FACE TO FACE : Diane Robertson – Social entrepreneur

As our interview ends, Diane Robertson decides to introduce me to Mark the Moose. He waddles into her office on skates, singing.
A cold-weather version of the ‘don’t worry, be happy’ fish, Mark is bit of giggle – but guaranteed to induce Moose-icidal thoughts after about the 19th rendition. He’s also battery powered which makes him bit heavy on maintenance for gifting to poor families. So the Auckland City Missioner diverts such toy treasures to corporate gifting – and takes wicked delight in what has become quirky Christmas tradition.
In fact, for someone who works with those who have fallen through the bottom of New Zealand’s worn welfare net, the first female non-clergy missioner takes delight in lot of things.
Her job: the best you could have – on good day.
Her environs: courtesy of previous owner, the mission offices are idiosyncratically arrayed with ‘marble-ised’ plywood pillars and grandiose arches. She’s even escorted tour groups around them – for donation.
Her vision: Mission in the City – $70 million 12-storey development in Hobson Street that will house the homeless, give solo mums somewhere to live while going to university and provide live-in access to the Mission’s detox centre.
That the latter is well on track to becoming reality demonstrates that 54-year-old Robertson is not only passionate advocate for her clientele – she’s also very effective one. Amongst her volunteer crew for this project are business luminaries like Sir Ron Carter, Richard Didsbury and David McConnell; there’s already scale model; development manager has been employed and Robertson expects resource consent within 12 months. All she has to do is raise the dosh.
That’s on top of the regular fundraising to meet about 93 percent of the mission’s $4.3 million annual budget. But she’s up for the challenge.
“I’m chief salesperson for this project. I have to raise $70 million so that’s my job from now on: to talk to corporates, tell them what we’re doing here – the reality that if they invest now, they’ll not only know their money is going to worthwhile cause, they’ll see the outcome. Someone walking across the stage with degree or diploma – again and again.
“It’s very visual contribution. Every time you drive down Hobson Street, you will know you’ve contributed to making social change – and people want to invest in that.”
If they do, then it’s in large part because Robertson is successfully getting out the message that merely doling out bread and sympathy doesn’t deal to the systemic causes of poverty – and that we can’t progress as society if we keep allowing people to be shunted aside to eke out an existence in the margins. Poverty is cost we all bear.
Which is why she’s also delighted that the Committee for Auckland is undertaking research into the “million-dollar Murray” phenomenon highlighted by Tipping Point (and Blink) author Malcolm Gladwell. Murray was an ex-marine and an alcoholic whose familiarity to the local police and health services of Reno in Nevada prompted an investigation of how much it cost to keep him on the streets. It turned out over five years to be about US$1 million.
Applying those sorts of metrics to social issues makes lot of sense to Robertson.
“So we’re tracking six homeless people in New Zealand – and the interesting thing is that it’s not being undertaken by social services researcher, it comes from the business world and is about where we should be investing money. You get different audiences listening to it. It doesn’t just get flipped off as some piece of fluffy social work – or prompt judgements like these people should just learn to look after themselves,” says Robertson.
“That is quite an amazing change and if people talk about this and start asking questions – like if we put million dollars into homeless people over five years to keep them on the street, what if we spend $500,000 on getting them out of homelessness and make decent change.”
Tapping on the desk for emphasis, Robertson is formidable salesperson for what, in market-driven, success-oriented society, is not helluva sexy product. No woolly-headed idealist, she is the sort of social entrepreneur who brings tough pragmatism and relentless professionalism to the job of helping people haul themselves out of their poverty traps.
While plenty of people would prefer to believe those on the margins of society are there because of their own personal failings, it is seldom that simple. There are bigger economic factors at play, Robertson points out. The gap between have and have-nots is growing wider worldwide. In New Zealand more low-income families are being pushed into poverty (more than one third of our children are suffering economic hardship). And when it comes to marginalisation, we all stand on fairly shaky ground.
“One of the interesting things for me,” says Robertson, “is that as society we are very segmented – so you live in an education world or church world, corporate world or not-for-profit world and we all have quite rigid views on what those in other worlds are like. So I think there is huge thing about educating each other and mixing across those groups.
“My little campaign for about six years is about working in different areas to get people to understand what can happen to push someone into the margins – so they stop being so judgemental.”
To that end she sits on number of boards – like the Committee for Auckland, Springboard Trust, NZ Institute – where she mixes with business people and as she’s learned more about their world, they’ve also learned about hers.
“I can have conversations on the governance of Auckland or economic development strategy and as I’ve done that those people have gained an understanding of the world I live in as well. One of the greatest outcomes of that is the Mission in the City project. That’s happening because of this relationship partnership between not-for-profit and business – and I just think it’s so exciting to hear corporate and business people saying ‘you need to know what it’s like to be marginalised’. Yay!”
Robertson certainly knows.
Brought up in violent family situation, she had to learn lot of basic social behaviours outside the home. At 14 she was more interested in partying than school, and life in the small rural town of Woodville didn’t offer much option for the future than marriage and babies.
“Then when I was 17, the school principal took me by the ear into his office, told me I was quite bright and was wasting my life. That had really lasting impression on me – so I knuckled down for the last year of school and ended up going to teachers college.”
She was the fifth child in the family and the first to have tertiary education. Because she’d obtained her UE, she also took bachelor of education papers. At the end of three years, her choice to work out her bonded obligations was either Hunterville or Waiouru.
“I really didn’t want to marry farmer – so I married soldier,” she grins.
She taught in Waiouru for five years and then travelled overseas with her husband for two more before returning to have their first child, then two more in quick succession.
“We were in an army camp when our eldest was born and I couldn’t cope with that so went back to university to finish my degree. I sat in the back of the lecture room with all these 17-year-olds, breastfeeding my son, which was bit of novelty at the time. After that we chose to work where we could take our children.”
That limited options, so the couple started doing social service work, running residential adolescent living skills programme and then boys home in Masterton. When the latter closed down, they used the premises to set up social services agency employing staff to do family therapy, running one of the first non-violence programmes for men and working with sex offenders.
Robertson ran groups for violent women. It was the 1980s and she was swimming against the rising tide of feminist movement that focused on men as the proble

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