Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance
Meet Scott Neeson. He is a former Hollywood Executive and founder of the Cambodian Children’s Fund. Not a linear career path, to say the least.
In 2003, Scott embarked on a sabbatical between jobs that would change the course of his life. In Phnom Penh, Scott saw hundreds of children and their families living and working on the Steung Meanchey garbage dump, one of the most toxic environments imaginable. Scott’s view on life changed completely when he found himself looking out across the Steung Meanchey garbage dump at hundreds of children scavenging through garbage.
Leaving a 26-year career in the film business, including tenure as president of 20th Century Fox International, Scott made the decision to resign from his job, sell all of his possessions and focus his energy and passion into Cambodian Children’s Fund. Twelve years later and Scott’s journey still captivates, inspires and bewilders people from all over the world.
How far has the Cambodian Children’s Fund come since its inception? What makes it so unique?
CCF has surpassed all initial expectations. We set out to have a great education program and ensure that children were not working on a garbage dump and had a safe place to live, eat and receive any required healthcare.
Today it is a unique model of community interdependence where everyone has a role to play and there is no sense of entitlement. Even pre-teens help with various programs and grandmothers, 90 years plus, are tasked with teaching wisdom to the younger generation. Both the financial measures and the program results have been quite remarkable.
How different would your life be if you never took that 5-week trip to Asia? (If it’s even worth the speculation!)
If I hadn’t made the trip to Asia I am certain I would be continuing my life in Hollywood. The good side is that I would still have all the material goods I ever wanted and have the safety and security that living in Los Angeles brought. I also wouldn’t be aware of how unhappy I really was.
What’s your biggest motivation for doing what you do?
The biggest motivation is seeing the progress in each child. We are now at the stage where children who were abandoned on the garbage dump by parents or other family members were brought into CCF and are now in university and running our leadership programs. Seeing them blossom, have confidence and want to change the next generation is inspiring.
Do you think Australians have a predisposition to philanthropy or social impact work because we come from such a culturally diverse country?
Australians tend to be far more worldly than other developed countries. When you travel, no matter to which city or how remote the location, you often find Australians. It’s that world perspective that I believe leads to a greater sense of philanthropy and empathy with the culture, the problems, the society. It’s embedded in Australia.
If you could tackle any social issue besides what you’re doing, what would it be?
More than specific issues I would love for the CCF model to replicated elsewhere. It is a very complex model that covers the majority of identified social issues and does so in a holistic way. To see the same social issues addressed with the CCF model in a different environment would be something I would like to see happen.
Is there anything – any values or mindsets – that you learnt from Hollywood that you could bring to Cambodia? Or is it two completely separate worlds?
I have no doubt that being in the corporate world of Hollywood gave me very strong skills for starting CCF. I came from a hard business mentality without exposure to other non-profits so CCF was built with an inner core of business principles and an external sense of compassion for the children. We couldn’t have the same financial, transparency and governance measures if it wasn’t for the business outlook versus a non-profit outlook.
What has been the biggest learning curve since moving?
The biggest learning curve was realizing that I needed to let go of my own beliefs and sense of values. You cannot be successful in this role if you judge people by your own background and own standards. I haven’t walked in their shoes. I certainly haven’t experienced some of the tragedies and hardships they have been through and I see my role as being there to serve. You learn not to judge.
What Non Profits or philanthropists do you most admire?
I respect a number of human rights organisations. I have long been an admirer of Amnesty International. They seem to be steeped in integrity and don’t compromise values. The world would be a far scarier place if organisations such as Amnesty International were not around. It’s a thankless job but one you should never take for granted.
The other is Médecins Sans Frontières, Doctors without borders. As has become clear they work in some terribly dangerous circumstances and I admire both the courage and passion with which they do their jobs.
What’s next for the Cambodian Children’s Fund? How would you like to see it develop?
The model has matured. We are no longer expanding in terms of numbers of children. We are looking at improving the model, refining the successes and weeding out any areas that are ineffective or redundant. The model has so many virtues I hope in my life I can see it replicated in a similar environment.