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Featured CEO: The Smith Family CEO Doug Taylor on improving the lives of children through education

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The Smith Family

The Smith Family has been working to improve the lives of children living in a disadvantage for 100 years. Over that time, the organisation has evolved to become a modern, dynamic, evidence-based organisation that helps children in need create better futures for themselves through long-term support for their education.

Today, around 58,000 students have been supported through the organisation’s flagship Learning for Life program, helping to break the cycle of disadvantage through targeted, long-term support for their education. the program is expanding to career education programs, providing even more opportunities to help students transition from school, tertiary education or training into the workforce.

Doug Taylor, the Chief Executive Officer, has been leading the team at The Smith Family to give every child the support they need to reach their full potential.

The Smith Family supports more than 58,000 students on its flagship Learning for Life program, how does The Smith Family ensure that the support is inclusive and sensitive to the needs of each child?

At The Smith Family, we have a vision for a world where every child has the opportunity to change their future. We believe that education is one of the most powerful change agents in overcoming educational inequality caused by poverty

We bring this to life through our Learning for Life program, which makes an impact in three ways: financial assistance for education essentials, including books and uniforms; access to a range of out-of-school learning and mentoring programs; and personal support from a Smith Family team member, who takes the time to understand each student and their family’s needs.

We have Family Partnership Coordinators and Program Coordinators based in communities across Australia who are passionate about ensuring the children they support to thrive in their education. We work with over 700 partner schools, and our team members often have their own offices on school grounds so families can easily get in contact for advice and support. This approach allows us to walk beside children and their families, ensuring we are providing tailored assistance to each student.

Doug Taylor is a speaker for Third Sector Live. Listen to his insights along with other industry leaders. Book your tickets here.

In recent years we have invested significantly in improving our practice and measuring the outcomes of our work. Our new strategy has a strong focus on the increased personalisation of our practice to ensure we understand the students and families in our programs, so we can tailor support in line with their needs and aspirations.

We are also committed to working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and their families to help close the gap in educational outcomes. To do this, we work closely with students and their families to design culturally safe, tailored and sustainable support initiatives that work for them and their communities.

Above all, The Smith Family is committed to child protection and acting in the best interests of children and young people. We take our responsibility to provide safe environments for children and young people participating in our programs and activities very seriously, and we work with communities to ensure we are culturally respectful and inclusive.

As part of our centenary celebrations, it has been incredible to look back over 100 years of The Smith Family’s work helping to improve the lives of young Australians in need – from our early days providing emergency support for families to our modern focus on education. We have a long tradition of evolving and adapting through decades of crises and events, always with a focus on responding to the needs of children and families experiencing disadvantage.

How do you keep your team motivated despite setbacks you might encounter?

At The Smith Family, we’re focused on listening to the voices of our team members and teams. This is every team member’s responsibility. I encourage our team members by writing a weekly Yammer post, sharing what I’ve been doing to ensure they feel connected to and aware of the many great initiatives we have underway. I have a schedule to meet regularly with senior leaders across the organisation and hear their feedback, and I have regular ‘Meetups’ with eight team members online to hear what’s on their minds. My experience is that colleagues feel motivated when they have been heard and understood, even though we can’t solve every problem tomorrow.

We know that team member engagement is so important for performance, innovation and job satisfaction – so we regularly survey our staff to seek feedback, including checking in on their preferences when it comes to workplace health and wellbeing initiatives. For example, our annual

Employee Engagement Survey gives us really valuable insights into how we can continue to improve engagement across the organisation. We have data for each of our teams that support them in shaping a strategy that improves engagement for them.

As a collective, we are always mindful of the fact that more than a million Australian children and young people (or 1 in 6) are living in poverty today. That’s a massive, shared motivator for us to continue doing the work that we do. We have a rich culture of storytelling, and our staff often share incredible stories of how our students and families are thriving. Hearing about the real-life impact we are making is also incredibly rewarding. In the last few months, we have been proactively using online team sessions to share organisational information and stories about the difference we are making and to also seek feedback on our progress.

What potential for growth do you see in terms of delivering your services to the community, raising awareness of the importance of education, and ensuring that children are actively learning?

We’re drawing from the lessons we’ve garnered over the last five years in a very transformative way, so as an organisation, we are better prepared to not only meet challenges but drive solutions to ensure more children in need have access to a full education.

We know for many families experiencing disadvantages, one of the biggest inhibitors to a good education is affording the essentials for a child to go to school. That’s why we are invested in growing our Learning for Life sponsorship program to support as many students as possible, so families can meet the rising costs of necessary items like books, schoolbags, and uniforms.

With more young Australians in need of support than ever before, we’re aiming to almost double the reach of Learning for Life over the next five years – from 58,000 students to 100,000 students nationally. We also want to extend the reach of our evidence-based learning and mentoring programs, and grow the number of students taking part from 180,000 to 250,000.

Significant growth targets like this are only made possible due to the support we receive – from the generosity displayed by members of the public, to our incredible volunteers, to the dedication of our corporate partners, as well as trusts and foundations. We look forward to engaging our supporters on this journey of growth with us and continue to be motivated by their philanthropic spirit.

We know being digitally included is now an essential part of every child’s education experience. To that end, we are looking at how to help families make the most out of the online education revolution. Ensuring children from disadvantaged backgrounds have the same level of access to digital devices – and the training to use them – as their more advantaged counterparts is a priority for The Smith Family, and that’s why we’re aiming for 100% digital inclusion for each of our Learning for Life students by 2027.

Breaking the cycle of disadvantage and giving each child a chance for a better future has been The Smith Family’s battle cry for the past century. Looking ahead, what does the ideal future look like for you?

At The Smith Family, we believe education is one of the most powerful agents of change, and our vision is a world where every child has the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

In the past 100 years we’ve made massive strides in changing life outcomes for thousands of children and young people experiencing disadvantage around Australia. But, with 1 in 6 children still living in poverty today, the need for our work is as important as it was a century ago.

We can’t do it alone, and that’s why community support is crucial. We’re focused on raising awareness of the impacts of poverty on children’s education in order for our work to be front of mind for members of the public looking to help make a difference and come on board as supporters. We also know that for a young person to make the most of their education their family needs financial security, affordable housing and good health. That’s why we work locally with our school partners and the many other community service organisations and voluntary bodies, which all play a vital role in providing necessary support.

Our approach is evidence-based, and we know it works. By giving children and young people in need the support and resources they need to achieve their full potential, we know our impact will have a lasting effect on those we help today and potentially for generations to come.

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Lourdes Antenor is an experienced writer who specialises in the not-for-profit sector and its affiliations. She is the content producer for Third Sector News, an online knowledge-based platform for and about the Australian NFP sector.

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