Career Highlights2020-09-07T12:23:07+10:00

These are some #MomentsInTime that I value



In May 2020 I stepped down as CEO of Family Life after 25 years, having led the organisation from a small local agency to one of national significance for innovation and impact, with a budget and assets of over $20 million, helping thousands of families, children and young people,  and with many special highlights over the journey.

“Jo Cavanagh has been a powerhouse for the organisation and leaves Family Life with a stable culture, stable strategy and the ability to meet our purpose of transforming lives for stronger communities,” Family Life Board Chair Grant Douglas said.

“She has overseen the growth and transformation of our organisation to ensure we can continue to improve the lives of vulnerable people and contribute to making the world a better place.”



In June 2019 I accepted the position of Chair of The Good Things Foundation Australia, committed to everyone having a better life through digital.  At a roundtable with the Lord Mayor of London, Peter Eslin we shared advances for promoting digital literacy and online engagement in the UK

At the FGS Collective Impact Convening in Chicago, experts in initiating and leading community change provided further learning to build on our award winning Together We Can, collective impact family violence prevention project in Victoria.

With proud Partners from Cardinia Shire and Vic Police


A highlight was attending the European Union Social Services Network Conference in Spain and working with colleagues at Swinburne to take the advances in thinking into a program for visioning and preparing for Society 4.0

After years of research as part of an international movement for change, it was a major milestone to publish When Parents Kill Children Understanding Filicide. Again my focus is the prevention and innovation opportunities to protect children proposed in Chapter 7.


Catchup 4 women was launched bringing to life vision, research and a program for women over 55 to prevent homelessness and reduce social isolation amongst women as they age. My focus is action and systems change to increase security, social participation and personal wellbeing.


A big year for expanding my world view and engaging with research and big ideas for social change as I took long service leave to travel with my husband and attend the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford UK, the Shared Value Leaders’ Summit in New York City, and International Women Deliver Conference in Denmark.

A significant milestone after years of working to progress measuring outcomes and impact was  working with experts to inform the Deloitte publication: “A practical guide to understanding social costs: Developing the Evidence base for informed social impact investment”


I presented practice research at the International Conference for the Prevention of Filicide at Prato in Italy, and connected with community change colleagues from Tamarak Institute at the Collective Impact Summit in Toronto. Learning with John Kania and the late Brenda Zimmerman about working with complexity and promoting systems change were highlights.


It was an honour to receive the Women of Influence Award for Social Enterprise/Not-For-Profits (Westpac AFR)



It was an honour and a privilege to be Awarded an Order of Australia (OAM) in recognition of my service to the community through social welfare organisations.



Proud to be included in all three of Avril Henry’s books on Leadership and featured in Leadership Revelations 11 for outcomes achieved during crisis, particularly for capacity to innovate, take on new roles and skills to fill gaps in organisational expertise, compete successfully for government funding, and maintain focus on our people; those we serve and those we work with.


The Sisters of the Good Shepherd ANZ asked me to assist with establishing Good Shepherd Australia and New Zealand a new NFP company to lead the continuing charitable works of the order. I served on the Board for 5 years retiring from the position of Deputy Chair in 2016.


I was appointed National Vice President and Board Member of Family Relationship Services Australia (until 2014). I was also the chair for the national conference Family and Relationship Services Australia Darwin (2013) driving a national movement to focus on evolving outcomes reporting and funding – the conference included international key speaker Dr Deborah Daro from Chapin Hall Chicago University.

I also visited Stanford University in California to study at the Stanford Not for profit Management Institute.


Successfully completed the 3 year evaluation of the Australian Government Family Relationship Centre, tendered for and auspiced by Family Life fro Frankston and the Mornington Peninsula.

“Jo’s strong belief in researched based policy, program and practice development has been a constant guiding principle in her community service leadership. Her brave initiation of this project …..highlights the way research can contribute to service development and underlying theory about the problems the services are addressing …” Emeritus Professor Thea Brown


As an Advisory Council Member of the Centre for Social Impact, I was part of the team that consulted and planned for the establishment of the Centre in its early days – as a consortium of UNSW, Melbourne Business School and the Swinburne University of Technology. This association continues as Chair of the Swinburne CSI Advisory Council.


I attended the first of three Skoll World Forums on Social Entrepreneurship at the Said Business School in Oxford UK developing a global perspective on evidence and action for social change.

The Community Bubs Evaluation Report was launched confirming the effectiveness of the innovation I had proposed in 2004 to reduce the need for child protection intervention and assist parents to keep their babies and young children safely in their care. This was a culmination of applying the research from my Churchill Fellowship in 1990 and practice based research to prevent child abuse and invest in strengthening families.


I was the Sector representative for the Child Safety and Wellbeing (until 2017), one of three non-government representatives appointed to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) committee for steering the implementation of the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children.


After a couple of very challenging years, I was awarded my Master of Management – Leadership Navigation Norwegian School of Executive Management BI. My research topic was ‘Sustainable Social Enterprise and Corporate Social Responsibility’.

I was appointed to the Australian Council for Children and Parenting, working with experts on a national research project for early intervention in mental health issues experienced by children and young people.

As President of the National industry peak body, Family Services Australia, it was a proud moment when we secured the Australian Government’s $400 million investment to expand services for families and separating parents with the focus on promoting the best interests of children.


I was awarded the AIM Master of Management Not for Profit Scholarship and am forever grateful for this investment in my learning and the forward thinking content for values and systems focused leadership.

Advocacy and innovation for place based efforts with disadvantaged communities was rewarded with continued federal funding for Creating Capable Communities . I am so proud of how this small innovation has continued to grow and evolve over the years with new evidence supporting how essential it is to work holistically and at the systems level for positive change and better outcomes for children and families.


The inaugural year of the Robin Clarke Memorial Awards. Robin was a valued colleague and great loss to the vision for protecting children in Australia so it was an honour to receive a Robin Clarke Inspirational Leadership in the Field Award for efforts to improve the lives of vulnerable children, youth and families.



I was a Victorian finalist for the Telstra Business Women’s Award (Community Services) and is this year elected as President of Family Services Australia the national peak body representing all community organisations delivering federal government funded family services. This was a significant step up in recognition of successful innovation and contributions to using evidence to support reforms.


The first of a number of Australian Ministerial appointments was to the National Marriage and Family Council. We worked as leading experts advising Government on alternative approaches to strengthening families and preventing parental separation and divorce.

Received the Australian Heads of Government Family Violence Prevention Award for research and innovation to develop a whole of family approach.


Research into improving family violence practice and service outcomes was completed and I published with Monash University our report, “Through the Eyes of the Child” demonstrating the need for a whole of family approach to healing and preventing family violence.


I commenced my career as a CEO leading my local family support organisation now known as Family Life. From a small community agency with with minimal funds and assets, I led the growth to the substantial nationally recognised organisation I left in April 2020. I engaged supporters from across all sectors of the community to build a leading evidence informed, high impact, innovative community serving organisation.


I volunteered with the late Jim Stynes and Paul Currie to set up the Reach Foundation, developing the business plan and becoming a founding Director. Our vision for an organisation empowered and led by young people from all walks of life was an innovation for young people struggling to find their way and meet life challenges. It is so rewarding to see the impact Reach now creates in Australia and how many people have benefited and grown through the programs.


I was honoured to be appointed as an inaugural Pre Hearing Convenor for the Family Division of the Children’s Court of Victoria.  A key insight from this time was the many missed opportunities to address families problems and help strengthen their parenting to keep their children safely at home. An earlier focus on meeting needs and preventing problems escalating through effective family support was needed.


As a member of the Victorian Government Standing Committee on Child Protection, I worked with sector experts including  the late Honorable Justice John Fogarty and Emeritus Professor Dorothy Scott to inform the state government policy response to the Daniel Valerio inquiry which culminated in the introduction of mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect. A key lesson from this time is that legislation and intent is not enough. Mandatory reporting alone does not deliver safety for children as evidenced by the continuing rise in the incidence of child abuse and neglect.


I was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to study Innovations for Preventing the Abuse of Children in Out of Home Care. As a social worker I witnessed the harms experienced by some children in non-family care and became determined to bring attention to these children. Together with my husband and four young children we travelled for three months in North America following a research trail for improved systems of care. I brought back to Australia evidence and programs to improve the quality of care in Australia and for improving family support to prevent the need for child removal. The needs of these vulnerable children are now recognised with a Royal Commission and national efforts for better life outcomes: a profound example of the impact which can flow from speaking out and agitating with evidence and innovation for change.


After graduating with a double degree in Arts and Social Work Honors, I progressed from social worker in juvenile justice and children in care to Deputy Director of a Children’s Home. My passion for improving the lives of vulnerable children, young people and families, from both personal and professional experience was well established.

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