A tale of two careers, but one enduring passion

Meet the new head of Opportunity International Australia

Stepping in as CEO of Opportunity International Australia (Opportunity) just as Sydney went into a four-month lockdown was challenging for Scott Walters, an unabashed extrovert.

It’s meant he has met only four OI employees in person. The rest of the staff, he’s just seen in “2D” over Zoom.

“If you want the one-word summary, it’s been different,” he tells Eternity about his unusual start. “It’s had its blessings and it’s had its drawbacks. In some ways, it’s been a good time to go through the induction process because I’ve had plenty of time to read … But of course, I have really missed the collaboration with the team and getting to know people in a properly humane way, rather than over a computer.”

But the worst part about taking the reins at this non-profit organisation during lockdown, Walters says, is that he hasn’t been able to visit the programs making a difference in developing countries.

“I’m a big believer in getting to the work on the ground, meeting the people who are benefiting from the work, collaborating with the people who are delivering the work. And given that most of Opportunity’s work is in places like India and Indonesia, there’s no way I’ve been able to get there and no likelihood of being there anytime soon,” he laments.

“I have a passion for those who are disadvantaged. I hate the injustices …” – Scott Walters

Opportunity International Australia is part of a global network that began about 45 years ago and now serves people in over 20 countries. It’s a Christian organisation that works to alleviate poverty in developing countries by providing programs and support in four key areas: microfinance, health, education and women’s safety. The largest part of OI’s work is in microfinance, and 95 per cent of loan clients are women who borrow money to set up small businesses to help support their families. These small loans serve 6.3 million families across Asia. The organisation also runs programs to prevent domestic violence and human trafficking.

Some of OI Australia’s most recent work has been delivering COVID vaccinations in India, where they have delivered two million doses with a goal of reaching five million doses by the end of this year.

Walters can’t help getting emotional when talking about OI’s work. Its mission to break the cycle of disadvantage is a cause close to his heart.

“I’ve always had a passion for that kind of development and philanthropic work,” he explains.

“Part of it is driven by my faith and my desire to be true to biblical imperatives and true to the teachings of Jesus and to be authentic and genuine in the outworking of my faith.

“I’m also motivated by seeing others’ disadvantages, I suppose,” he reflects, choking back tears. “I have a passion for those who are disadvantaged. I hate the injustices that still are perpetrated on children, and injustice generally.”

Having visited and seen the fruits of Bible Society literacy projects in Egypt, he continues: “Why shouldn’t a kid in Cairo be able to read and write? Why shouldn’t they be able to take up their place in society, to collaborate with their peers and live out a full life, being able to read and write, as so much of the Western world can?”

“For me, it’s been a journey from what I call chequebook philanthropy, through to getting much more hands-on.” – Scott Walters

When you look at Walters’ career on paper, it seems to be split into contradictory halves. For 25 years he was a leader in the financial services and wealth management industry, including 14 years in stockbroking with Deutsche Bank in London and Australia. As CEO, Walters also launched Merrill Lynch HSBC, an online stockbroking and financial services joint venture, and was head of financial planning for Westpac/BT, Citigroup and for Mercer Wealth Solutions.

The second half of his career encompasses 20 years in the not-for-profit sector. Most recently, he spent seven years as Chief Fundraising Officer for Bible Society Australia. Before this, he was Head of Strategic Partnerships at The Smith Family, a children’s education charity.

However, rather than making a distinct career U-turn, Walters explains that his passion for philanthropy has always undergirded his life, even during his years in finance.

“My philanthropic journey started as far back as I can remember. By that I mean, I used to write cheques to charities or give money to anyone who came to the door.

“Then I started volunteering. So I volunteered for the Red Cross, and I used to go out to a primary school and make breakfast for kids who came in off the streets, to put food in their stomachs before they went to class and just be a role model.”

While working in finance, he also served on the boards of The Benevolent Society, the Art Gallery of New South Wales and another not-for-profit, Goodstart Early Learning.

“In amongst all of that,” says Walters, “I was made redundant twice, in 2002 and in 2009. Also in 2009, my wife Nikki had a stroke.”

“You pretty quickly work out that everything you need is found in Jesus.” – Scott Walters

These crises all fed into the spiritual, emotional and work-life journey that led Walters to leave the world of finance and join The Smith Family in 2011. While this move came at a significant cost in terms of salary, it has given back much more in terms of lower stress levels and more job satisfaction, he says.

“For me, it’s been a journey from what I call chequebook philanthropy through to getting much more hands-on in the not-for-profit sector. I have really enjoyed feeling like I’m getting closer to the action in terms of helping people who are less fortunate than me. I’m actually getting my hands dirty. I’m getting out in the field and helping people.”

Working for philanthropic organisations that serve the disadvantaged has also deepened Walters’ faith.

“I think it has helped me to put things in perspective in terms of wants and needs. I love the Bible verse that talks about having everything we need in Jesus [2 Peter 1:3],” he reflects.

“You pretty quickly work out that everything you need is found in Jesus – it’s found in prayer, it’s found in the Holy Spirit, it’s found in church and communion. And you work out pretty quickly what matters. So I think there’s a sense of peace now that I didn’t have in financial services.

“My family has been through some terrible times and some experiences that I wouldn’t wish on anybody, and we continue to have some real challenges. But I know God has always been there and always delivered me from those experiences. I just feel so blessed with all that God has given me.”

“I can see God at work throughout my entire career …” – Scott Walters

His new role at Opportunity International Australia continues to weave together the two strands of his career – finance and philanthropy – and builds on his fundraising experience at Bible Society Australia.

“I can see God at work throughout my entire career,” says 61-year-old Walters.

“This job was somewhat out of the blue. I wasn’t looking for it when I was approached about this opportunity. But as I’ve reflected upon the blessing it’s been to actually secure the role, it seems to me that it brings together my 25 years in financial services, with my almost 20 years in the not-for-profit sector – all wrapped up with the outworking of my Christian faith and the opportunity to lead an organisation.

“I just feel totally blessed that at this stage of my career, I’ve got the opportunity to be true to my faith, to work in a faith-based organisation, to lead that organisation and to, hopefully, grow the impact of the work that Opportunity International is doing around the world.”