Scholar Profile - Cath Keenan PDF Print E-mail
Cath Keenan


Executive Director at Sydney Story Factory Inc

Awarded a scholarship for the Adaptive Leadership Program, November 2012

What sort of work does your organisation do?

The Sydney Story Factory nurtures young people’s creativity and well-being through sustained personal attention to their writing. At its home in Redfern, Sydney, volunteer tutors work with students one-on-one or in small groups to write stories of all kinds, which it publishes in as many ways as possible. Programs target marginalised students, and those from Indigenous and non-English speaking backgrounds, but are open to everyone. All classes are free.

Programs are designed to improve students written and oral communication skills; enhance their creativity; develop their self-confidence and impart a love of language and learning.

Describe a typical day's work.

Few days are typical at the Sydney Story Factory. For starters, the front of our writing centre is a shop: The Martian Embassy and Gift Shop, selling the finest produce from the Red Planet. Students enter the centre through the shop and it helps transport them to a place where new things are possible. I might start my day by tidying the cans of gravity.

Often by mid-morning a class of students will have arrived from a school for a two-hour workshop. They work with volunteer tutors to write amazing stories, and at the end leave with an illustrated book they have written themselves, with their photo on the back and space for their author bio. They always look proud.

I might then liaise with staff and donors, or start planning another course. At the moment, I’m organising a fundraising art exhibition themed around children’s books. After school, more students come in for our term-long after school programs where students work towards creating longer, more substantial pieces of work which vary from short stories newspapers to plays, animations and comics.

What were some of the key learnings from the Adaptive Leadership Program?

The course helped me to understand my role as leader of a small organisation with a very large volunteer base (over 1000 volunteers). It helped me to step into the role of authority and to understand more fully the responsibilities that entails.

How has it impacted / changed / benefited your role and your organisation as a whole?

I think many of the lessons will become clearer over time, as our organisation grows and sometimes needs to stop and change. In some ways, I think of what I learnt as a foundation that will help us build a better organisation over time. I think I have become a better leader, with a sharper understanding of my role as protector of the staff who work here. Much of what I learnt was in the methodology of the course. One of the things they taught us was that if you really want to hear constructive negative feedback, you need to seek it out, to “hear the no in the room.” I often think of that and try to elicit a range of opinions from our volunteers and staff, not just the easily offered praise.

How did you come to be working in the not-for-profit sector?

More by circumstance than design. I have always loved writing and before this was a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald for a decade, working as an arts writer and as literary editor. I watched a TED talk by novelist Dave Eggers about an organisation he co-founded in the US called 826 Valencia. I thought it was such a terrific and inspiring idea. My friend and colleague Tim Dick thought the same, so we decided to set up something similar here. I eventually left the paper to run it.

What do you feel is most needed to sustain and build the impact of the not-for-profit sector?

I think the NFP sector already has a huge impact, particularly on the lives of marginalised young people. There is an enormous desire to improve things for our most vulnerable kids and this currently provides an invaluable safety net for many of them. I think the best way to improve impact is to work collaboratively on this shared goal, partnering with different agencies to address children’s different needs and wants.

What is something interesting / unique / unusual about you?

I think everyone is unique. Certainly our students are. One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is watching children let their imaginations fly. They are so unfettered in their creativity and continually surprise us with astonishing ideas and striking use of language. It’s a privilege to share that with them.

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"I think the best way to improve impact is to work collaboratively, partnering with different agencies to address children’s different needs and wants."


Prior to her role as co-founder and executive director of the Sydney Story Factory, Cath was an arts writer and literary editor at The Sydney Morning Herald for ten years. She has completed a doctorate in literature at Oxford University and is an honorary associate at the Faculty of Education & Social Work, University of Sydney.

In 2012 ASF awarded Cath a scholarship to attend the Adaptive Leadership Program run by Sydney Leadership Australia. The four-day program is designed for people from the business, community and government sectors who are interested in developing their leadership skills so they can be more effective change agents.


Annual revenue / size:

Medium - $250,000 - $5m pa

Segment of NFP sector:

Arts, Culture and Recreation

Operating in: