A trip to Timor-Leste opened his eyes to the world and changed his life and now 22-year-old Australian social entrepreneur Adam Hegedus has made it his mission to build pre-schools there.
His inspiring journey as MD of the organisation Educating the Future was recognised by the AICD, who awarded him a Not-for-Profit (NFP) Scholarship in 2019. Applications for this year’s scholarship intake close on November 12.
It was a high school trip that ignited a strong passion for social justice in Adam Hegedus. And he has never looked back.
“When we arrived there, our eyes were sort of opened to the very explicit and tangible problems in Timor-Leste. We could see all the educational opportunities that were missing, all the way from preschool up to university and beyond.”
Educating the Future is a youth-run organisation that sets up and runs pre-schools in Timor-Leste in partnership with the local Ministry of Education and is partly funded by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). Early on there was a partnership with UNICEF Timor-Leste as well. Educating the Future has recently been accredited by the Australian Council for International Development.
Hegedus and his co-founder Alessandro Piovano were shocked to learn that only one in 10 children aged three to six in Timor access preschool education, leaving 90 per cent without that access. As a result, one in five children were failing first year in primary school because they couldn't do simple things like write their name, read the alphabet and count to 10. “There is a significant need for preschool education as, according to UNICEF, 40% of the population are aged 0 – 14,” says Hegedus.
Educating the Future has built three preschools and more are on the way. The first was completed at the end of 2017, which has been successfully running with 104 children a year for two years. Two more preschools were finished this year. It is hoped that a total of 10 pre-schools will be finished by 2023.
“In the communities where we're building, we can help up to 104 children a year in our preschools. Hopefully in a few years we're going to see the results once we measure and monitor.” Hegedus, who graduated from his Bachelor of Commerce (Co-Op) course at UNSW last year, is currently studying Honours at the University of Sydney in the field of governance and gender equality.
Professional board guidance
His organisation relies on about 50 active student volunteers and has employed a professional board with eight board members and secure governance procedures. “The board has been invaluable in helping to navigate risk factors associated with operating overseas in an undeveloped country,” he says.
“I think risk management is a key area that we've all had to develop the acumen for, because we're sending money to Timor. How should they manage that money? How do we manage our labourers? How do we engage with the local community in a way that's respectful, understands their religion, their traditions?
“That's been a huge learning. I think secondly, in terms of financial management and compliance, having members on the board with accounting skills and acumen is also very important so that we're transparent, so we can comply with external auditors, so we can be up to the standards of the Australian government as well.”
When Hegedus and his co-founder first started the non-profit, they were both only 18 years old and didn't know or didn't understand governance risk or financial compliance, he says.
“And so we decided to reach out in our networking and were fortunate to have the mentorship of in particular three directors who have had many directorships in the past and experience. And so they were able to help us build our processes, and our structure to be sustainable and very solid. Without that mentorship, I'm not sure where we'd be. Because I've noticed the importance of this governance in non-profits, particularly working in international development and high-risk areas.”
Operating in Timor-Leste is very difficult to manage at times, he says. “In particular, our project involves eight different stakeholder groups at the moment to construct a preschool. These include the Australian government funding us through DFAT under their Friendship Grant Initiative. We also have the Timorese government and their departments, independent financial managers and school management committees. I think that the stakeholder collaboration and alignment is a challenge that we always have to address, particularly related to timelines, risk and financial payments.”
The not-for-profit is working in different languages as well, so the cultural mindset is very different and the local view of how they build something in Timor-Leste is way different to the way it would be built here in Australia.
Similarly, in Australia, the community is more distant from infrastructure capital work and that's something Educating the Future has had to consider carefully.
Student volunteers have also played an important part in driving fundraising campaigns and writing reports that have been read by government, plus legal documents. In return, the organisation is training future leaders in the social sector. Early on, there were crowdfunding campaigns, and Hegedus and his co-founder also raised $20,000 on a 21-day walk from Sydney to Byron Bay. An 18-year-old high school student from Alice Springs raised $25,000 as well. “He's been a big and amazing inspiration,” says Hegedus. A social club has also formed, called the Fursday Froffers Fraternity in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, which has raised $35,000.
Some students who have gone through the organisation are now working for government, non-profits, social enterprise and corporates. “So we'd like to think that we're helping train the future leaders of Australia,” says Hegedus.
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