Making Charity Cool
22 August 2016 at 10:44 am
Stephanie Lorenzo was just 22 when she founded PROJECT FUTURES, a Sydney-based Not for Profit with a mission to end human trafficking and slavery by empowering individuals to take action in their communities. Lorenzo is this week’s Changemaker.
PROJECT FUTURES helps individuals take action by raising awareness and funds in engaging and innovative ways within their own communities.
In seven years the startup NFP has raised more than $3.8 million for local projects in Cambodia and Australia through a series of events, digital campaigns and experience-based activities dedicated to combating human trafficking and sexual exploitation in the Asia Pacific region.
In particular PROJECT FUTURES targets socially-conscious millennials and has developed a network of young supporters who are passionate about eradicating exploitation in the Asia Pacific, by empowering individuals to harness their skills, talents and networks to drive change.
Scott Tweedie from The Loop, who has been a PROJECT FUTURES ambassador for four years and will host the organisation’s biggest annual event, the Black Tie Ball, in September said PROJECT FUTURES stands out in the Not for Profit sector because it takes its supporters on a journey that creates a sense of empowerment and unity.
In this week’s Changemaker, Lorenzo talks about why engaging a young audience was the obvious choice, how reading the heart-wrenching biography by Somaly Mam changed her life, and why the word Not for Profit “sucks”.
How did PROJECT FUTURES come about?
Well I read a book about a woman who was sold into prostitution at a really young age in Cambodia when I was cycling through there, just as a 20-year-old for another charity cycle that I was on. I was just really moved, I guess, by her story and the plight of many women in Cambodia and around the globe really that have been affected by sex trafficking and human trafficking and I just wanted to use my skills and talents, which is sort of in marketing and communications and networking and running events here in Sydney, I just wanted to use that for a good cause. And so I thought well, I can fundraise for her and the work that she is doing in Cambodia and I think that would make a huge difference obviously to the programs that they run on the ground there.
PROJECT FUTURES brought Somaly Mam to Australia to speak with students. What was it like to meet her in person after she had such an impact on your life?
We brought her back four times actually, we even did a big partnership with Business Chicks to take her nationally across to Perth and Brisbane and Adelaide. It was pretty special.
The first thing that I organised after I read her book was… a cycle challenge across Cambodia. That was the kind of the event that I wanted to organise because I had been on one before, and in a year we raised $80,000 and we got 21 people to join us. And when we were cycling across Cambodia we were very lucky to be able to spend International Women’s Day in March 2009 with the girls in one of her centres, and that was an incredible experience and then obviously from then, that relationship blossomed. And nobody had really heard about her in Australia, internationally she was quite well known, but we decided to bring her over, just again we were all volunteers at this point and we wanted to share her story and get people in Australia to understand again the plight of many women, children and men across the globe.
It was a pretty profound experience and we’ve maintained a really great relationship albeit she’s been in Cambodia. And we stuck by her through a lot of the negative media surrounding her in the last couple of years and I’m really proud of that.
You claim to be shaking up the traditional fundraising landscape, what is unique about your model?
I think that we always, from seven-and-a-half years ago when PROJECT FUTURES started, we have always focused on young professionals. And many of the traditional charities really didn’t. We’re seeing a lot more now in the last couple of years, you know people kind of clicking on to the fact that the millennials are actually quite purpose driven people but when I was growing up it was all, “Gen Ys are lazy, Gen Ys are disloyal, Gen Ys only want what Gen Ys want”. And I just felt really strongly about that, so we were quite clever in that we used events, campaigns, fun stuff that young people loved to do and we just repurposed them for a great cause.
We didn’t do anything too different, we just sort of partnered with a bar in Sydney and on a Friday night got 300 young people to pay a cover charge that they would probably normally pay, but our partnerships with those places allowed us to raise funds for a serious issue that many young people when they heard about it, wanted to do something for. Now it’s interesting, I don’t see us being like a crazy innovative charity now because there are so many charities popping up and there are so many young people that are keen to really change the world. But certainly when we started I think that gave us a really big head start into growing who we are today. And I think we’re kind of seen as a bit of a leader in that young professional demographic and how to better engage them.
PROJECT FUTURES has a host of “young influencers” on board including Scott Tweedie (The Loop), Andrew Morley (Neighbours), Kurt Tippet (Sydney Swans) and Nick Kenny (former NRL Broncos Player). What role do they play?
They amplify our message out to a completely new audience. When we first started, you know PROJECT FUTURES has only had full-time, paid staff for the last two years of the seven years that we’ve been around, and I think that is really profound, being that we’ve raised over $3.8 million or something to date. And I think they play a role in being able to amplify our message and amplify the purpose around this organisation and amplify the issue of human trafficking out to a largely influential audience but also an audience that has the capacity and the want to do something.
We tried to make charity cool. That was our whole mandate when we started, it was about revolutionising charity for young people and showcasing that charity wasn’t about charity mugging on the street, or you know, boring events that cost a lot of money and just want to get money out of you, we wanted to just reinvigorate, I guess the social calendars of young people and sort of go, “Hey, if we can run a really cool event and it’s for a good cause, then why wouldn’t you come to that over just going clubbing on a Saturday night.”
You founded PROJECT FUTURES when you were 22, how did you find leading an organisation at such a young age?
To be honest I feel like it was easier when I was younger. Now it’s just more pressure and responsibility and you know taking bigger risks. I loved it. You know, I never saw age as a barrier to be completely honest with you. When I talk to universities, and we get asked to speak to a lot of universities, I say that age should never be a barrier and you can use your age to your advantage. And I mean we had the advantage of knowing what young people loved because we were young, we weren’t trying to grab an audience and try to understand an audience that we didn’t understand, we were the audience. So we could tailor, events, campaigns, digital messaging to suit our audience and we knew what would sell and what wouldn’t. And look, I’ve got to admit, it is getting harder now with so much disruption in the space, so many new products to market, so many charities sort of jumping on that bandwagon, but at the core of what we do we are very influential I guess, and we’ve had a great headstart with young professionals in the industry.
What does a typical day for you involve, is there such a thing?
No, and that’s the honest to god truth! Every single day is so different. One thing I do do a lot of is meetings. I mean, I meet with a lot of people day in day out. They could be a high school student to a uni student, to the CEO of another company, to doing a pitch for funding, to an impact partner. It changes every single day but I wouldn’t have it any other way really. I’m not a nine-to-fiver, I encourage our team to work smart and that means work when you want. It is flexible working hours, but we’re very solid on our KPIs, we’re very solid on the goals that we need to hit and I just don’t want to micromanage them, and I think that’s the way of the future. These young people who are working with us have all left corporate roles to really work for purpose and I just think we give a lot more benefit that just working for purpose, you know we give a lifestyle benefit, we get to travel but we also understand that when you work, you work hard, you have to work hard for what we do every day.
So just the other day I was on a 7am flight to Melbourne, came back at 11pm the same night, it was literally meetings back to back and then the next morning I was up at 7am for a Westpac breakfast, didn’t leave the office that night until about 10pm because we had a Sydney Uni Business Society meeting with university students in our boardroom around student engagement for 2017 so you know, there’s just not a typical day really. The one thing I do emphasise is getting out of the office and meeting people, connecting with them and networking with them and so forth, I really strongly believe that that interpersonal skill is so necessary for success.
Through your work, what is your ultimate dream?
Impact, like to make the most impact on the lives of people that don’t have the opportunity that I have. It really is a drive to use the skills that I have, which aren’t your typical international development or medical doctor or lawyer, you know my background is marketing comms, we knew how to sell things, we knew how to get the word out there and if I’m doing that for a purpose I want to make sure that I’m driving as much impact on the ground for the lives of these people that we are ultimately there to support.
And I think the dream for PROJECT FUTURES is to grow so that we can take on more projects in the Asia Pacific region that fit under our three pillars to end human trafficking which is; prevention, support services and empowerment, and I think that’s really important. That’s always the end goal.
What challenges are facing your organisation?
Growth, sustainability, we’re in a really interesting phase at the moment actually of growth. Maintaining the sort of personal touch that we had as a grassroots organisation and growing to a point where you can’t possibly meet every single person or you can’t say hi to every person at a 500 person charity event, and it’s kind of keeping that engagement alive.
Personally I think I sort of probably learnt to manage a team better. We have a new team of people and that’s always a challenge, setting expectations in a way where you can empower them to really meet those expectations. But certainly in the Not for Profit sense and in the Not for Profit charitable sense, growth and sustainability is always a really big challenge, how are you diversifying your revenue lines, how are you reporting back to your donors, how are you maintaining that excitement and engagement and empowerment with what you do, and it’s really hard.
What keeps you motivated?
I guess the reason why you do it. I mean our impact partners we meet with them every so often and to really see the change that you are making, you might not see or meet a lot of the people that you could actually be helping, but you certainly get reporting back on how their lives are being affected and that keeps you going. I also think that what keeps me going is, more so than just the cause, as I guess everyone would say that, is the challenge of it.
It’s really hard and this is probably the most challenging time even though we’re probably at the most exciting time of our organisation, because of growth. But the challenges and trying to get through those barriers do keep me going as a person and I think I’ve always been a bit of a tenacious type person, I don’t run away from a challenge and I am learning new stuff every single day and it is exciting and that’s what keeps me going.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
I think building and sustaining what we’ve got. I think there is a lot of hype, I’ve got to be honest and I’ll probably have a lot of people that get mad at me for saying this, but I think there is a lot of hype around startups, but not a lot of hype around scale. And I can tell you that starting up is easy, scaling up is really hard. And we haven’t achieved scaling up, we’ve certainly achieved starting up and the things that you need and the personalities and the team around you that you need, it is really hard to keep that balance and success.
I think, I see a lot of incubators and I see a lot of startup hubs and stuff like that, that encourage people to start up, and I’m not bagging them out, please don’t say that, because I’m definitely not! But I think there also needs to be heightened support around people that have broken that barrier and now need to move to the next step, because they really are affecting lives and changing lives like now.
So our achievements [are] being able to get to this level and still be growing seven years on. Again, we’ve only had two years of full-time, paid staff so that to me is a huge achievement personally.
You didn’t earn any money for the first few years of the organisation. Why did you make that choice?
I was working full-time in marketing and comms and to be honest I never, even as a young person at university, I did not want to work for charities, that was not in the trajectory of my career path. I wanted to be in marketing comms, I knew if you are good marketer or good salesperson obviously you get paid well and there was no way you were going to get paid well in the charitable sector to be honest. So it was like people have hobbies or extracurricular activities and to me this was a side gig, it was a hobby, it was something that I felt good about, that I could use my skills and bring really great friends with great skills around me to help create something, or do something or make a difference and that motivated us.
And it got to a point where we were raising a lot of money as young people and we were like, “Shit, we probably have to really look at where this is going and maybe think a little bit more about it,” because obviously once you start getting corporate sponsors, when you start getting big cheques in the mail, you start going, I’m accountable for these people’s money and I need to make sure that I’m doing the right thing. And you just can’t do that and it’s not sustainable doing that as a volunteer, so we sort of had to get to that point before we really made substantial plans and before we even wrote a business plan around what that looked like, because prior to that there was no business plan it was just like event after event, let’s make it happen and the events just got bigger you know.
You said you sort of fell into the Not for Profit sector, do you plan on staying in the sector for the rest of your career?
I’m really interested in the social enterprise part of the Not for Profit world, you could argue that social enterprise is a bit of amalgamation of the Not for Profit, purpose-driven organisation and a business organisation. I’m really interested in that space and we’ve been having some really interesting conversations in this space. We even do have a social enterprise project, a gym on the Gold Coast, which you might see on our website called PROJECT SPARTA. So we didn’t have any risk or anything going into that because it was a real partnership with one of our corporate partners, but I think with the view of sustainability, social enterprise and social business is the way to go and it’s an exciting space that still needs to be defined, both by laws and also just by the community that is part of this, people from the business world, people from government and people from Not for Profit, so I’m really excited about that space.
I think that the word Not for Profit sucks, I think we do make a profit, we just don’t give the profit back to ourselves, we give the profits, I just hate the word, even as a marketing perspective, I’ve always like the word “for purpose”. When I first started “social enterprise” just wasn’t even a word in my vocabulary, I didn’t even know the word social enterprise existed, and now it’s exciting because we are sort of seeing this. And so, will I stay in the Not for Profit space? Well, technically yes, but I think it will be in these new and exciting innovations and disruptions that are happening and I hope to be in the forefront of that.
What are you reading at the moment?
So I’ve just finished The House That Jack Ma Built, the Alibaba founder. I love biographies of people, not just people that have had harrowing stories. Alibaba is one of the most amazing and number one ecommerce platforms in the world, and I’m Chinese, my background is Chinese and I just think Jack Ma is wonderful and entrepreneurial and just pretty cool. So I just finished reading his autobiography and I just bought a book called Crucial Conversation which from a learning perspective, I need to have better conversations with people. I can talk a lot, which you probably guessed from this interview, and I think I have great personal skills, but I think when it comes to managing a team and talking to bigger donors and proposing things, I’ve sort of always relied on maybe a bit more of my personality and openness and stuff. And this Crucial Conversations book is something that a business coach of mine and a mentor told me to get just to refine my way of communication, because we can always improve. So that should be an interesting read.
Do you have a favourite saying?
There are two for me. One is “ask for forgiveness not permission”. That’s a very entrepreneurial way to do things, so just go for it – ask for forgiveness not permission – and I think that you are that tenacious and you really want something to work you will make it happen.
And then the second one is “don’t ask, don’t get, but never expect”. And that goes to I guess networking, reaching out to people, just do it, people are only people, the George Clooneys to the Hillary Clintons to the whoever, they’re just people and if you have a reason why you want to speak to whoever it is and obviously it probably won’t be like President Obama or something like that, but I just think give it a go and don’t expect anything but always put it out there. You never know what will come of it. And certainly how PROJECT FUTURES has evolved, has very much been that don’t ask, don’t get attitude.