In the spotlight: President Ray James and CEO Jon Black

RSL NSW President Ray James and CEO Jon Black on how they’ve worked together to translate passion into action and guide the organisation to its first membership increase in 40 years.

At a glance:

  • Ray James and Jon Black have collaborated since 2019 to guide a reformed and resurgent RSL NSW to its first membership increase in 40 years.
  • The course of this positive change has been mapped by the RSL NSW Strategic Plan 2021-26 and reflected in outcomes such as the Sport and Recreation Program.
  • James encourages the new President and CEO to stay the course and continue the collaboration with RSL LifeCare Veteran Services.
  • Throughout their time leading the organisation, Black says their eternal reference point has been the wellbeing of veterans and families.

RSL NSW President Ray James OAM and CEO Jon Black have collaborated to guide the organisation in a new direction by introducing the RSL NSW Strategic Plan 2021-26, encouraging sub-Branches executives to engage younger members and families, and inform members about the positive changes that will secure RSL NSW’s future.

Ahead of the election of a new President and appointment of a new CEO, with Black retiring at the RSL NSW State Congress in October, we sat down with James and Black to learn what they’re proudest of achieving in their respective roles, their collaborative working relationship and the respect they have for the other’s experience and determination to spearhead positive change.

In the early days of working together, how did you come to realise each other’s strengths?

Ray James: “When Jon was hired as CEO in 2019, I was the Acting President, and I later became President in 2020. He faced a fast learning curve from the moment he joined. At the start he didn’t know the difference between a sub-Branch and a Club.

“So on day one I grabbed him, put a badge on him and said ‘You’re a member of the League’. We soon came to speak the same language.

“We hit the ground running with a new constitution that had passed at the 2019 State Congress. That was when members voted in favour of having a strategic plan to guide the organisation’s future, and Jon was tasked with producing and implementing it over the next few years.”

Jon Black: “I was hired to develop and deliver a future for RSL NSW – that was my task.

“My reference point has always been our charitable purpose. I ask myself everyday what we’re doing and achieving. Why are we here? Why do we do what we do? We do it to support our community of veterans and their families – that has always been my guide.

“Ray has made an extraordinary commitment to lead the organisation through changes that enable the organisation to assert itself as the preeminent body representing the interests of our veterans, and to collaborate with like-minded organisations to deliver the best support and services we can.”

The RSL NSW Strategic Plan 2021-26, currently in delivery, aims to secure RSL NSW’s place as Australia’s most recognisable and respected ex-service organisation. How has it been communicating these changes to the membership?

RJ: “Communicating the need for change to members has been important. In the first two years, we visited as many RSL sub-Branches and District Council meetings as we could, because a sub-Branch in Wagga Wagga, Glen Innes or Orange is no different from a sub-Branch in Sydney, Newcastle or Wollongong.

JB: “The overwhelming member support for the Strategic Plan has been a major achievement for us. The focus on delivering our charitable purpose has shifted the mindset away from concurrent governance reforms after the adoption of the new Constitution in 2019. ”

RJ: “It’s a hard task to change when you’re part of an organisation as old as RSL NSW, but we’ve slowly turned things around.”

JB: “Now, for the first time in 40 years and as a result of the collective efforts of ANZAC House and members across the state, we’ve seen an increase in the membership. New members are the future of the League, representing a new generation of veterans seeing the benefits of membership, especially mateship and helping others in need.”

The President’s role involves acting as principal spokesperson and representative of RSL NSW. Ray, what are some of the regular activities you undertake to publicly represent the League and drive engagement with current and prospective members?

RJ: “I represent RSL NSW at commemorative functions, ceremonies and other activities, including District Presidents’ Council, District Council and sub-Branch meetings. I also preside over the State Congress and AGM, which will next take place in late October in Newcastle.

“Each week I travel to towns across the state to attend committee meetings and RSL Auxiliary presentations, listen to feedback from members on RSL NSW initiatives such as the Sport and Recreation Program and on membership tools such as the Member Recruitment Toolkit, liaise with representatives of local government, and more.

“Following the flooding in Lismore last year, I visited affected areas with local MPs and heard of how RSL NSW’s partner charity RSL LifeCare Veteran Services provided more than $120,000 to affected veterans – support made possible by the generosity of RSL sub-Branches. I regularly meet with the Federal Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and the NSW Minister for Veterans to advocate for support including the care model practice for Veteran Wellbeing Centres.

“I am also a member of the RSL NSW Veterans Services and Policy Committee, which among other things makes recommendations to the Board about the effectiveness of RSL NSW services provided to veterans and families. A good example of the work done by the committee are the policies being developed to respond to recommendations from the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, and the legislative reforms.”

JB: “I have heartfelt gratitude for Ray’s extraordinary energy and passion in conveying to the broader membership the reasons why we have to increase our membership and make the organisation relevant for younger generations.”

The introduction of the RSL NSW Sport and Recreation Program and the collaboration between RSL NSW and RSL LifeCare Veteran Services have both proven to be successful parts of the Strategic Plan. How have members benefited from these ventures?

“I’m a big rugby buff, and I always say to play the same game with a single ball. All sub-Branches need to unite and work as one RSL NSW. We can only do it together, not separately.

“The Sport and Recreation Program embodies that focus. Through the program, sub-Branches are organising a diverse range of activities by themselves, but for a common purpose – to build camaraderie, welcome new members and engage a wider community of veterans and their families.

“The RSL NSW team participating in the upcoming City2Surf has attracted more than 130 expressions of interest from members, showing a widespread interest in getting involved, meeting up with friends and strengthening bonds.”

JB: “The implementation of an operating model that delivers services to veterans and families via an RSL collaborative partnership in the form of RSL LifeCare Veteran Services stands out to me.

“Across the past two years, RSL NSW sub-Branches have donated a total of $5.2 million dollars to RSL LifeCare Veteran Services, which incorporates substantial financial contributions made by ANZAC House. This donation has enabled a range of support and services to be provided to veterans; for example, in the first three months of this year alone, 117 veterans received homelessness and housing support. The collaboration between the two organisations has also enabled us to deliver on our vision to establish a network of Veterans’ and Families’ Hubs across the state.

“I’m sure the next President and CEO will continue to work with RSL LifeCare Veteran Services to continue delivering valuable support and services to veterans and their families wherever they live in the state.”

Any final words?

RJ: “Being the CEO of an organisation is a hard job, but by working together we have complemented each other’s skills. I have great respect for Jon.

“I’ll be encouraging whoever becomes the new President to keep the same forward direction.”

JB: “There’s been a great synergy between me and Ray. He has the knowledge and experience of decades in the League, and I bring more than 20 years in senior leadership and management roles in large organisations, delivering change.

“Ray is the eyes, ears and soul of RSL NSW. Working with him, we’ve been able to translate that passion into action to realise what RSL NSW can be. That’s probably been the greatest achievement of all.”

Nominations for Board Directors and President close on 21 August. Find information on Director eligibility, the nomination process and how to vote.

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