Activism matters: Heidi Nicholl, Humanists Australia

In activism matters we meet activists and leaders working in a variety of atheist, humanist, and secularist spaces. This week we spoke with Heidi Nicholl, CEO of Humanists Australia, about routes into leadership, the day to day and challenges of leading a new organisation.

How did you become CEO of Humanists Australia?

My background is a mixture of ethics – which I have a PhD in – and small business. I did both things simultaneously for around ten years but when I met an Australian and moved here in 2016 I evaluated where my career was, and where I’d like it to be, and basically I decided to try and smash the ethics and small business skills together! I asked myself how I could combine the various skills from both and this took me into non-profit leadership.

My first non-profit CEO role was in an organisation working with patients who live with ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome). These patients have been systemically harmed by a medical system that has traditionally side-lined and disbelieved them – instead of seeing it as an under-researched disease which affects huge numbers of people. I was able to bring my skillset to help the organisation grow and move forward. After three years I really wanted to do something more firmly centred around my strong ethics background. I’ve been interested in secularism and ethics for a really long time, and I was familiar with Humanists Australia, so when I saw the job come up I jumped at it. I got on with the board from the outset and I am really excited and grateful to have this opportunity.

What does your day-to-day job entail?

Well yesterday was a good example as I spent some time emailing and in meetings but the main things I focused on were – sending a heap of letters to MPs requesting a meeting to introduce the organisation and the work that we’re doing, finalising a submission in support of Voluntary Assisted Dying for the state of New South Wales and in the afternoon (until gone 8pm!) I focused on slides for a conference I’m presenting at soon.

The conference is a multi-faith perspective on palliative care and I will be the first humanist that has ever presented and been on the panel. Part of my preparation involved reading The Death of David Hume – letter from Adam Smith LL.D to William Strahan Esq. It’s in a book called Thinking about Death which was published about 20 years ago by the Humanist Philosophers’ Group and the British Humanist Association. It’s a tough subject (the existential problems of being a humanist in pandemic times) but it’s an absolute joy to be able to do this kind of reading, research and writing as part of my actual job.

Today I’ve had a meeting about next year’s board meetings, another catch up on my email, some conversations about our quarterly brand magazine and this afternoon I have a meeting about some marketing and advertising plans we have. Tomorrow I have a campaign meeting for a political campaign we’re working on with some other Australian secular organisations and I’ll be preparing for a focus group around our celebrants and ceremonies program. So, it’s very variable and very interesting. I have a lovely team that I work with – and I take three days off every third week to work on a book I’m writing about how to be a humanist! I feel very lucky.

Humanists Australia is itself a very new organisation, what are the biggest challenges and opportunities that come with that?

The best opportunity is that the team and I can really scope out what we want the organisation to be from the ground up – in twenty-first century Australia. The challenges are that every individual person has a perception of what they think it ought to be and what the focus areas should be. We kind of don’t have any baggage because we’re new but we simultaneously acquired lots of baggage from trying to bring the existing state based orgs along with us.

Does your background as an academic bring a unique perspective to your activism, or did activism bring a unique perspective to your academia?

I wouldn’t describe myself as either an academic or activist! I do have a PhD and I really enjoyed the process of working on that. Prior to my PhD I was involved in academic research as a scientist but I was always a technician, assistant or manager. Post PhD I did quite a bit of teaching and some ‘doing’ (e.g. being an ethicist in a hospital setting) but as I didn’t do research I wasn’t ever the lead academic at all.

I have also always said that I’m not an activist. I’m more the thoughtful one in the background trying to make sure that my own thinking is coherent. That’s important to me. I can support causes – I can strongly support causes (!) but I’m better at organising and managing across the finances, marketing, priority setting etc rather than being the one out in front holding a sign. I do very little of that – perhaps some occasional T shirt wearing! If there’s a protest happening for a cause I’m involved with I’m usually on the side talking to security or briefing politicians who are attending or recording a video. I’m only the one in front for a short period of time.

What do you think are the biggest differences between grassroots activism and professional lobbying/campaigning?

I think there’s really a place for both as they are different skillsets and appeal to people who are good at, and enjoy, different things. I’m much better at lobbying and campaigning. I’m good with politicians one to one – I can be efficient with getting someone across our message and I can be pragmatic about moving things forwards. I think activism requires a lot of tenacity and staying completely focused. I’m more of a multi-tasker and a ‘keep the wheels turning’ person.

What qualities do you think are needed to be an effective leader in the atheist, humanist or secularist space?

I think leadership skills are probably the same regardless of the space. The most important ones as a non-profit leader are probably the ability to take people with you by conveying your vision – showing people your ‘flag on the hill’ – and the ability to deliver a bit of a ‘Henry V’ speech – “come into battle with me!” The other big thing is that people need to be confident that you can deliver what you say you’ll deliver. You have to be reliable and, if at all possible, under-promise and over-deliver.

What advice would you give to someone who feels that what they have to contribute could make a career in or lead an organisation focusing in this space?

You can become a non-profit leader from many different routes whether its finance, marketing, HR, running programs etc. the key thing is to deliver your part with absolute excellence. There can be a perspective that there is a lower bar to entry in non-profits. I really don’t think there’s a huge difference – if you’re going to be the leader of a group that really makes a difference you have to be highly competent, reliable, committed and strategic. Knowing when to sweat the small stuff and when to focus on the big picture is a good ability to develop as well.

Picture information: Pattern composed of Humanists Australia’s logo

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