Australian College of Disability and Community Services

In September 2021, the Centre for Disability Studies (CDS) launched their new training organisation – the Australian College of Disability and Community Services (ACDCS). With well over two decades of experience offering training and education to the Disability and Community Services sector, CDS is the country’s leader in providing both accredited and non-accredited courses.

We spoke with Associate Professor Mary-Ann O’Donovan, the CEO of both CDS and ACDCS, about the exciting new organisation and how True Accounting supports both entities with their not for profit accounting services.

Happy man on a wheelchair using a tablet with family

Building capacity

Mary-Ann moved to Australia from Dublin mid-2020 to join CDS. Her background in academic research, education and health enabled her to embrace her role as the new CEO and also helped her dive deep into the plans for the new training organisation.

“Since its inception, CDS has been a leader in workforce training, so the new training program was already in development well before I joined the organisation.

ACDCS focuses on building capacity around the disability sector. Dr Sharon Kerr, General Manager and our Education Lead, was really keen for CDS to have its own training organisation. Before ACDCS, our accredited training was done through a third party. They would receive 40% of the profit and that was a significant amount for an NFP to be paying… but we didn’t have the infrastructure to run it ourselves.

It was a huge undertaking to set up a training organisation… it was a risk, but when I came on board, I was fully supportive of the idea. I worked closely with Sharon and our Board to get approval. It was a massive investment for us to look at buying a skeleton training organisation… but we wanted one that didn’t have any courses or students attached. We didn’t want to inherit potential issues such as students coming back to us saying, ‘I did this 10 years ago and I need it checked.’ We needed something that was really clean… a fresh start that we could build from the ground up, based on all the experience we have, based on training modules that we’d been running for years.

Senior woman on a wheelchair assisted by a personal nurse

Sharon and Ani Moseley, our Compliance Lead, spent a long time developing policies and procedures to make sure that both ACDCS and CDS were comparable. We eventually got through the ASQA compliance process without requiring an audit, which is a fantastic achievement.

Now we are already delivering training and we anticipate that our accredited courses will start in February, in line with the standard TAFE year.

With ACDCS, we want to not only provide workforce training that targets people who work in the disability sector… but we really want to offer courses for people with disability so that they have more choices. Right now, Australia only has two university programs for people with intellectual disability – the CDS program with Sydney University and the Up the Hill program at Flinders University.

We want to provide courses that can support the transition to work and also the transition to higher education. There’s a lot we are working on for the future.”

ACDCS challenges

The creation of the new entity certainly posed various challenges to the CDS team. Mary-Ann says:

“Just to start with, getting the project off the ground was a challenge. Getting everyone’s buy-in across the organisation was hard because it was a new venture… it was a risk and would take up a lot of time. As a subsidiary of CDS, we had to get the balance right. We had to make sure the business that we developed really supported the greater strategic vision of CDS as the parent company.

Whatever we do at ACDCS has to be built on evidence and also support the continuation of the clinical work that we build the evidence from to support the training… it’s all cyclical.

We also had to tackle how to move all our workshops and training to the new entity name. CDS has such a strong reputation, we needed to make sure this was successfully transferred.

Plus, we are building a great base of trainers. Traditionally, all CDS staff members were involved in training, but it wasn’t necessarily their primary role. People had roles as researchers or clinical staff and they would facilitate training on top of that… but this left people stretched, so we now have people who are trainers as well as having the professional expertise of the Allied Health teams… we are making sure the quality is consistent.

There is a great energy and momentum within the organisation. We launched our new strategic plan at our AGM in November and while there’s been a lot of change over the last 16 months, not to mention the stresses of the pandemic, we have good stability and financial security right now.”

Senior woman happily holding a lady

Relationship with True Accounting

The relationship between CDS and True Accounting goes back many years, but Mary-Ann explains just how important it’s been throughout the process of building ACDCS and supporting her when she first joined the organisation.

“True Accounting has been great… they were pivotal during many stages of setting up ACDCS. Glenn and David have both been key in terms of reviewing the financials… not only of the proposal when we were going to the Board but also assessing all the records for the training organisation that we were buying. They looked at any financial compliance issues relating to that organisation. We couldn’t have done it without them.

And since the creation of ACDCS, they have been supporting the management of two different budgets. It’s complex because CDS funds ACDCS, and how it is all recorded and managed is brilliant. We wouldn’t have the expertise internally for that.

For me personally, they have been incredibly supportive. When I started in the role, they were very helpful during the handover from Professor Patricia O’Brien and they are always so responsive. I really like that if I go with a question or problem, they are totally solution based. It feels like an informal relationship, but it’s very professional at the same time. It’s nice to know that I can pick up the phone and ask a silly question whenever I need!

I’m actually always surprised at how available they are – you never wait long for an answer, whether it’s a CDS issue or ACDCS or both together – because they have such a good handle on CDS and how it works.

They know the kind of work we do, the ups and downs of our finances over the years… they know how to manage our really complex funding… for a small organisation we receive funding from so many different sources – the number of cost centres we have is a nightmare!

This is why it made complete sense to turn to AFG when it came to creating a new entity. Because AFG knows us, they know our structure and our team, they were able to talk to us about how ACDCS would work in the context of CDS: what procedures and processes we needed to have in place and identify that what works for CDS may not work for ACDCS, but we needed to line them up somehow… all that advice was invaluable… if it was another company that didn’t know CDS then it would have been total chaos.”


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