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Youth of today: the future of tomorrow

Australia, 19 May 2016

The Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) is a national non-profit providing tools and connections that equip young people to change their world. Jan Owen, AM is its CEO and the following interview is an edited transcript of Macquarie’s conversation with her.

The Macquarie Group Foundation has funded an FYA event recognising and encouraging young changemakers.


Q. How would you define social innovation?

When I think about social innovation, I think firstly about coming up with solutions to intractable problems. The best work in this space has been pioneered by Geoff Mulgan and also The Young Foundation in the UK. They bring together diverse sectors, disciplines and tools to create new innovations which ultimately benefit humanity.

Secondly, I think of social innovation as resetting our social compass and pioneering new courses.

So I think of social innovation not just as problem solving. I think about it as future proofing societies, and individuals within societies.

Q. For FYA, how does this idea of future proofing link with fostering success in upcoming generations?

FYA is very much in the business of equipping, preparing, inspiring and activating the next generation. We believe in doing all those things in concert with young people. We are in such a complex, changing environment that to not have young people front and centre is genuinely a missed opportunity to tap into a really significant resource.

This idea of future proofing is really important. It’s true that we have an ageing population, but that’s the only thing we talk about in policy terms. By 2050 in Australia we’ll have 50 per cent more young people than we have now. We’re one of the few OECD countries that will have more young people in our country, not less. That’s a unique and powerful position for us to be in.

Q. Are we doing enough as a nation to equip upcoming generations to become innovators who can thrive in an ever-changing world? If not, where do we need to invest?

Categorically not. Education is one of the areas that we’re still not doing enough in. We’re still trapped in quite a 19th century version of education, where the test and results are everything. We have employers saying students are ill-prepared for the world of work; students echoing the sentiment; teachers saying,"No, we’re preparing them”. And parents are lost in the middle, thinking,"What do we need to be doing to give our children the best chance in life?"

What FYA is giving to young people is power, which has to be one of the most difficult to relinquish. - Jan Owen

There are many conversations in the world at the moment about young people and the need to prepare them with what used to be called ‘soft skills’ – communication, collaboration, creativity, innovation, team work and problem solving. Over the last couple of decades, these skills have stopped being called ‘soft skills’; they’re now being referred to as ‘foundation’ and ‘enterprising’ skills. These are the skills students can take with them from school and across different work environments. And the questions that should be asked, and tested for in education along with numeracy and literacy, are:"What are the transferable skills we’re giving young people through learning and education? And how do we articulate those? How do we ensure that they’re taught?"

The other thing that’s changed enormously is how young people learn. They learn much more immersively than in the past, which was very much ‘chalk and talk’ – a transmission model which positioned the teacher as the font of all knowledge, and students as the passive recipients of that. We’ve moved into a very different environment because of incredibly advanced technology and all that brings to learning. Young people now have a very different expectation about how they learn, and again we have an education system that hasn’t quite caught up with that.

We’re definitely not preparing our children to be job creators, rather than job seekers. Unemployment is going to be an ongoing issue. It affects young people for the longest period of time, and it affects them first. Our young people still haven’t recovered from the GFC, although the rest of Australia has. We’re 136,000 jobs short. It’s not about young people pulling their socks up, or saying to them,"it’s up to you to go and find a job”. We’re going to have to grow youth employment. We’re going to need to help young people gain the skills of entrepreneurship in order to create jobs for themselves, and even for others. I believe that they’re more than capable of this.

We don’t have a strong and vibrant culture of entrepreneurship because we’re failure averse in Australia. In the US, how many times you’ve failed before you were finally successful is a badge of honour. Even in the entrepreneurship sector in Australia, let alone in any sectors beyond that, failure is considered extremely dire. When a business fails we all quietly think,"Well, you obviously don’t know what you’re doing”.

Q. So how can we support a culture of entrepreneurship in Australia?

The way that FYA supports young people is to back and invest in them and their ideas. We work in communities all around Australia – including rural and regional communities – harvesting the best ideas we can find from young people. We then get young people to present those ideas to their communities, which we ask to get behind the young people.

This year we’ve launched a national enterprise education program with high schools called $20 Boss where students borrow $20 from the Boss Bank. The students have a month to come up with some kind of enterprise with a social benefit – blending social business with commercial skill sets. In that month, they establish their venture and pay back the $20 (plus $1 interest). Anything the students make above that, they can give to their school or a non-profit.

For the 16-28 years group we run an eight-week campaign called Innovation Nation – 1000 Ideas for a Better Australia. In this way, FYA is actively bringing young people into the national conversation with their ideas to improve Australia. We’re backing the top 50 innovators each year along with a number of great corporations that want to seed and support innovation and entrepreneurship in Australia. FYA will help incubate their ideas, and then we’ll put some money into the best ones.

Our work with Indigenous young people is not youth work or welfare work. We run a national academy to support Indigenous young people to gain the skills of design, social media and marketing so that they can run campaigns. Over the past three years we’ve had over 150 Indigenous young people running online campaigns around issues and causes they care about.

In everything we do we’re giving young people these ‘enterprising’ skills; and we’re creating opportunities to back and invest in our young people. We’re very much putting our money where our mouth is and inspiring other people to do the same, I hope!

Q. Over the years that you’ve been involved in the non-profit sector, what shifts in approach to working with young people have you witnessed?

In Australia we’re now trying to move away from pure charity and welfare in the main. Part of the reason is because charity has largely been an abject failure – for all people, but particularly for Indigenous Australia. We moved from charity to welfare, and now we’re moving from welfare to co-design, and agency. Giving people agency means asking some pretty fundamental questions around"How do you give people control over their lives?"

Using enterprise is the best work that I’ve been involved in, not only with FYA but many initiatives I’ve helped establish and grow through Social Ventures Australia and the School for Social Entrepreneurs. Social enterprises like STREAT (a Melbourne enterprise addressing youth disadvantage and homelessness by training young people in hospitality) and YGAP (a vehicle for volunteers to fundraise through creative initiatives that support community development projects) are doing this exceptionally well, asking questions like,"How do you give people meaningful work and meaningful opportunities to participate and contribute economically and socially to their families and communities?”. That’s a long way from old charity, which was,"Take this handout or service such as it is, and be grateful”.

Q. How does this shift compare with international trends in non-profit sectors?

Bill and Hillary Clinton stood at the genesis of the Clinton Global Initiative and said,"We’ve done more harm than good in the world with aid and international development." With that, you saw the most significant public statement about a practice of the past 80 years. The CGI, and the Gates, among others, have attempted to innovate very different models of community agency through their philanthropic efforts in the past ten years.

So these are global trends, and Australia is part of that. I think we’re in a period of real reform. There has been significant change in the stakeholders, including new players from the business sector. New models have brought new investors to social innovation and social change work, and there has been more requirement for measurement than there was previously.

Government has changed as well. Government only ever – and still does, in lots of cases – measures outputs, not outcomes. The purpose of the work and the way that we all work is being reorganised. There is much more of an emphasis on work that is ‘place-based’. Before, we used to divide our work up, like government departments do: let’s do housing over there, health over there, and education over here. In the US the place-based model – which is working in communities with a holistic picture of what communities believe they need in order to thrive – is very much coming to the fore now. We’re moving from silos to place-based interventions.

Q. How do non-profit organisations move from silo thinking to a place-based model – and is wider collaboration important in this?

As a starting point, an organisation needs to think not of programs that it delivers, but of domains of work. At FYA, we have a large domain of work around youth entrepreneurship. We might run any number of initiatives in that domain, but we’re very clear about our goal, what we’re trying to achieve, and the stakeholders and collaborators we need to work with in that domain.

To collaborate effectively you need to be really hungry and ambitious for change and to genuinely believe the sum is more than the parts. Collaboration, which often takes putting your own interests aside, and investing in a collective approach, is hard work. Being crystal clear about the outcomes and impact you want to achieve, over time, is essential.

Philanthropy has been part of the ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ model. A negative way of saying that is ‘spray and pray’ – donors offer multiple grants, across a number of organisations, in a number of sectors, hoping that some of them will be effective in achieving outcomes.

I think that philanthropy, as it has matured in this country, has become much more strategic. That’s what I mean about philanthropists wanting measurement, and organisations wanting different kinds of finance. We used to rely on grant funding – we now have impact investment, crowdfunding and social impact bonds.

We’ve an exciting new range of financial instruments – you’re not dependent any more on one source of funds. I believe that can be very powerful and liberating for organisations. The onus is on organisations to be very clear about their purpose, and the best way to achieve that purpose. Are they duplicating somebody else? If so, how should they be collaborating or merging their efforts?

The hardest thing to achieve is this idea of agency – working in ways that ensure that communities acquire and retain power.

Q. It sounds like that model really shifts where organisations look for their accountability.

Yes! To the people we’re meant to be serving and working alongside to effect change. That means a completely different way of measuring success.

Q. What are the challenges to moving to that kind of model in the non-profit sector – what’s stopping us?

Power, power, power. It’s the same challenge that we have with men and women in leadership positions and all the discussions about where women are in the world. It’s exactly the same debate. I’m a very strong believer that there are three currencies at work in the world. The currency of money has been held primarily by business. The currency of power has been held by governments, particularly. The currency of love has been held by community. You need access to all three currencies to create real, sustained change in the world.

But power is incredibly important. What FYA is giving to young people is power, which has to be one of the most difficult things to relinquish. Love can be freely given, so generosity is easy. Money – once you have a certain amount, you have a strong sense of wanting to be philanthropic; you want to contribute. It actually makes you feel happier than holding on to it. Power, on the other hand, is somehow different; it’s one of the most difficult currencies to give away.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme is one of the most incredible, pioneering social disruptions that we have. It’s a bit like superannuation, in the sense that it will give power directly to the people for whom the service was initiated in the first place. The power struggle will continue of course but the best, and truly ground-breaking, disruptions will redistribute power.

Q. What are you hearing about the kind of world that young people want to live in, and the discrepancy between how it is currently and what they want it to be?

From our perspective at FYA, we want young people to have a good experience of doing something where they live, in their own backyard; creating a positive change at school or in your community gives you confidence. It gives you confidence to keep going, and then to think bigger. These are the strategies that young people are responding to.

Social innovation has a massive part to play in this. Whether we’re backing young people or taking risks with pioneering ideas, or whether we’re solving intractable problems with really smart, interdisciplinary and cross-sector approaches, which is the only thing that’s actually going to work in the future, we need to see the whole system, seeing us as individuals but also our society as a whole system. That is true social innovation at work.

Young people have both the mindset and some unique tools to face this challenge. They’re open, they have the passion, and they will back themselves. They don’t have the fear that I think comes with age!

Q. On to a subject that sometimes drives fear and conservative thinking – what’s been FYA’s experience with risk-taking that didn’t work out?

We’ve trialled many initiatives over the years; some have worked and some haven’t for different reasons. That’s the risk of social innovation. We recently dissolved an institute that we set up called the Centre for New Public Education, which advocated for fairer funding and new forms of measuring different educational outcomes, rather than the traditional competencies that, for instance, NAPLAN might measure. After four years, with some good engagement and outcomes, a couple of strategic pivots and incredible effort by a stellar team, our board made a decision that this particular initiative was unsustainable right now.

In everything we do we’re giving young people these ‘enterprising’ skills; and we’re creating opportunities to back and invest in our young people. - Jan Owen

We went to our stakeholders and told them the board felt that it couldn’t continue to invest without others coming on board. Our model is that we innovate and seed initiatives, but really you get the best success if you’ve got a cross section of players who also believe in an initiative enough to co-invest.

We just don’t have that kind of disruptive, social innovation environment to enable a wide range of stakeholders and players to be involved in advocating a really new public education system in Australia.

Q. So how does your Board support innovation in your organisation?

We’re quite an unusual non-profit; only a small number of non-profits in the country have their own endowment, which we do at FYA. Our board invests to test and to seed, and to innovate new ideas; they are very proactive in backing FYA team’s ideas when we think we need to pivot or to invest in trying something new.

Take our Young Social Pioneers program, for instance: we’ve been supporting 68 young social entrepreneurs over the last five years. FYA invested the first three years of funding to prove up the model and in the last couple of years we have found other partners to replace FYA’s investment. Our model is that we’ll seed initiatives, give it a few years, and then look for other investment. If we can’t find other investment, then that’s a signal that we need to pivot or put those initiatives on ice.

We set up a program called Young People Without Borders (YPWB), sending young people from Australia – from all kinds of backgrounds, from remote Indigenous communities through to urban centres and cities – to South-east Asia, as a way of accelerating our contribution and our relationships between young people in the region. We figured the Asian century had to be not just doing business and selling resources to Asia, but also developing a generation of young people who had real relationships with their counterparts in the region, so that when they came to do business or innovation or social entrepreneurship, they would better know and understand each other.

We started really strongly with that program, sending over 300 young Australians to Asia and the Pacific to teach sport and English and to engage in community development projects with other 18-20-year-old locals, over a three-year period. Then the Abbott Government was elected and decided to reenergise a very similar program, called the New Colombo Plan. We’d seeded YPWB, and were about ready to go to the government to say "Give us a lot more money; we can really scale this and get thousands of young people engaged in working alongside other young people in the region."

So we pivoted and have now taken that program to regional councils around Australia to support young people in their region becoming leaders in Asia capabilities. We are not at the scale that we had originally hoped, but the pivot’s been great in the sense that local governments have been really responsive, and we think we’ll build that up.

I feel incredibly fortunate to have a board that has supported us to consciously grow an innovative organisation. In the past four years, we’ve backed and invested in a range of initiatives; we’ve pivoted some due to competition or other elements which have come into play and we’ve had to exit others. All leading from the front and with our investment first. That’s a pretty courageous and innovative board in my view.

Q. Finally, who do you see as the changemakers of the future?

I am tremendously inspired and relentlessly optimistic about the current and next generation of young Australians’ ability to shape the places in which they live, live the lives they desire, and contribute to our nation and the world in ways we cannot yet imagine.

As with the many remarkable social pioneers who have gone before them in this country, our young people are seeking a true sense of purpose and meaning, and a deeper connectedness to others through their contributions and acts of ‘love of humanity’.

Image caption: Jan Owen, Foundation for Young Australians CEO.

This article is an excerpt from the Macquarie Group Foundation's book, Innovation big and small: How great ideas are strengthening our community, which was produced in 2015 in celebration of the Foundation's 30th anniversary.

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