Changing the world

Monday, 01 August 2022

John Burfitt photo
John Burfitt

    Educating the Future builds preschools in Timor-Leste. The volunteer charity was started six years ago by Sydney school student Adam Hegedus, who turned to mentor Raff Del Vecchio FAICD for help transforming an idea into a reality.

    Raff Del Vecchio FAICD

    I figure I have another decade or so of executive life, so now is my time to use the skills and abilities I’ve developed, devote them to a good cause and pass them on. Mentoring talents through the ranks is what I want to do — and the past six years working with Educating the Future has been the highlight of my professional career.

    When I first met Adam [Hegedus] in 2015, he was a schoolboy friend of my daughter. He had just returned from a school immersion program in Timor-Leste and was so taken by what he saw, he wanted to do something to give back. At the end of Year 12, Adam walked 700km from Sydney to Byron Bay to raise money for Timor-Leste and made $20,000. That was the start of Educating the Future.

    Adam is one of the brightest people I have ever met. He’s really invested in the philanthropic space and has this drive to get things done. From early on, I knew he was someone I wanted to mentor as he was always receptive to advice. His plan was to build preschools in Timor-Leste and so far, the organisation has built three and another two are due for completion before the end of the year.

    Governance framework

    Before he started the organisation, I said we had to get a constitution together and set up a governance framework. I fundamentally believe if you have a structure with a strong governance culture, established policies, subcommittees, budgets and a clear agenda, your likelihood of success is magnified. This is something I have emphasised since day one, and we now have a governance model equal to any other charity of our size. Adam is the managing director and I’m chair, but he is the driver. What has impressed me is seeing him step up a little more all the time — increasingly challenging me and always asking more questions.

    The first sign this was going to work came in 2019, when we got accreditation with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) and were awarded a DFAT Friendship Grant. The success seemed to be constant and a memorandum of understanding was signed with the Timor-Leste government.

    But we still have challenges ahead, and I’m talking to Adam about scaling and succession to future-proof the organisation. The litmus test will be when he goes to study in the UK for two years and we have a new deputy CEO. We also need future funding models, as Adam has ambitious goals. I’m always asking how he’s going to implement everything while ensuring our governance standards achieve those goals.

    My work with Adam takes up about five hours a week. I want him to realise his aspirations and see the good governance lessons we’ve put in place filter down to other young people coming through the ranks. While I was called on for my experience to help get Educating the Future up and running, I’ve learned a lot from Adam. I’ll be surprised if we’re not talking about him in 10–15 years. People like him will change the world.

    Adam Hegedus

    In my final years of high school, the privilege of going to a private school in Sydney became clear. We went to Timor-Leste and I realised education as a human right is not shared. I remember seeing a little boy of five with no shoes walking to school, holding a pen and a book. I decided we could be doing better to help a country right on Australia’s doorstep.

    When I finished my HSC in 2015, my friend Alessandro Piovano and I completed a walk from Sydney to Byron Bay to raise funds for Timor-Leste. Instead of giving the money to a charity, we got talking to Raff, who inspired us to start Educating the Future in 2016. We’d never before come across terms of governance or compliance, but Raff managed to explain it in a way we could understand — and actually become inspired by. When we started, we were five uni students meeting weekly, but Raff knew how to plan for a bigger future.

    We worked out how to turn that $20,000 into more funds so we could really achieve something. On my 21st birthday, I received a call from DFAT saying they had awarded us a Friendship Grant to build a new school. That gave us confidence we were getting somewhere. Since 2018, I’ve been working closely with the Timor-Leste Ministry of Education. While we saw so many areas of need, we focused on building preschools. We have created three, have two under construction and are planning more. Once a school is finished, we hand it over to the ministry to run while providing ongoing support. At present, we have 14 volunteers in Timor-Leste and 40 in Australia.

    Firm foundations

    Raff’s approach to governance was about creating solid foundations the organisation could rest upon. He also brought strong mentorship with a sincere interest in building the skills of future leaders. This mentorship with Raff has been a changing relationship. From the nascent stages, it was about fostering our interests and making sure the organisation would bloom. These days, it’s more about challenging me to become the leader I want to be and working to scale the organisation. We are now looking at building partnerships and sustainability as we work towards our 2025 goal of educating 2000 children.

    We’ve raised close to $400,000 and in the past financial year, have been accredited by the Australian Council for International Development. But there are challenges ahead. Our funding model will change to bigger models of crowdsourcing or pooled institutionalised funding that will result in more collaborations.

    Winning an AICD NFP scholarship gave me an opportunity to apply my experience as a director. I was exposed to governance materials that inspired me to complete a First Class Honours thesis into women on Australian boards — and sparked an interest in the role of governance, finance and risk, and transformational, ethical leadership. [Completing] the CDC would mean I could apply good governance to solve complex cross-cutting issues, build a sustaining network of peers for resilience and lead with confidence.

    As I head to Oxford University to study public policy and social impact, I’m focused on succession. Working with Raff has shown me the impact mentoring can have and I’m passing that on to our volunteers. He says creating this charity from the ground up has been like doing an MBA. And he’s right. 

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