At home with Carole Renouf

Harmony ... Carole Renouf at her Waverly home.
Harmony ... Carole Renouf at her Waverly home.

It's clear from the moment Carole Renouf opens the door to her Waverley terrace that she's a woman who embraces change in all its chaotic glory.

The chief executive of the National Breast Cancer Foundation only moved into the home she shares with her teenage daughter and cattle-kelpie cross rescue dog six weeks ago. Paintings and framed photographs sit propped against the walls, waiting to be hung.

She's still unpacking, she says, as well as planning an overseas trip with her daughter and helping to care for various family members,

not to mention overseeing one of Australia's most prominent cancer charities, which raises more than $17 million each year.

Immaculately groomed with a pink ribbon pin in the lapel of her royal-blue jacket, she points to the back wall of her living room, where a colourful abstract painting hangs over three statues of musicians playing different instruments.

''I know this will sound a little weird,'' she says of the arrangement, ''but it's a reminder to me on a daily basis that as a leader and manager, you have two jobs. As a manager your job is to make order out of chaos. The painting reminds me of that. As a leader you have to have a vision and a direction and align your people around that. That's why I have the three musicians playing their instruments underneath.''

Joining the National Breast Cancer Foundation 18 months ago after five years as the chief executive of the Garvan Research Foundation, Renouf is steering the charity through its biggest period of transition since it began in 1994.

''When it first started, it was very small, initially just run by a group of volunteers. It didn't even have staff. It grew organically very, very quickly,'' she says.

''By the time I took over it was raising about $17 million a year and had about 40 staff.

''Essentially you find with that sort of rapid growth - and this happens in any organisation - the fundamental business platforms have not kept pace. I have been very much focusing on that.''

To that end she is encouraging closer collaboration with other cancer charities, more strategic fund-raising and, perhaps most importantly, more innovative ways of investing the money raised.

''Raising funds is just one side of the business,'' she says. ''The other side is research granting. Giving out money wisely is even harder than raising it. It requires the wisdom of Solomon in many cases.''

The foundation is putting money towards infrastructure, such as data registries and tissue banks, that can be used by breast cancer researchers nationally and internationally. It is also funding translational grants, which accelerate the path from a discovery in the lab to a clinical trial.

She says the foundation is well on track to its stated goal of zero deaths from breast cancer by 2030.

''We thought long and hard about the goal because if you stick your head above the parapet with a goal like that, you can get shot down if you don't make it,'' she says.

''If you look at the last 18 years since we were set up, back then 30 per cent of women who were diagnosed with breast cancer lost their battle. Now, less than 20 years later, that percentage has been halved, really through research and then screening. I don't think it's unreasonable to think that we can reach our goal in the next 20 years. Our ultimate goal, though, is prevention, to eradicate breast cancer all together.''

With one in nine Australian women being diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, and seven Australian women dying each day from the disease, it's an ambitious ideal, but Renouf has never been one to shy away from a challenge. As it turns out, she has been rolling with them for much of her life.

The daughter of the late diplomat Alan Renouf and his wife Emilia, Renouf was born in Egypt in 1952 and spent the next 13 years moving around the world as her father took up posts in the US, France, Belgium, Nigeria, Yugoslavia and Portugal.

She doesn't see the constant disruption as a negative, describing it as a formative part of her character.

''The longer I spend leading organisations, the more I think that my childhood was a really good training ground,'' she says.

''I got accustomed very early to dealing with change; constant and massive changes - languages, cultures, schools, friends, pets, everything. I just learnt to take it in my stride. Running organisations these days, that's what you have to do - change is the only constant.

And the better an organisation is at managing change, the more likely it is to thrive.''

She also developed a keen sense of social justice as a young woman, getting expelled from her top English boarding school, The Cheltenham Ladies College, for making a stand about the exploitation of younger girls.

''At the time, Cheltenham Ladies College had this very deeply entrenched class system, if you will, where the younger girls were essentially treated as slaves of the older girls,'' she says. ''I was a prefect and I didn't like the system. I set about trying to change it. It got me into all sorts of trouble.

''In the end I went to see the house mistress and I said I can't accept this, so I'll resign. She said, 'No prefect has ever resigned in the history of Cheltenham Ladies College.' Basically

they sent me packing.

I was 17.

''At that time it was the '60s and the other girls were getting expelled for having marijuana stuffed in their teddy bears, so at least I came out on the right side of the law.''

Nonetheless, her parents were mortified and told her in no uncertain terms that if she wished to attend university she would have to do it under her own steam. At the time, university scholarships were still available in Australia, so she had little choice but to leave Britain.

After finishing her degree in Australia, she embraced another lofty goal, of becoming an actor in New York.

''I left uni without much of a plan,'' she says. ''I decided I'm going to do the big thing, which was go to New York and either make it or break it.

''It was my dream. I did the usual waiting tables and working at the UN as a translator to try to make a living doing that. I set myself a goal and said if I wasn't making a living as an actor and director by the age of 30 then I'm going to give up and do something else.''

Realising that she was never going to support herself financially as an actor, she returned to Australia and worked as a teacher at a public school in the then hard-scrabble suburb of Marrickville.

''At that time it was not a well-off area,'' she says. ''It was very discouraging because you would spend 99 per cent of your time in the classroom on discipline and 1 per cent on content. I just didn't feel that I could make a difference.''

With the notion of social change in mind, she started working on HIV/AIDS programs for NSW Health, before joining the Australian Consumers' Association (now Choice) and then being offered a job at the World Wildlife Fund Australia, her first experience of raising money for charity.

Just like the painting on her living-room wall, her career has been about finding order in the chaos.

''I can see a through line,'' she says. ''It's about the same skill set: communicating, influencing, persuading and educating.''

But as is the case for many busy women in mid-life, she's juggling multiple roles. On top of a demanding job, she also has a sister with a disability and a mother who is now 90, who recently left her own home to move into residential care.

''There is not much time for any hobbies,'' she says. ''I'm lucky my work has always been my self-actualisation. It's my way of giving back but it also gives back to me.''

This story At home with Carole Renouf first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.