Tim Costello finishes at World Vision

Australia’s most respected social justice advocate reflects on 15 years of service

Respected social justice advocate Tim Costello has “pulled up stumps” at World Vision Australia, after more than fifteen years as the face of the organisation.

World Vision Australia Chairman Shannon Adams says Mr Costello had helped change countless lives during his tenure.

“You are constantly struck that it’s faith that keeps people who are poor going.” – Tim Costello

“World Vision would not be the same today without Tim’s fearless leadership and steadfast devotion to lifting children and communities out of poverty,” says Mr Adams. “From his persuasive advocacy with the top end of town, to the compassion he displays to vulnerable people in the field, Tim has had a profound influence on our organisation and beyond.”

The past fifteen years have seen Costello on the ground at almost every global disaster that has occurred, from the ethnic cleansing of the Darfur conflict in Sudan to Asia’s Boxing Day tsunami. The experience has had a profound effect on his faith as a Christian.

“My years at World Vision have been filled with going to places in the world where only faith gives people any determination to go on. Where it is so appalling and chronic, the poverty or the violence or the hopelessness of a political situation due to conflict, that you wonder why people don’t just give up,” Costello tells Eternity. “And you are constantly struck that it’s faith that keeps people who are poor going.”

As the leader of a faith-based organisation, Costello says he “tried to lead from faith, with a team that led from faith, saying ‘We will go to the toughest places’ – the first in and the last out. We will say ‘Though the world has looked away, God sees you and we are here telling you that we see you and we know your name.’”

Costello held the role of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) at World Vision from January, 2004, until August, 2016. He was subsequently appointed as the organisation’s Chief Advocate.

As CEO, Costello led a period of significant growth at World Vision, expanding from 480 projects which benefitted 10.4 million people in 2004, to more than 800 development projects in 2016 that benefitted close to 100 million people.

When the Boxing Day tsunami hit in 2004, Costello led Australia’s response, inspiring unprecedented generosity that resulted in $118 million donated towards relief efforts.

Costello’s accolades have likewise been plentiful. He received the Victorian of the Year award in July 2004; was made an officer of the Order of Australia in June 2005; named Victorian nominee for the Australian of the Year award in 2006; awarded the 2008 Australian Peace Prize; and is listed by the National Trust as a National Living Treasure – just to mention a few.

“Deep down I kept saying ‘Lord, it’s your world, not mine. I’m not the Messiah, I can’t save and I can’t do enough.'” – Tim Costello

Yet, while Costello’s work has brought him recognition and respect, it also came with a cost.

“Opening yourself up to things you’d prefer not to have seen – you know, dead bodies and a smell of death (no one warns you about the smell, like in the Malaysian tsunami) – does leave you scarred,” he admits.

“I can be giving a speech and suddenly have an image of something I’ve seen that has me in tears … and it might be a happy occasion!

“You realise that the compartments you build around your life can leak.

“I think you carry a burden of guilt, or at least I do. These people have nothing – they’re utterly dependent on me telling their story to raise some dollars to get some help. Guilt that I didn’t do it well enough or I failed them. That’s a hard part of that whole journey.”

However, Costello has never had any sort of emotional collapse, a fact he attributes to his faith.

“Deep down I kept saying ‘Lord, it’s your world, not mine. I’m not the Messiah, I can’t save and I can’t do enough. And if you haven’t given up on this world, then let me do the little bit I can faithfully, but not overreach.'”

“I think you collapse and break down when you do overreach. Thankfully that didn’t happen to me.”

As Chief Advocate, Costello handed over the management of World Vision (“not my forte” Costello says), spoke at hundreds of events to thousands of Australians, and provided support for the new CEO Claire Rogers. She transitioned from the financial sector to the not-for-profit organisation.

“He is an inspirational and much-loved figure.” – Claire Rogers

Rogers says that Mr Costello’s unwavering dedication, passion and humanity has improved the lives of millions of vulnerable people.

“In both his role as CEO and Chief Advocate Tim has been instrumental in helping grow World Vision Australia to become the nation’s best-known humanitarian organisation. I am thankful to have inherited the leadership of this incredible organisation with the impact of Tim’s legacy. He is an inspirational and much-loved figure not just in Australia but around the world. I thank him for his extraordinary service to our organisation and the world’s most disadvantaged children.”

As Chief Advocate, Costello kept up his field visits and admits they’ve taken an increasing physical toll.

“You fly economy and I’m tall and you don’t sleep much on the plane. Then you’re thrown into the chaos and it’s pastoral because staff are terrified and morale is low. It’s like giving a blood transfusion – you actually feel drained at the end. [It’s] like giving, you know, spiritually, psychologically, a blood transfusions over fifteen and a half years.”

“The last disaster up in Sulawesi, Sumatra, with those ongoing tremors … and you don’t get sleep … I was much more physically knocked about by that,” he says.

“I’ve turned 64 [and] I started going, ‘There’s got to be, at my age, an end to this.’ My wife would often say ‘You know, others can do this. It doesn’t need to be you.’ So, yeah, it has taken its toll physically … That’s one of the reasons why it’s a good time to say ‘Yep, I’m pulling up stumps’.”

Some might ask why, as an executive leader whose work involves such extensive travel (overseas for three months of the year and interstate for another three), he flies economy each time.

“When I started, World Vision flew business class [for flights] over eight hours. For me, when I was flying back, I thought people are sacrificially giving to be able to sponsor a child. And even though I could justify my trip, I made that decision [to fly economy].”

“I’ve never had any belief that leadership was a male domain.” – Tim Costello

That’s just one way Costello has proved an unusual leader. His attitude towards women in leadership has been consistently positive as well.

“The best aid workers were always women in terms of EQ [emotional quotient] and bringing down the temperature and mediating,” he explains. “I just saw how good women were in these contexts. I’ve never had any belief that leadership was a male domain. I’ve always believed that women and men have the same spiritual gifts and same opportunities to lead. That’s the way I’ve tried to approach my World Vision work and my life generally.”

His ability to work across political party lines – garnering respect in all camps – is especially noteworthy.

“I’ve never believed the sort of modern zeitgeist [worldview] that if you disagree with me that equals you hate me,” he explains. “I’ve always said ‘This is where I stand on an issue, you can decide if that’s left or if that’s right, but it’s out of my biblical faith what I think my approach on the issue should be.’”

He thinks sharing a surname with his politician brother, former Treasurer Peter Costello, might have given him “a bit of a leave pass that others may not get” and helped some conservative MPs tolerate him.

From the impact of a political brother to Costello’s wife Merridie, who he describes as a “centring and grounding influence”.

“Merridie loves to say that behind every successful man stands a very surprised woman,” Costello laughs, before becoming serious.

“She’s remarkably sacrificial,” he says, saying how she’s picked up the pieces when he’s come home “knocked about and sick”, and “held the family together” while “coping with her husband who ends up picking lots of fights with the gambling industry, premiers, etc.”

“She’s gracious and calm and spiritually-focused and prayerful. So yeah, she’s truly my better half.”

He and Merridie have recently moved house “down to the beach” and Costello’s looking forward to “a little break and getting into a different space to think differently.”

“I have tried to preach the word in season and out of season, when it’s convenient and when it’s not.” – Tim Costello

He will continue to lead Micah Australia – a coalition of Christian aid organisations aiming to raise the Federal Government’s overseas development budget – that has proved a fierce advocacy force in recent years. He’ll also continue in a range of volunteer positions which include Chair of the Community Council of Australia; founding board member and spokesperson for the Alliance for Gambling Reform; member of the SBS Community Advisory Committee; and patron of the National Youth Commission.

Costello describes Not For Profits as “the glue that holds the whole society together”. He believes they aren’t being shown the support and respect they deserve when, unlike unions or businesses, they are “not invited to the table” for Productivity Commission Reports and the like.

“So I will continue to play a leadership role post-World Vision … I’ll be very active,” he says.

Taking stock of all he’s achieved as he finishes at World Vision, does Tim Costello have a sense of a job well done?

“I do. I look back and say we had the winds blowing with us with the Millennium Development Goals and the Make Poverty History campaign – and we had the wind’s blowing against us at other times.”

“I have tried to preach the word in season and out of season, when it’s convenient and when it’s not.

“I do feel like I tried to faithfully do that.”

Costello is the author of several books including Hope: Moments of Inspiration in a Challenging World (2012, Hardie Grant), and Faith: Embracing Life in all its Uncertainty (2016, Hardie Grant). His long-awaited memoir, A Lot With A Little will be released later this year through Hardie Grant.