From Rugby Fields to Philanthropy: Owen Finegan’s on Leading The Kids’ Cancer Project

In our latest conversation, Owen Finegan, a former rugby star and current leader of The Kids’ Cancer Project, talks about his journey.

Transitioning from sports to leading a major charity, Owen discusses how his experiences on the rugby field have shaped his approach to leadership and fundraising. He reflects on the challenges of managing a national not-for-profit and offers personal stories that continue to motivate his dedication to fighting childhood cancer. 

Owen, from your time with the Wallabies to leading The Kids’ Cancer Project, how have the teamwork and goal-setting skills you learned in rugby influenced your approach to leading a national not-for-profit?

It might seem like rugby fields with the Wallabies, business and fundraising are worlds apart, but I’ve been able to put core lessons from my years in sport into action in business. That’s because the fundamentals of successful on-field strategies are more closely aligned with high performing teams and workplaces than most people realise. Success in team sports and business rely on alignment, the characteristics, talent, and abilities of the team. Everyone must be aligned because you’re playing to win.

Transitioning from an esteemed rugby career to leading The Kids’ Cancer Project, how do you structure your day to balance the demands of such a vital role?

The transition from being a professional athlete to a more regular role can be difficult – athletes are less regularly in the rigours of their sport, the adrenaline and the spotlight. Many struggle to find a new sense of purpose but I think I was lucky to move straight into the for-purpose sector and lead the team at The Kids’ Cancer Project for over a decade that continues to drive me to succeed.

My day-to-day focus revolves around building ownership, establishing a workplace value in the team being more important than any one individual; knowing that whatever you put into each working day has the potential to yield impact down the road.

The Kids’ Cancer Project’s vision is an impactful one. Can you share more about the inspiration behind the charity and how simple change is making a big impact?

With an ambitious vision of a 100% survival rate, we believe that survival starts with science. The Kids’ Cancer Project is an independent national charity that funds bold scientific research to find kinder, more effective treatments for every child diagnosed with cancer.

The charity’s founder, Col Reynolds, was a tourist coach bus driver. The charity’s journey started on an ordinary day in the late 1980s when Col was driving his empty tourist coach past the Children’s Hospital in Camperdown, Sydney.

After stopping to let two youngsters with bald heads cross the road, he parked and went into the hospital in the spur of the moment. Touched by the spirit of everyone he met that day, Col started his personal mission to help kids with cancer and has proven that one person can definitely make an impact.

Since 2005, thanks to strong community and corporate support, the charity has committed over $70,000,000 to scientific research projects to help children with many types of cancer all over Australia. 

As someone who has seen the direct impact of community support, what message would you like to share with those considering donating to The Kids’ Cancer Project? 

Every single day, three families hear the life changing, awful phrase, “your child has cancer” and every week three Aussie kids die of cancer. With an ambitious vision of a 100% survival rate, we believe science is the solution to improving outcomes.

We are incredibly proud of our impact, and we take our role we play in the childhood cancer community seriously. Even though everyone can make a difference in the fight against childhood cancer, the generosity shown by our major donors makes a significant impact.

We value the long-term impact of donations that allow us to create change and make breakthroughs. This will ensure the best possible outcomes in the shortest time possible for those kids with cancer.

Because time is something these kids don’t have a lot of. The Kids’ Cancer Project is supporting exciting research to minimise and hopefully eradicate long-term side effects to help improve their quality of life and ensure that they not only survive but thrive.

Dealing with a cause as serious as childhood cancer can be emotionally taxing. How do you maintain positivity and resilience in your daily work?

Dealing with childhood cancer is definitely a serious cause and my role definitely requires a strong level of emotional investment. As part of our training at The Kids’ Cancer Project, we look at the tools we need to be compassionate, caring and courageous.

The job quite often leads to family interaction during a really challenging period for the parents, siblings, their wider family unit, entire network and community.

The ability to be compassionate and a real drive to make a difference for every child that is diagnosed with cancer probably drives me harder than any opportunity I ever had to represent my country in a test match. That feels more like a game now while my current role is life changing.

Finally, Owen, can you share a personal story or moment from your work with The Kids’ Cancer Project that has stayed with you and continues to motivate your commitment to this cause?

My passion for The Kids’ Cancer Project has been driven through my own experience with friends and families fighting childhood cancer and this reinforces my belief in the importance of research into childhood cancer and supporting families by helping to find better treatments and survivorship.

When my daughter was less than 2 years old my Wallaby and Brumbies teammate was confronted with the news that his 2-year-old son had been diagnosed with Stage 4 Neuroblastoma.

The journey was horrendous but in 2023 he celebrated his 21st birthday. In May of 2022 my six-year-old neighbour was diagnosed with a brain tumour, DIPG and given 9-11 months to survive and unfortunately in March 2023 I attended the funeral for a 6 year old child.

The indiscriminate nature of childhood cancer drives me every day because you will never know when one of the 950 diagnosed every year will be someone you know and love.My personal mantra with The Kids’ Cancer Project is an easy one – more 21st birthdays and less funerals.

About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.