australia, O’Sullivan is the general counsel of the Fred Hollows Foundation.

The Fred Hollows Foundation was founded in 1992 by world renowned eye surgeon Fred Hollows. It focuses on preventing and treating curable blindness around the world. Now with a new mission of driving forward the Foundations goals, O’Sullivan shares the challenges and opportunities present for in-house counsel within altruist organisations.

An eye-opening opportunity  

Having joined the Fred Hollows Foundation in 2011, Katrin O’Sullivan has been leading legal operations for the charity for over eight years. Although based in Sydney, legal oversight of the foundation’s work spans across multiple jurisdictions and covers a wide range of legal matters.  She was named as the inaugural Lawyers Weekly “Not for profit Lawyer of the Year” in 2019.

‘The work for the foundation requires me to oversee the provisional legal support to the whole foundation across more than 25 countries worldwide and hundreds of staff and partners,’ says O’Sullivan.

‘I advise the foundation in setting up operations in multiple jurisdictions such as India, Dubai, USA, Hong Kong, Myanmar, Indonesia and Ethiopia. This can be more difficult than one might expect, because most jurisdictions require the involvement of local personnel and government entities. We usually work with local lawyers to find solutions that enable our overseas branches to comply with local laws and requirements without the Australian parent company losing oversight.’

Working with local lawyers has been key to maintaining the foundation’s success, however legal issues generated within different regions can significantly vary.

‘The beauty of in-house counselling is that you have to be a jack of all trades,’ explains O’Sullivan.

‘I advise on regulatory and compliance matters, including the complex laws governing charities, and fundraising in multiple jurisdictions. I provide legal support to the foundation’s HR team with regards to compliance with local employment laws.’

‘I also advise the foundation on marketing and fundraising in relation to compliance with applicable laws governing trade practices and fundraising. This also includes, advising on the protection of the foundation’s intellectual property, especially on the trademark and the brand reputation aspects – which are very important in the charity sector.’

‘I am also devising, implementing and presenting training programs for staff worldwide, to educate them in identifying and mitigating legal risks. This includes awareness of adherence to our standard contracts and policies to prevent corruption, money laundering and child exploitation. These issues are all very highly relevant in the countries we operate in.’

Looking to Hollywood

Part of the Foundation’s work is to raise money in order to fund their projects. Over the years, O’Sullivan has overseen the implementation of a number of major flagship programs designed to boost the charity’s growth.

‘I recently set up the foundation’s operations in the United States. That required quite extensive interactions with the foundation’s US attorneys as well as tax, fundraising and lobbying specialists to ensure compliance with the complex regulatory regime that governs charity operations there,’ says O’Sullivan.

‘Those operations were initiated on a very tight timetable because we were planning a launch in the US at a very high profile gala fundraising event.’

The charity gala, which was hosted by Australian A-list actor Joel Edgerton and Australian TV personality Lisa Wilkinson was attended by Hollywood stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Al Pacino, Christopher Pine, Kate Beckinsale, Paris Hilton and Robert Patterson – among others.

‘I had to make sure that our US entity was ready and able to accept donations in time for the launch, which we managed to do. It was a great success and great for our profile. It also helped with creating a brand for the foundation’s cause. It was, financially, a big success.’

Nevertheless, there were significant legal challenges to overcome, shares O’Sullivan.

‘Resources are usually very limited, especially in the NGO sector, so the way I start projects is taking the time to understand what all parties are trying to achieve. It is very important to stay flexible as you might go into a project not knowing all the steps to achieve the end goal. Things change all the time and as general counsel it is best to remain flexible and not go in with a set idea, do not be afraid of discarding traditional approaches or ideas. Sometimes you just might be better off starting fresh.’

When working to strict deadlines, in-house counsel have a responsibility to the businesses they support to ensure the needs of a company are met.

‘Sometimes, it is more important to get the job done than it is to achieve perfection. So, that is usually how I tackle any sort of challenging project that comes my way,’ says O’Sullivan.

Bollywood calls

 Shifting focus to India, O’Sullivan has also overseen a plethora of initiatives aimed at helping cure avoidable blindness in India. In 2019 Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood mega star, was enlisted to help spread the foundation’s message throughout the Asian market.

‘He [Bachchan] is helping us open a whole market for us, he is very popular in the Asian market, especially in India, China and Indonesia. So, this has enabled us to set up an office there and really come in big. In India alone, it is estimated that at least 50 million people are blind, who do not need to be,’ reveals O’Sullivan.

‘Indians have serious vision problems that affect their families, work and quality of life. For example, everybody has heard about crazy drivers in India, well a lot of them are vision impaired but can’t afford treatment.’

‘We do similar projects in Bangladesh and have reduced the rate of road accidents and fatality measurably. Also, unfortunately, eye issues also affect more women than men. Women are less likely to access services generally. In fact, women and men with eye issues together account for about 37 billion in lost productivity annually.’

In-house counsel working within NGOs play a pivotal role in setting up a framework that not only pushes projects forward, but also ensures funds are allocated to where they are really needed.

‘As you start tackling some of those issues and setting up legal entities to assist, you sort of start pushing projects forward so the dollar reaches where it really needs to be,’ explains O’Sullivan.

Sight with vision

 Having obtained extensive experience advising not-for-profit organisations and NGOs, O’Sullivan reveals that although her work is rewarding, it can be seriously challenging.

‘It is very easy to get passionate about the work we are doing. But, being part of an international NGO, means you have to advise across many different jurisdictions, countries and cultures. So that is one of the challenges, which can be a bit different to a regular corporate role.’

‘You have to operate a little bit more effectively, and efficiently because resources are limited. The environments are often very difficult, sometimes even dangerous. You have to have a very unique skill set and knowledge of not only the regulatory framework, but also the cultural environments,’ says O’Sullivan.

‘I have met royalty, senior government officials and high net-worth donors throughout my career. Some of these people are worth a lot of money, and have their own set ideas. Then, you meet the humblest and very inspirational local volunteers in the field. So, it is very interesting and inspiring to experience the diversity of people you encounter from different cultures.’

But being organised and anticipating challenges or legal issues before they arise is crucial to ensuring successful outcomes for in-house counsel within NGOs.

‘We all know well in advance what sort of projects are planned and we just start doing research on what is required for those projects to determine how we should take things and which team members may be involved. Obviously, there is not just legal involved, there are many other teams involved in some of those larger projects. We work in groups and assign tasks and deadlines and just work through those as they arise. So, then we are ready when there is an event or deadline we have to meet,’ says O’Sullivan.

Despite working with limited resources and heavy workloads, it is easy to stay on top of things if you are truly passionate about what you do. For O’Sullivan that is certainly the case: ‘Finally, I would say to anyone really, just make sure you work in an area that inspires you. If you work in what you are passionate about, then that is your life. That is certainly the case for me. I just love every day at the foundation.’