You set up Raise 14 years ago. How has the organisation evolved over the years?

For our first five years, Raise was just me, working from my home office. I was doing everything from recruiting mentors, training and screening them, and delivering all the programs. Once we were confident that our programs worked and the impact was there, I realised in order to scale our reach to more young people, I would need to stop doing everything myself. So, over the ensuing years, we built our team of people. I had to learn how to delegate control and accept that other people have different – and better – ways of doing things. As a founding CEO, it was quite a challenge to let go, but ensuring Raise has the right people has been integral to our success and impact.

Raise is now coming up for its 14th birthday and the most recent strategic phase has been about growth for greater impact. It’s been a big learning curve. We have been able to attract a highly skilled board and extraordinary advisory councils. It was our patron David Gonski’s curious question in 2018 that ignited us on this journey. He said to our Board, “This program is fantastic. It could change our country. If you had no limitations, what could you achieve with Raise?” Then Shemara Wikramanayake, CEO of Macquarie Bank who was on our advisory council at the time, said, “This will be challenging on your own, I think the team at McKinsey would want to help.” So, McKinsey worked with our team for seven weeks, helping us to develop our Strategic Impact Plan on how to offer the program at scale, right across Australia. There are 1,036 public secondary schools in the country, and we typically have 15 young people in a program at each school, so we began our journey to provide Raise Mentors for 15,000 young people per annum.

McKinsey identified four key focus areas, the first being marketing. Nobody knew Raise back then, so we ran a marketing campaign to improve awareness. We wanted potential volunteers to have Raise in their minds as an option.  Secondly, we invested heavily in technology. We now have the Raise Digital Village, which supports our fundraising and finance teams, onboards and trains our mentors, drives efficiencies in our programs and brings data collection into real time. Thirdly, we brought more experience and talent into the support hub of our organisation, and the executive leadership team.  Finally, we’ve diversified our funding sources so that we don’t have all our eggs in one basket. It’s one thing to attract all those mentors, it’s another to source all the funding we need.

But, to be clear, our Strategic Impact Plan is not about scaling for scaling’s sake. It’s about supporting the young people and their needs. Since then, we have tripled our reach from mentoring ~700 young people to mentoring ~2000 young people every year. We know the power of a mentor showing up for a young person, so why wouldn’t we offer this to schools right across the country?

Apart from the art of delegation, what other lessons have you learned over this journey?

The Raise mentoring program teaches young people how to ask for help, have resilience, build hope for the future, and engage in their learning. These are actually four of the lessons that I’ve had to learn as CEO. The only way we’ll be able to support more young people is if we ask for help. So, I’ve become more courageous about asking for money, or mentors, or for other project support.

The second thing I’ve learned is resilience. Think about the pandemic! We do great risk management at Raise, but never once did we plan for every school in the country to close down overnight. If we couldn’t reach those young people, did that mean we couldn’t run our program anymore? After some consideration, we had to get over our fear and push through that challenge, be resilient and think, “Okay, let’s get creative.” That’s when we developed the online program, which has been remarkable and is now part of our future strategy for making an even bigger impact.

When it comes to having hope for the future, I’ve learned that having a written Strategic Impact Plan makes all the difference. For our leadership team, our plan is the road map for how we are going to reach such an ambitious goal. Yes, it evolves every year as we re-evaluate what worked and what didn’t work, but it helps so much to establish goals, work to achieve them, or consider what we need to change for the next phase of growth.

As for engaging with learning, you’ve got to be open to making mistakes, which is something I’ve learned the hard way. I’m a perfectionist at heart and I’ve made a lot of mistakes, so I know now that I need to learn from failure and accept that negative feedback is an opportunity to do better.

One other lesson I’ve learned is that it’s important to be able to prove our impact and then improve on it, year on year. We’ve invested heavily in ensuring that the evaluation and data function sits at the executive leadership level and that it’s visible to the Board. Knowing that our program works and that we are truly making a difference is so important – not just to our funders, but also to our team. It means I can jump up every morning and think, “Okay, mentoring works and even when we scale it, it’s still working.” Making that impact inspires all our stakeholders.

The latest figures from the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing were truly alarming, with 40 per cent of 16-24 year olds reporting a mental disorder. It’s obviously been a terribly tough couple of years for everyone. What are you seeing in the schools?

The young people we work with are mostly in Year 8, so if they are in NSW or Victoria, they’ve had two years of disrupted schooling. Their most recent full year of school was in Year 5. They didn’t get to finish their primary school years as leaders, and they didn’t get a smooth transition into high school. We’re seeing our mentees have trouble just going from classroom to classroom and teacher to teacher, because they’ve not experienced that before. We forget about those simple things.

In terms of mental illness, we are seeing so much anxiety in the 180 school programs we are delivering across 6 states this year, and a big increase in issues like depression, self-harm, and eating disorders. We’re also seeing an incredible amount of bullying. It’s online and it’s relentless. When we were delivering our programs online, some of our young people didn’t want to turn their cameras on during the mentoring. When we talked to them about that in our focus groups, they said, “I don’t want my friends to see my house or take a screenshot of anything in my background because they might turn me into a meme.” All of a sudden, there are all these extra layers of pressure on our young people.

Our incident reporting in programs has also increased dramatically. We’re seeing a big increase in the number of young people who are reporting suicidality, as well as an alarming rise in domestic violence. By the middle of term two, we had as many incidents reported as we had in the whole previous term.

Why do you think this is?

That’s the million-dollar question. If we knew why mental illness is so prevalent in our country, we wouldn’t be losing more young Australians to suicide than any other cause. I’ve been working in this space for 17 years, and how to solve this issue still troubles me.

I do, however, think that early intervention and prevention is key. That’s why we work in the space that we do; we’re trying to help young people before they get to the crossroads, before they find themselves in crisis.  Not trying to save them when they are drowning but giving them tools while they are upstream.

There’s so much pressure on them, and their families are struggling with how to deal with it, as well. I get a lot of calls from parents who want advice on how to help their child. They don’t have enough support either. Part of what I love about our work is that, in addition to helping young people, we’re also training thousands of adults to become mentors and giving them skills in mental health literacy.  Many of our mentors are parents. If you are a trained Raise mentor, you know how to listen well, how to ask the right questions, and how to get young people the support and resources that they need.

So, I don’t have the entire solution. I do know that mentoring as an early intervention strategy works, and I do believe that upskilling adults in the community with mentoring skills and mental health literacy makes an impact. I hope together we find the big picture solution to ensure our kids are all okay. Until then, we’ve got to be brave and make steps towards the difference that we do know we can make.

You’re aiming to recruit 3,500 new volunteer mentors by March. How do you plan to attract them and is it getting harder to attract volunteers?

It’s been a tough year for volunteering, and you’ll be hearing about that very widely at the moment. We’re in an innovative collaboration called “Together for Youth” and we’re all comparing notes about how hard it is to find volunteers. Two years ago, we had 1300 volunteer mentors; last year we had 2100; and our target this year was 2500. We had 2300 mentors signed up and working through our training and screening pipeline at the beginning of the year, but 4-6 weeks before the program started in April, we had almost 400 mentors withdraw.

This is unheard of for us, but there were a few obvious reasons for it. We were coming out of the pandemic lockdown, the borders had just re-opened, and people wanted to visit family overseas, so they couldn’t commit to all 23 weeks of our mentoring program.

Some people were unwilling to get vaccinated, and that became a requirement to volunteer in schools. People’s workplace arrangements had changed; they’d either moved into new jobs or they had to return to the office, so their time was limited.

Our goal for next year is to attract 3500 mentors so we can match 3500 young people across 263 schools. We’re doing a big push around retention of our current mentors, and we’ve got fresh and exciting marketing campaigns to attract new mentors. We’re showcasing the mentors who are already working with us. We’re sharing stories and case studies of mentees to demonstrate the impact their mentor has had. We’re going to primary schools and encouraging parents to train as mentors, so they can learn about adolescence before their child gets there. We’re putting in place some cheeky guerrilla marketing strategies and hoping that corporate partners will support us by giving their staff volunteering time to be part of the Raise village, as well.

Can you tell me about your plans to expand your mentoring delivery mode to online, so that you can reach regional areas? Did COVID give you this capability?

I’ve always been against online mentoring. I felt that young people spend enough time behind screens and wanted our mentoring programs to prioritise being about face-to-face, interpersonal relationships. But then, when COVID happened, it became a choice between online or no mentoring.  So we gave it a go, and remarkably our online outcomes turned out to be up to 90% as effective as our face-to-face outcomes.

What is encouraging about delivering our programs online is that we can deliver them anytime during the year.  Mentors and mentees don’t have to wait until April when the next in-person program starts.  We’ve delivered online programs in regional schools this year, which is great because there’s not enough equity between young people in the country compared to young people in the city. It’s often harder for us to find mentors in regional areas, as well, so young people end up missing out. By delivering programs online, we can have mentors in the city mentoring young people in the country. This year, we’ve got mentors from Macquarie Bank and Goodman working with students from regional locations like Temora. The mentors speak about how they started their day by surfing in the ocean and the mentees talk about how they milked the cows before going to school. It’s so important to learn from each other and bring our communities closer across our country.

We also have a lot of corporate partners whose staff want to mentor, but they struggle to find three hours away from work to volunteer, including travel time.  We can cut that time right down by offering online mentoring.

What are the benefits to being a mentor? Why is it a learning experience for the mentor as well as the mentee?

Our mentor training is industry leading. Mentors learn listening and questioning skills, and they gain mental health literacy as well as learning about adolescent development. They then get to put that training into practice, which is another benefit that volunteering offers.

Our mentors often talk about feeling more connected to their families and communities, increasing their employment opportunities, and building support networks, while gaining skills to support the young people in their work and family lives.

Our corporate mentors talk about being more engaged with their workplace and colleagues, as well as being more likely to stay with their employer because of the volunteering opportunity. A lot of our mentors say they get more out of it than their mentee. I think that is the humility of our volunteers, but it’s nice that they are getting so much out of it.

And what do the schools get out of it?

Australian schools are tasked with providing a stable and safe environment for our young people and, at this point in time, they are facing an increasing number of challenges.  They are struggling with absenteeism, staff shortages, staff illness, challenging academic targets, changing health regulations and balancing the fears and behaviours of their students.

There has been a real disruption to the return of a consistent routine to support the wellbeing, social and emotional development of students.  Our mentoring program brings 15 hours of extra support for students at risk of disengagement and poor wellbeing every week for 6 months, so it is extremely helpful for schools right now.

You mentioned “Together For Youth” earlier. Can you explain this collaboration and how it came about?

As a not-for-profit, I’m out pitching to corporates, government and private philanthropists all the time. They kept saying to me, “We really like the work you do, your program is great, but we’ve got to be honest with you: we get 20 people from 20 organisations just like yours coming in all the time, and you all sound like you’re doing exactly the same thing. Couldn’t you all just talk to each other, and figure out a way to work together?”

Finally, I decided to just give it a try. At Raise, we’re close to a lot of the organisations who also run social and emotional wellbeing programs in schools. We know the good ones, the ones who are aligned in values, who get good outcomes, and who are winning the funding. So, I reached out to them all and asked, “Are you getting this message from funders, too? Shall we get together and see what innovations we can come up with?”

About 18 organisations came together and did a sector mapping activity. What we found was that some organisations were supporting young people in Year 7, we are working with Year 8, other organisations were running workshops for Years 9 and 10, another was helping Year 11 to engage better with school, and then there were some helping Year 12 to transition into further study, employment or an apprenticeship.

We realised that, between us, there was the potential of supporting young people over a longitudinal journey. So, rather than providing a moment of support, we have created a network of organisations that can provide young people with help from adolescence to adulthood. Project Rockit and Youth Opportunities, which are two of Future Generation Global’s new social impact partners, are part of “Together for Youth”, as well.

We’re currently running pilot programs in five schools and we’re measuring our collective impact with support from the Centre for Social Impact. We want to see if the outcomes are different when we all provide support, and if we can have a bigger impact over a longer period of time by working together instead of in silos.  A group of funders are also collaborating to support us, so it is a novel initiative in several ways.

As part of the collaboration, we have regular “master classes”. We share strategies about how to expand nationally, how to evaluate our programs better, how to attract more volunteers, how to recruit qualified staff and retain them, and whether we could share staff to reduce our costs. We call it co-opetition, and we love working together for youth

I understand you are partnering with some of the independent schools to fund Raise programs in other schools. How will that work and how is that initiative going?

Yes, we are just starting out on offering our program to young people in private schools who would also benefit from social and emotional wellbeing support through mentoring. We’ve been introduced to a couple of large private schools in NSW. They would like the Raise program for their students, and they’re also keen to sponsor a sister or brother school from the public system. We hope to kick those programs off next year. It’s really exciting.

What is the most rewarding – and most challenging – part of your job?

I love my job. We’ve got three kids in their twenties and I keep saying to them, “My wish for you is to find a job that you love!” Raise is like my fourth child. It’s not easy, and it’s been harder over the past few years as we’ve grown, but I find that stimulating and I am motivated when I’m learning.

The best part of my job is visiting our programs and the mentoring matches in schools, which I do at this time of the year. I get to see young people graduating from our program feeling stronger, and that’s what I love so much, knowing that we’ve actually made a very real difference. I’m also back mentoring this year myself, which I haven’t done for a couple of years. Being back on the ground and in schools with young people makes my heart sing.  I’m loving my time with my mentee.

Predictably, the most challenging part of my job is consistently gathering up new sources of funding throughout this ambitious growth phase, but I think that’s a well-known challenge for all not-for-profits. Alongside this, probably the hardest part of my role at this point in time is being able to count on finding the mentors we need for the young people who want to be in our program next year.  We have our work cut out for us to inspire Australians to have the courage to come back out into the community and volunteer. Our young people really need them!

For more information, visit the Raise Foundation’s website

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