This month, we were lucky enough to catch up with Antony Mitchell, financial counsellor at Cancer Council Victoria. Antony shed light on his background prior to coming into the financial counselling sector, talked us through some of the distinctive characteristics that come with being a financial counsellor in a health context, and leaves us with a great book recommendation. Thank you Antony!
Please tell us about your background.
My background is in government, mostly Treasury and the Reserve Bank, and financial markets, mostly commodity futures. I’m currently the financial counsellor at Cancer Council Victoria (CCV).
What motivated you to pursue financial counselling?
I’ve always had some involvement in not for profit and advocacy, mostly with Amnesty, and always found this to be very rewarding. I’d reached a stage in my previous career where there was no great satisfaction so combining the belief that I was reasonably numerate with knowing that I enjoyed work in the not-for-profit sector I landed on financial counselling as a good fit. Of course, reality has imposed some realisation of what a simplistic deduction this was, but I’m really happy I’ve taken this direction anyway!
What are the unique aspects of your role or the area you work in?
I work with cancer patients and their carers. It is a disease that does not discriminate much demographically. My referrals come internally from our cancer helpline and through hospitals. Clients can be people who are recovering and want to do things differently in the future, to people who are dying and don’t want to acknowledge it, to people who have a few months to live and embrace it – quite different frames of reference. The people that can be the most challenging are the carers, they often bear a great burden on a number of levels, sometimes without support.
From a financial counselling perspective, the role is a little different because the focus can be on several timeframes (e.g. survive/don’t survive) at the same time and can often be as much on finding income as addressing debts, and can require assisting people to come to terms with a new financial reality from a previously more financially secure and comfortable life.
What has been your proudest achievement to date?
I think every time I’m able to assist someone to feel less stress about their financial situation is the most rewarding aspect. There is a known link between stress and treatment outcomes, so the benefit is not just financial. CCV has embraced a model where we try to put a fence at the top of the cliff before people fall off into escalating debt. I’ve only been an FC for a few years, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have had managers and colleagues with decades of experience. I’ve been impressed by the work FCs did back then with a greater emphasis on prevention than today it seems to me.
People in treatment lose quite a lot of perceived control when they enter the medical system, which can be disempowering. We have an approach that assists patients through the process of addressing their financial concerns rather than doing it directly for them, taking into account where they are on their treatment path. Surprisingly to some, people appreciate the agency this gives them at a time when they feel they have less control of their life than prior to diagnosis. This isn’t always feasible, so sometimes when they can’t manage, we revert to a more directly supportive approach. In many respects we’re trying to return to a more preventative model, something that’s not so evident in current state and federal funding models.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the financial counselling sector?
At risk of being unoriginal, funding. But not just amounts, also what we’re funded to do. I’ve been state and federally funded and found this, at least in the agencies I was working for, to be a hamster wheel of debt assistance, waiting there for yet another person to fall off the financial cliff before they got help. It was striking to me how many had been FC clients before. At a government level this is poor public policy as it renders taxpayers to an endless stream of funding commitments that does not address the causes (but it can fit well with the election cycle). Financial capability/literacy has its own funding stream but it’s even more poorly funded and FCs are in a unique position to see where an individual needs such support and to render that at the time.
In addition, as acknowledged widely, FCs see what’s wrong with our legal and regulatory framework at a practical level and should have greater scope for advocacy work. This emphasis historically is evident in James’ great book on the development of financial counselling in Victoria (it’s also a great record of how far things have come). FCs would make a more lasting and bigger difference were these things the case. Much better if people don’t go off the cliff in the first place.
What has been the most valuable resource or advice you’ve received?
This is a tough one. In my relatively short FC career, I’ve been very fortunate to have been taught by, worked with and for, some very dedicated and knowledgeable FCs. My experience has been that FCs are very generous in conveying their knowledge, which is something that could be acknowledged more. But I have to pick one thing so…
“Deal with all the debts – not just the ones they present” from Rene.
The client is less likely to need to return and the burden is reduced further. On a personal level this made me develop skills in building rapport and trust quickly, it’s a work in progress.
What book are you reading at the moment?
I am currently reading “Race Across the World” by John Smailes. It is taking me back to a time where people could drive interstate and take planes to other countries – very nostalgic.
Do you have any favourite podcasts?
I listen to a lot of podcasts, mostly from ABC and BBC. Radiolab and Freakonomics are interesting too!