Narrowing the gap

Thursday, 01 December 2022


    The Australian Business and Community Network levels the playing field for disadvantaged young Australians. 

    In Australia, the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged schools is one of the largest in the OECD. According to a Victoria University study, almost a third of young Australians from low socio-economic backgrounds fail to complete Year 12 by age 19, held back by poverty, trauma, cultural barriers, lack of positive role models and low expectations. Fewer than half enter university by age 22, and they are twice as likely as their better- off counterparts to be unemployed at age 24.

    However, since 2005, the Australian Business and Community Network (ABCN) has connected low-SES (socio-economic status) schools with business, delivering innovative mentoring programs to develop students’ skills, mindsets, aspirations and networks. The network of almost 50 companies and 200 partner schools has connected with more than 200,000 young people.

    “Education is such a universal need for everyone, but not everyone gets the same advantage out of it,” says CEO Phil Gardner, ex- Goldman Sachs and a former NSW Treasury deputy secretary commercial and procurement. He took on the role in June, after former CEO Allegra Spender left to enter federal politics. “The ABCN plays a terrific role in helping to level the playing field,” he says.

    The organisation was co-founded by Michael Hawker AM FAICD, who describes the formation of ABCN as “the best thing I did in my corporate career”. Hawker was then at the helm of IAG, and saw business as having a key role in tackling social challenges. CEOs of the member companies would build one-on-one relationships with the school principals, while staff at member companies in turn mentored students at the school.

    “When the chief executive was no longer at the company, we’d ask the next CEO to take on that role, because for this to really work, the CEOs needed to have their full weight behind it,” says Hawker.

    Since its inception, the ABCN has grown to offer 12 high school and two primary school programs, including the flagship “Accelerate” — which provides targeted mentoring and financial support with scholarships to students over the three crucial years from Year 11 through to first- year university.

    In 2023, the ABCN Foundation, chaired by Hawker, will celebrate its 10th anniversary and will have awarded 270 scholarships.

    Mentor magic

    In Careers in the Making: A follow-up study of ABCN mentees 10 years on, funded by EY, the ABCN assessed the impact of its theory of change and affirmed the importance of mentors, the acquisition of gateway work-readiness skills, and broadening of aspirations.

    It found that the vast majority of alumni showed strong retention of the key lessons of their ABCN programs in relation to intangibles such as interpersonal skills, goal setting, and self-confidence. More than four in five (82 per cent) of alumni had undertaken further study or training post-school, while almost nine in 10 (87 per cent) were fully engaged in work or study, compared to 72 per cent for this age group nationally. Connection with ABCN mentors was the standout feature of the programs, with participants citing their mentor’s ability to offer careers advice, life lessons and role modelling in work-based settings.

    ABCN chair Tony Macvean says one of the strengths of the network’s programs is the “deep, immersive experiences”, which not only create profound change in students’ lives, but have meaningful impact on mentors.

    “That’s also a challenge for us — striking the right balance between depth and breadth, and scaling the organisation further,” he says.

    Gardner points out that increasing the ABCN’s representation in rural and regional schools — as well as finding ways to work alongside other NFPs in a similar space — are other goals for the future.

    “There are a lot of good initiatives taking place in this system to try to improve the way we all work together, which means we’ll all be able to achieve a lot more,” he says.

    Scholarships hold deeper meaning

    Five years ago, Jweel and her family arrived in Australia from Syria. “At that time, none of us could speak English,” she said at ABCN’s leadership summit in April. “In fact, I had no idea where Australia was.”

    Intent on becoming a civil engineer, Jweel threw all her energies into gaining admission to university. “As a student who experienced war in my country and became a refugee in Australia, my dream job has never changed,” she says.

    In her successful application for a three-year Accelerate scholarship, the Year 11 student at Fairfield High School said she hoped the ABCN program would help not just her, but her whole community.

    She was paired with Therese Dinh, from law firm Hall & Wilcox. “I was fortunate enough to be paired with a mentor who understands me,” says Jweel, noting that the scholarship meant her parents would not have to worry about how to finance her study needs, including a laptop and other school expenses, but it also held deeper meaning.

    “I believe it will help me make a difference in my community and offer other students in my school hope that they, too, can fulfil their goals if they work hard and make use of opportunities,” she says.

    The ABCN Foundation awarded 42 Accelerate scholarships in Jweel’s cohort. A further 45 were awarded in October.

    Applications for scholarships can be made to the ABCN Foundation.

    Paying what it takes

    ABCN is funded primarily by subscriptions from member companies, with some support from corporate and philanthropic trusts. “It’s small and lean,” says CEO Phil Gardner.

    The organisation is about to lift its fees in recognition that funding must cover more than the cost of running programs. A report released in March by the Centre for Social Impact and Social Ventures Australia, found that the prevailing funding model for NFPs fails to cover indirect operating costs such as IT, finance and human resources, putting sustainability and effectiveness at risk. “It’s about being transparent with the funders around the total cost of providing the programs,” says Gardner.

    ABCN benchmarks


    of students from low SES backgrounds do not complete Year 12


    students have been mentored face-to-face since 2005


    of alumni named contact with mentors as a memorable aspect of the program


    of alumni gained a degree or higher, compared with 50% in the general population


    mentoring programs delivered to 7000 students by ABCN in 2021


    in financial support distributed by ABCN Foundation since 2013

    Source: ABCN, Statista

    Managing digital delivery

    The pandemic has reduced the ability of people to meet, resulting in isolation, stress and reduced wellbeing, according to the Heartbeat of Rural Australia study by the Foundation for Rural Regional Renewal. Mentoring programs such as those offered by ABCN could have suffered, had it not been for the organisation’s determination to switch from in-person to digital delivery of its mentoring programs. In 2021, ABCN made the Australian Financial Review’s list of Most Innovative Companies for its efforts in working with 14 member companies to donate 1699 laptops to students, and its partnership with a telecommunications provider to donate data plans to 1078 students who lacked adequate internet access. “The move to digital and hybrid delivery... really enables us to expand into rural and regional schools,” says Gardner.

    Building a representative board

    The board, chaired by Tony Macvean, managing partner at Hall & Wilcox, draws its directors from business and education, including Tony Johnson GAICD, former CEO of EY Oceania, and Suada Bilali, principal of Bankstown Girls’ High School. Its governance is supported by two councils of CEOs and school principals, who attest to its life- changing impact.

    “We want to make sure that there’s a good mix of skills and perspectives on our board,” says Macvean, acknowledging there have been differences of opinion in terms of priorities or strategies. “But there haven’t been huge differences when it comes to philosophy or values, or any fundamental issues,” he says.

    Engaging all stakeholders

    Governance at ABCN is supported by two councils. The CEO Council is comprised of chief executives from member companies who leverage their professional networks, provide independent advice and raise ABCN’s profile.

    “We regularly survey them to make sure that the programs we’re doing are aligned with things that are important to them — whether it’s from a corporate and social responsibility perspective, or a diversity and inclusion perspective,” says Gardner.

    Similar conversations take place with schools and principals through the Principals Reference Council. “We use it to help guide our thinking and give us advice,” he says.

    Executive team

    Macvean says the management team is entrusted to do their job. “We’ve always invested in a high-quality executive team, and we ask a lot of them.”

    Volunteers aren’t expected to undertake the challenging and sensitive work. “We have a team of experts who do that, from the CEO down to the high-quality management team, and facilitators who run our programs,” says Macvean, noting there is good communication, but adequate separation, between management and board. “We don’t have a really complicated committee structure,” he says. “We try to ensure the governance model is fit for purpose. We know our responsibilities and we understand risk, but we don’t treat it like we’re in an ASX 20 company.”

    Risk mitigation

    Any endeavour involving children is fraught with risk, so ABCN is “rigorous” in ensuring all mentors have the appropriate checks and are supervised, with no social media or other contact outside the programs, says Macvean. Comprehensive training in working with children and child safety is in place.

    “You can’t do enough to ensure that the students who we work with are protected,” he says. “All our mentors are briefed on child safety issues and we have protocols in place to help mentors know how to respond to child safety issues if they arise.”

    In terms of managing financial risk, Gardner says ABCN has a long-standing membership base, the average member having been with the network for more than 10 years. “We actively seek new members and funding opportunities.”

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