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Working Differently to Foster Culture of Innovation


Thursday, 17th March 2016 at 10:40 am
Kevin Robbie
Ending “developmental vulnerability” for children is everyone’s business, but how do we build effective collaboration to tackle this, asks Kevin Robbie CEO of United Way Australia.

Thursday, 17th March 2016
at 10:40 am
Kevin Robbie


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Working Differently to Foster Culture of Innovation
Thursday, 17th March 2016 at 10:40 am

Ending “developmental vulnerability” for children is everyone’s business, but how do we build effective collaboration to tackle this, asks Kevin Robbie CEO of United Way Australia.

The Federal Government recently released its latest Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) results, a mixed bag underneath the same headline statistic as the previous census three years ago 22 per cent of Australian children still start school “developmentally vulnerable”.

While there were very slight improvements in language and cognitive skills, and communication skills and general knowledge, one thing remains very clear – if you’re a child in one of Australia’s most socio-economically disadvantaged communities, you live in a very remote area, are Indigenous, or not proficient in English, you’re highly likely to be one of the more than 286,000 children starting school behind the rest.

And this concerns us all, because the evidence is clear that the AEDC measures are predictors not just for academic success but outcomes in health and wellbeing in later life.

As I listened to leading experts in early childhood development last week at the Australian National Early Literacy Summit, including presenting our own Ready to Read program findings; from discussion with many funders, for-purpose organisations, business and government over the past six months; and as I listened to Charles Leadbeater present to key United Way stakeholders on how we might foster a culture of innovation, I’m convinced that the era of the single organisation tackling a complex issue is over.

We can do so much more collaboratively. But building effective collaborations often feels frustrating, like trying to complete a jigsaw without all the pieces to hand.

What I’ve learned from my conversations about closing the gap in terms of developmental vulnerability for 0-8 year old children is this:

  • We can’t be having these same conversations in 10 years time, and that means we must begin to do things differently now.
  • Large numbers of social purpose organisations have worked tirelessly for many years in local communities, often on scarce resources, without the capacity or opportunity to share their learnings to help others adopt best practice, reduce duplication and stop reinventing the wheel. We need to move away from competition and share lessons from innovation to build our understanding of what works.
  • While there is a clear case for government investment in expanding early learning provision and interventions that engage parents, this requires a whole of community response, including linkages with philanthropy and academia, who have much to contribute.
  • Schools and libraries play a vital role in supporting parents and children, but we need to move beyond talking to the “usual” people and asking the “usual” questions because if we don’t, we will get the same answers.
  • Business is keen to be engaged. They see the case for closing the gap in moving towards the knowledge economy, but the ask to business needs to be clearer.
  • The cycle of disadvantage begins well before children start school we must find ways to engage parents and carers in dialogue about how their children learn and ensure they are equipped with the skills to be their child’s “first teacher”.

At United Way it is our belief that this requires real collaboration and that collective impact provides a robust approach for these different stakeholders to begin working together.

But to be truly effective, this needs:

  • A coalition “of the willing”, with skin in the game.
  • Understanding it will take time to agree on goals and build mutual respect.
  • Engagement with disadvantaged communities to identify what solutions will work for them.
  • The pooling of resources, both funding and pro bono, targeted at those interventions with evidence of the greatest chance of success.
  • Data and measurement built in from the beginning, to ensure we stay on track.
  • Flexibility to respond to ongoing learning, and preparedness to make mistakes and do things differently because of these.
  • Long-term vision, as change will not happen overnight.

Breaking the cycle of disadvantage in Australia must start early in life, and it needs innovation. We must create the space, culture and discipline to foster the collaboration needed to innovate. We must focus on capabilities rather than deficits in communities, relationships rather than services, a collective approach rather than seeing the early years as service challenge, and develop a new narrative with families and communities about where they are and where they want to go.

The conversation has started. Momentum is building to inspire people across business, philanthropy, government and social purpose organisations to work together to tackle this issue.

But do we want to work differently? Do we want to develop a new approach to solve this complex issue? How do we all partner effectively to create the change we need for our children and young people?

About the author: Kevin Robbie is one of Australia’s leading social innovators, having spent the last 20 years in the Not for Profit sector developing innovative social change programs. He is a passionate advocate for greater youth employment opportunities and targeted early interventions, with expertise spanning social enterprise development, employment creation, social entrepreneurship, social procurement, impact measurement and impact investment. Prior to joining United Way Australia in June 2015, Robbie served as Executive Director of Employment Social Ventures Australia.


Kevin Robbie  |   |  @ProBonoNews

Kevin Robbie is a director at Think Impact

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