Both BackTrack – and you personally – have won numerous awards, but the organisation may not be familiar to some of our investors. Can you give me the “elevator pitch” on what you do for their benefit?
When kids end up at BackTrack, they’re at the end of the road. They’ve been through all the other services and fallen through all the cracks. The standard kid that we deal with has been kicked out of home, kicked out of school, kicked out of the shopping centre, kicked out of the footy team. Most of the kids have been in contact with the legal system; some have already been incarcerated. And we’re talking about kids who are 11, 12, 13 years of age! If somebody doesn’t step in at this stage, they’re going to end up in real trouble. So we step in – and we get them back on track. We start from scratch: we build trust and then we do whatever we need to do for as long as we need to do it. We’ve got a school teacher, who helps them with reading, writing and maths. But for a lot of these kids, learning practical skills is what really works for them. So we’ve got a metal fabrication shed, where we teach them how to weld, and we’ve also got 30 dogs, which we teach the kids how to train. We compete in working dog high jump events all around the countryside on Friday and Saturday nights, which is when most of the drama happens. So this helps keep the kids out of harm’s way and helps keep crime rates down.
There are really three parts to BackTrack. There’s that Core Program I’ve just spoken about for our younger kids. Quite simply, at this stage, it’s about keeping them alive and out of jail – making sure they feel safe and showing them that learning is something that’s actually possible for them. Right now we have about 25 kids in the Core Program. And we also offer accommodation to those who need it through our residential home, Warrah. Based in Armidale, this includes a fully supervised residence with a live-in house parent, as well as four tiny homes for semi-independent living.
Further down the track, we start chasing hopes and dreams. We have a for-profit social enterprise that sits alongside us called “BackTrack Works”, which has employed about 57 young people since it started in 2018, including over 20 trainees. This gives kids a chance to build their skills and experience in a real work environment, on real jobs. We have a partnership with the local housing provider, where we look after 80 properties in Armidale and surrounding areas – mowing lawns, taking bins out, picking up rubbish. We also do rural work, like fencing and stock work, and lots of metal fabrication. Then there’s our disaster recovery work. We’re still doing bushfire recovery fencing from two-and-a-half years ago. Then we’ve since had floods and a tornado, so we just keep finding practical jobs for these young people. Across both the Core Program and BackTrack Works, we make sure that we’re doing nationally accredited training, so that these young people are getting things like white cards, which qualifies them to do construction work on a work site, or other qualifications like “stop and go” training for roadworks; machinery operation certificates like chainsaws and skid steers, and chemical accreditation.
Finally we’ve got our Tracker Network, which is all about replication. How do we scale our services up? How do we reach more kids? We’ve been working on that for about six years and it’s a very difficult thing to do. We’re not talking about a straightforward franchise, like a BP service station, that you can pick up and plunk down in another town. Every community is different and they all have their own needs. It’s really important that the programs are embedded in the community, so that they have their own governance and they don’t come under the banner of BackTrack, they’re organisations in their own right. But by having them in our Network and sharing what’s worked for us, we can lend them a hand in lots of different ways. That might be helping them figure out their funding model, how they approach youth work, or how they can engage with the top end of town to get community support for what they’re doing.
Wow, that was a long elevator ride. How did BackTrack come about?
It really came about through frustration on my part. I’d worked in the industry for around 30 years and I was running a program, in which I was supposed to get 20 kids “work ready” within 12 months. After it ended, one ended up in jail and another committed suicide. The problem with these types of programs is that you get to the end of the 12 months, then you’re supposed to kick those kids out and start with the next 20. To me, it seemed like the job was only ever half done; we’d get so close to getting a result and then we’d abandon the kids. I often wondered whether we were better off not starting the program in the first place, rather than giving these kids hope and then giving up on them halfway through the journey. So I spoke to the local council in Armidale, the Mayor, the CEO of the Regional Australia Bank, and they got us an old, empty shed. A group of volunteers and I started hanging out and working with these boys on the weekends for another two years. They’re now all in jobs, and doing well. And I guess that, in a nutshell, is how we got started: by recognising that these boys weren’t finished. We got ourselves a business plan and a funding model, and we kicked off from there. That was in 2006. These days, I’ve got 40-odd young people coming through the door every day and we’ve got the Tracker Network impacting kids in communities beyond Armidale. We’re onto a winner.
You mentioned you’ve worked in the industry for decades. What’s your background?
A little bit of everything. I grew up in a very loving family in Armidale, but school was never going to work for me. I’m dyslexic and I learned pretty quickly that it was safer to be seen as the “bad” kid than the “dumb” kid. So I just didn’t try at school. When I went to high school in Sydney, it was like letting a feral cat out of a potato sack. All I wanted to do was ride horses and be wild. It wasn’t good for anyone. In hindsight, I should have dropped out and done a trade, but I ended up finishing Year 12.
After school, I worked on stations up in the Northern Territory and that is where my real education began. The rural life really worked for me – the long days, the horses, the animals. After that, I worked for several different Aboriginal organisations in the Territory, did a bit in mining and even worked in dingo research as a tracker, which I loved. But I was always drawn to youth work, working in refuges or on the street as a youth worker.
So where do you think this passion for helping young people came from?
My dad was in a similar industry so, growing up, I’d always seen him kicking around with young fellas. I think I worked out early on that if work is going to make up 70% of your waking life, you’d better be kicking down the door every day to do it. So I’ve always just done things that I really enjoy. My heart lies with helping kids. It’s not something that I was trained to do, it’s just something that I always really enjoyed and found easy. And it’s meaningful work, so that’s a bonus.
As you know, Future Generation Global has shifted its social investment focus to mental ill health prevention and mental wellbeing. Why is this space so important?
So much of our funding in this country is siloed into one specific thing. What I love about what Future Generation has done is that it’s taken a holistic approach and brought together different, but like-minded organisations, to have a far greater impact on young people. That really dovetails perfectly with what we do at BackTrack. I mean, if a kid’s living under a bridge, or been kicked out of home, or is going to jail, then of course he’s going to have mental health issues. We need to be able to do whatever it takes to help that kid get back up on their feet – and Future Generation is doing exactly that.
Another thing we have done is ensured that our funding is not tied to any particular project. we are giving it to each impact partner and trusting them to devise the best use for it, which is in line with emerging philanthropic best practice. How important is this style of funding?
That’s the stuff that makes a difference. As you’ve just said, we know how to run our business. We know where the gaps are, we know where to lean in – whether it’s around training, youth work support for a kid, helping out with their family, clothing or feeding them. To have that flexibility to be able to do what needs to be done is super important. So many people just want to fund a project; plenty would love to just fund the BackTrack dogs because that’s something we do that is pretty novel and different to other organisations out there. But the dogs don’t pick the kids up in the morning, or sit down with them in the schools, or wait for them outside the police station at four o’clock in the morning. That’s the BackTrack workers doing what needs to be done. We’re dealing with a complex social problem, so having that flexibility is absolute gold.
Our goal at Future Generation is to achieve exceptional investment and social returns. It’s obviously easy to measure our investment returns. How difficult do you think it is to measure social impact, especially in the prevention and wellbeing space?
Think of your own kids. How do you know how they’re travelling? Do you sit down each day and fill out forms and say, “Yeah, OK, they’re doing alright”? No. You look at the whole picture – and you know if one of your kids is not tracking well. We know that stuff too. I’ll get to how we measure impact in a minute, but ever since I started BackTrack, I’ve said that if I really want to know if it’s working, I’ll know just by driving through the gate and looking at the faces of the kids.
To me, I like to keep things really simple when I’m dealing with complex social problems. Our mantra at BackTrack is to keep kids alive. Can we measure that? Absolutely. Keeping kids out of jail – can we measure that? Absolutely. Get them chasing their hopes and dreams and into jobs – can we measure that? Yes. And we’ve got a system where we do check in with all our kids on a regular basis and see how they are tracking across a number of specific areas which all feed back into those big picture goals of keeping them alive, out of jail and chasing their hopes and dreams.
I do understand that it’s important for funders to be able to measure their impact, and for your investors to know that we’re putting the money to good use. [And, by the way, I love that word that I’ve heard over and over at Future Generation: “investors”. This is not a donation or hand-out, this is an investment in our young people.] So I’ve looked at the evaluation tools you will use to measure our impact and I think they are good, broad and flexible. I can definitely see the effort that’s gone into them to ensure that we don’t have to spend all our time, sitting down, filling out paperwork. We’ve had government funding before for various projects, and I reckon it requires about 70% of our time to be spent on paperwork, and 30% at the coalface. I want the people we employ to be at the coalface at least 80% of the time because that’s what is really going to create impact.
You say you came from a loving, supportive family. What type of backgrounds are the BackTrack kids likely to come from?
A lot of them come from very broken, dysfunctional, low socio-economic families and some have been removed from their homes. But the program is designed to work with any kid who is having a tough time or who, for whatever reason, is not getting on with mum or dad or who doesn’t have a mum or dad. They mainly come from rural and regional communities like Armidale and surrounds, but we’ve also had kids from the top end of town, like Sydney’s North Shore, in our programs. So where they come from doesn’t really matter because they are still falling through the cracks and in need of something different to get them on track. If you were to ask any of the kids here to describe BackTrack in one word, most of them would say something like “family” or “connection” or “belonging’.
And, as I’ve heard you say BackTrack is the one place they will never be kicked out of?
Yep, you cannot get kicked out of BackTrack. You can choose not to be here but we’re not kicking you out. You’ve got to remember that these kids have been kicked out of everything, so we’ve got to start somewhere different. At BackTrack, we work off the Circle of Courage, which comes from Canada’s First Nations people. Basically, it says that if you get four key components in balance, things will go well for you in your personal life, your home, your community and your work. These four components are belonging, independence, mastery and generosity. Belonging means you must feel connected to something. Independence means you’ve got a say in your life, (the kids down here call it “owning your own s…”). Mastery means having learning in your life – and that doesn’t matter whether it’s a university degree or learning to drive a car or to tie your shoelaces. Generosity is the reason why we work to help people after natural disasters. We had a tornado through here and we spent about two months doing nothing else but helping people clean up the big mess. So those are the four principles we base BackTrack on.
You’ve been described as a “rock star” of the youth mental health sector. What are BackTrack’s biggest accomplishments?
It’s very humbling that people say that, but that’s not how I feel. I’m just an average guy getting out there, having a go and doing something that I love. When I look at the team of people I work with, we’re talking about the real rock stars. These guys are at the coal face every single day, doing the hard yards.
As for what BackTrack has accomplished, there are only two local government areas in New South Wales with long-term juvenile crime statistics on the way down. Armidale is down nearly 40%, so that’s pretty extraordinary. But, for me, crime rates or how many kids we get into jobs are not the real measures of success. It’s seeing these kids go from completely broken kids, who’ve been “on mute” for a year, to smiling young people who are taking their lives forward. Some of our supervisors are kids who went through the program 16 years ago. They’ve gone out and got employed and then they’ve decided to come back to us to lead teams of other young people, and the younger kids are looking up to them, thinking, “Maybe, just maybe, I can get to those dizzy heights as well.” That’s really it for me: we give these kids hope.
You mentioned it earlier, but can you tell me a bit more about your Tracker Network which is allowing you to roll-out your proven methodology?
Yes, we now have eight ‘Trackers’ on board and they’re supporting kids doing it tough in Dubbo, Lake Cargelligo, Broken Hill, Moree, Macksville, Toowoomba and Tenterfield and the Hawkesbury. We bring them together in person at least four times a year and it’s a great chance for them to learn from us and each other. It’s a way to share hard-won knowledge and experience with people who are also at the coalface every day.
They’re all doing really interesting things that make sense for their kids and their community. In Lake Cargelligo, they’ve got a coffee caravan, where kids are learning barista skills and also getting training in hospitality. They cater for a lot of funerals and weddings, so the community gets to see a different side to these kids. In Dubbo, they’ve got the largest lime farm in New South Wales and while the bulk of limes go to the markets, they also take the kids around to sell limes to the shops and cafes. Again, it’s less about the five bucks the kids are getting for the limes, and more about the community getting to see these kids having a go.
We also have plenty of communities on the waiting list for the Network, who’ve all asked us how they can best support their young people in need. There is so much demand; I can’t see myself getting through that many in my lifetime because it’s slow, difficult work. But I just want to continue sharing what we know, offering guidance and training to other communities looking to do something different for kids who are falling through the cracks of the mainstream system.
For more information, visit the BackTrack website.