Utilising Giving to Empower Young Philanthropists
25 June 2018 at 8:47 am
Sean Gordon is the founder and CEO of SchoolAid, a charity helping to empower young philanthropists. He is this week’s Changemaker.
Gordon spent 18 years working as a principal in a number of schools in New South Wales and Queensland, and has also been elected to various state and national executive roles.
In 1999, after reflecting on a powerful personal experience from the Thredbo landslide, Gordon founded SchoolAid – a national charity utilising “giving” as a tool to combat issues of youth suicide, depression and anxiety.
Engaging with schools across Australia, SchoolAid has been able to raise $5 million for domestic and international causes, with more than 50 per cent of Australian schools having had some involvement with the charity.
Along with his charity work, Gordon also works as a mindset coach and a keynote speaker.
In this week’s Changemaker, Gordon explains the inspiration behind SchoolAid, discusses how the mental state of school children today compares to 20 years ago, and reveals his love of cycling.
Your background has been in education and working as a school principal. What led you to establish SchoolAid?
I was the principal at St Patrick’s School in Bega back in 1999 and I was talking to a boy in Year 5 one day and casually asked, “What do you think you’ll be doing when you’re 25”. His reply surprised me: “I don’t think we’ll be here Mr Gordon”. I replied “Why, are you moving?” and he said, “No, I just think we are going to kill each other”.
I was totally stunned. I said, “Are you kidding me?” It made me think deeply about how a kid in the beautiful, unhurried Bega Valley could have this perception. After some discussion I came to the conclusion that he was being influenced by the media and the overly negative world view that was being presented on TV (especially the news) and in the press with images of death, destruction and stories where the future looked grim.
Some basic research uncovered that anxiety levels, suicide numbers and rates of depression in Australia were growing alarmingly amongst our youth in Australia, a country I considered so blessed. So I thought, what’s the point of teaching this boy or any student subjects like Maths, English and Science if they don’t see a future at all? It occurred to me that my key role as a principal was to ensure that I helped my students grow as individuals with the necessary skills, knowledge and values and a proper world view.
That brought up several weeks of thinking and wondering about where it all fitted together. The actual detail of how and why my experiences – as a parent, teacher, member of the national principals’ executive, rescue leader – coalesced to the idea of SchoolAid is too long for this piece, but suffice to say, my colleagues across the nation were of the same opinion that we needed to do something.
I argued that young people who were involved in “giving” or philanthropy were themselves recipients of hope and behaved with more optimism as they came to a more balanced sense of perspective around the scale of their “problems” compared to others they were seeking to help.
The original model aimed to lift the effort above the school as a silo to our young people as a collective, where their response to major tragedy could be multiplied. There were 10,000 schools in Australia so our mantra was 10,000 schools times $100 would deliver a $1 million aid fund for use on behalf of our students to do something in response to a tragedy or big issue they viewed on the TV. Being part of this would help them feel a bit better about the world and their ability to respond. And that was the genesis of it.
Our kids would be empowered as philanthropists. SchoolAid is non-religious, non-political and non-sectoral, it’s just Australian young people.
Since inception in 1999 we’ve had the Australian Primary Principals Association (APPA) on our board as partner and recently they became a financial supporter of us. We’ve raised a little over $5 million from about 70 campaigns where we’ve assisted people domestically and internationally. We were delighted when our governor-general, Sir Peter Cosgrove, came on as our inaugural patron.
We have attracted some wonderful partners – like APPA and ASPA, Tim Fairfax Family Foundation, Telstra Foundation, Halogen Australia, Pozible, Dymocks Children’s Charity, St George Foundation, Harris Family Foundation, The Funding Network, Social Ventures Australia, Nickelodeon and many others – and volunteers over the years and a board of committed and talented leaders give their time and talent so generously.
How has SchoolAid developed since its formation in 1999?
We empower young philanthropists and that’s been a constant as a mental health play combatting anxiety, depression and suicide, but squarely focused on the solution (hope, optimism, resilience and leadership). So far some 60 per cent of Australian schools have participated in some of our activities or campaigns with our largest generating over $950,000.
At the outset we had a large-scale, reactive national campaign model driven by adults. The biggest change by far has been the shift to a proactive, local, youth driven campaign model enhanced by a number of leadership opportunities and awards recognition.
Technology was the enabler and our crowdfunding platform (hosted by Pozible) specifically for young people and philanthropy is a game changer and an Australian first we believe. This puts the options and tools in the hands of individual students and their classmates.
How do you think the mental state of school children today compares to how it was 20 years ago?
The data from the likes of Mission Australia’s National Youth Survey and Children’s Help Line indicates the situation has not improved and if anything is getting worse. The most recent numbers I had, it was one in 16 children are dealing with depression and one in six were dealing with anxiety issues. Since 1999 social media has arrived and with a raft of new challenges for young people to overcome in this curated, conform or perish environment. Sadly, many are perishing in a place where they should be flourishing and feeling optimistic.
We think prevention is better than intervention once the damage is done.
What does a typical day for you look like as SchoolAid CEO?
I don’t really have a typical day, and it’s worth noting that for me this is a volunteer role. When we have got campaigns on, the days can be filled quickly. We’ve got a crowdfunding platform for children as our key activity so coaching and supporting young people is a task I undertake. We have some leadership programs for primary school students and I participate in some of these along with the development of our national awards program. Many days are consumed with administration and compliance work or preparing for board meetings.
This week for example, I was in Sydney with a group of children where director, Narelle Barker, ran a youth leadership group in the Sydney Town Hall, and following that we had our SchoolAid board meeting and introduced our new chairman, Warren Bingham.
I spent the day before in Brisbane with APPA president, Dennis Yarrington, where we had three key meetings starting with a senior advisor to the Queensland Education Minister, then we visited Geebung Special School followed by Eatons Hill State School and St Paul’s College where we discussed primary school leadership programs and ways that they could work with SchoolAid to develop Social Action Teams.
Given this is a voluntary role, what other work do you do away from SchoolAid?
So, I coach executive teams and individual people, I have some business interests and I am a keynote speaker in addition to being CEO of SchoolAid. Those are my key activities.
I’m a mindset coach and working with people as they seek to make changes is a privilege I take very seriously – it is a passion. Funnily enough, I find a lot of people I work with are dealing with paradigms – beliefs, habits, worldview etc – that were engendered when they were young. My understanding of child development actually helps in executive boardrooms when I can challenge certain beliefs and limiting behaviors with, “Well why do you think that way? Where did you get that idea from? And, what if we changed the paradigm?”.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I love to cycle, so this morning I was up at a 4:15am with my wife and the Redcliffe Bay Bikers and we knocked out about 40 kilometres before breakfast in the dark – it’s something we do a number of times each week though it is more enjoyable in the warmer months with longer days! I also work out in the gym. I love my family and enjoy being with people and we have loads of visitors. We have a lovely old Queenslander on a decent block of land here, so I spend a fair bit of time on renovation projects and out in the garden or around the pool. As well as this reading is a passion and there is always study to do.
Is there anything you are reading, watching or listening to at the moment?
There’s a few things I read all the time online especially, but the one book I’m reading is called The Next Generation. It’s a book by my good friend, Tony Ryan, who coincidentally was a chairman of SchoolAid some years ago. Tony is an education futurist and he subscribes to the stuff I’m on about and has been a guiding light as well. This book looks at the next generation and boldly declares what a wonderful future it looks to be, saying: “It’s never been a safer time to be alive, we’ve never had more opportunity, there are a myriad opportunities for travel, we’ve never had better health and importantly this next generation really do have the power to create an exciting future – if we get out of their way!”
It’s a really powerful read and very affirmative of what we’re doing at SchoolAid. Re-imagining education and the way that it’s delivered in this day and age – because frankly I think the system is bit broken – is writ large throughout with solutions offered all the way.