In Sync

  • Date:01 Mar 2016
  • Type:Company Directors Magazine

As Australia’s most successful Indigenous school-to-work transition program, Ganbina is proof that education can change lives. Tony Featherstone spoke to the organisation’s CEO and his mentor about the not-for-profit’s success.

The power of knowledge

Anthony Cavanagh, a descendent from the Taungurung clan in north-east Victoria, was abandoned by his mother and homeless at age 13. His childhood was surrounded by family violence and alcohol, his male role models could not read or write, and none of his extended family finished high school.

Education was his only constant. Cavanagh finished high school at Broadmeadows in Melbourne’s north and at age 23 was married with two daughters. Twenty-five years later, he is still working to help disadvantaged communities. “Education saved me,” says Cavanagh. “It contributed to my family breaking the cycle of welfare dependence, being uneducated and having significant health issues.”

Today, Cavanagh is CEO of Ganbina, one of Australia’s most innovative and high-performing Indigenous charities. Based at Shepparton in country Victoria, Ganbina supports Indigenous young people aged six to 25 to complete their education, go on to university or into employment.

Ganbina is unique. Unlike most Indigenous community organisations, Ganbina relies solely on philanthropic and corporate funding. It does not seek government funding because it wants to remain as independent and responsive to community needs as possible. An emphasis on performance-based reporting and audited financial accounts is also unusual for a charity with six staff and $1.18 million turnover in 2014-15. A PwC review of Ganbina’s programs in 2015 found its cost-per-participant was half the average spend of similar organisations; that it had the highest program retention rate; achieved the best gender balance (58 per cent of its participants are female); and reached the broadest range of participants (from prep through to university).

Governance is another focus. After recent board renewal, the Ganbina board added Dion Hershan, head of Australia equities within Goldman Sachs Asset Management, as treasurer; Sean Armistead, head of Indigenous programs at Crown Resorts; and UTS lecturer Dr Dean Jarrett. Chaired by Justin Mohamed, a Gooreng Gooreng person from Bundaberg in Queensland, the Ganbina board is an exemplar of Indigenous governance.

Cavanagh’s interest in governance led him to Dr Nora Scheinkestel FAICD, one of Australia’s most respected company directors. She chairs Macquarie Atlas Road and is a non-executive director of Telstra Corporation and Stockland Corporation. Scheinkestel agreed to provide mentoring support through Kilfinan Australia, an organisation established by Rosemary Grieve and Marion Webster OAM, to help not-for-profit CEOs.

“I wanted to learn more about working with the board and the role of governance in growing an NFP organisation,” says Cavanagh. “I had chaired or served on other boards, but needed to build my knowledge of the corporate sector and expand my networks in this area.”

Although they come from vastly different backgrounds, Scheinkestel and Cavanagh had early rapport in their mentor–mentee relationship. Scheinkestel says: “I was impressed by Ganbina’s work, its exceptional results, and Anthony’s drive. He’s a real ‘action man’ – intent on implementing the ideas we talk about and incredibly passionate about education and helping Indigenous youth in the Shepparton community. Mentoring Anthony has added to my perspective as a company director, giving me insights into his challenges, and I am learning from the way he functions in his community.”

I've harboured a lifelong passion to contribute to making a difference that changes the status quo.

Cavanagh says governance was one of the first things he and Scheinkestel discussed. “I explained to Nora why Ganbina does not seek government funding and why our investment model of corporate and philanthropic needs strong governance and transparency. We want to grow and take our model to other Indigenous communities. Nora’s been a great source of advice and support.”

Retaining independence

Ganbina’s success has been a long time in the making. Former CEO Adrian Appo OAM founded Ganbina in 1997 to find employment for Indigenous people in Shepparton. By 2006, Ganbina was helping participants aged 13 to 25 to complete their education or go on to university or employment, and in 2009 it extended its support program to primary school children. Cavanagh joined as CEO in 2013, replacing Appo. “I’ve harboured a lifelong passion to contribute to making a difference that changes the status quo. I have never accepted that Indigenous people all over this country want to be homeless, unemployed and die before they reach 50 years of age. It’s a privilege to lead this organisation and build on the achievements of Adrian and the board.”

The programs are working. Almost 1,000 Indigenous participants have voluntarily accessed Ganbina’s support and an average 90 per cent of participants successfully complete their education, training or employment annually. “Employment and university places are now considered real and not just a dream,” says Cavanagh.

Ganbina’s model is receiving international attention. After presenting at the Social Enterprise World Business Forum in Calgary in 2013, Ganbina received funding from the May & Stanley Smith Charitable Trust in San Francisco. Two years later, it received funding from the Newman’s Own Foundation in New York. It has also presented its model to the University of Auckland and charitable foundations in New Zealand. Cavanagh attributes Ganbina’s success to four main factors. The first is its decision not to be government funded. “Not relying on a single dollar of government money adds to our funding pressures, but it also means we have complete control of the design, development and implementation of our programs, managing our own destiny.”

The second factor is community support. “No Indigenous program will ever succeed if the community does not support it. Parents, schools and other stakeholders see the results when Indigenous kids stay at school. They see the positive effect it has on the community and how it inspires other kids to get interested in school. Nobody is forcing kids to get involved or providing a carrot-and stick approach. They choose to re-enrol in our program each year.”

The third factor is partnerships. “We have a dedicated group of philanthropic and corporate investors. These relationships, along with those in the education and employment sectors, have allowed Ganbina to grow.” Governance is the fourth factor. “The recent board renewal was about adding more board members who have corporate networks and are based in the capital cities,” says Cavanagh. He adds that funding is a constant challenge.

“People look at successful NFPs and think they do not need support. Or they provide in-kind support which, while appreciated, is not the same as financial investment. The only way Ganbina can help more Indigenous kids stay at school, and take its model to other communities, is through financial investment from corporates and philanthropists.”

“Most Indigenous kids today are not worrying about the past,” he says. “They understand our people’s history and culture and will never forget it. But they are looking ahead, and Ganbina is providing a platform of opportunities and helping them build their aspirations for a better future. We know it all starts with education. I’m living proof of it.”