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Q&A: Dr Lisa O’Brien, The Smith Family and why it’s still vital to make a difference


“For me, achieving meaningful and life-changing outcomes is the essence of the actions we take.” – Dr Lisa O’Brien

Lisa, you’ve been the CEO of The Smith Family for 10 years. How has poverty and disadvantage in Australia changed during that time?


Currently 1 in 6 Australian children and young people live in poverty, according to the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) and University of NSW Poverty and Equality Partnership. That’s far too high for a rich country like Australia and is higher than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average. That number has remained fairly steady in the 10 years I’ve been with The Smith Family.


Living in poverty can be devastating for a young person. It not only knocks their self-belief and confidence but has a flow-on effect to their educational achievement and future outcomes. It’s what we call the cycle of disadvantage.

But our evidence shows that by supporting a child’s education that cycle can be broken. This is why I’ve always been so passionate about what we do. We simply can’t ignore the reality that too many children in this country will not achieve their potential, simply because of circumstances outside their control.

A decade of strengthened support


It’s been a decade of huge growth and change for The Smith Family. We have significantly increased the number of students and families we support over the past 10 years. I’m so proud to say we now have 57,000 children on our flagship Learning for Life program.


We’ve also enhanced how we measure the effectiveness of our work and the outcomes we are achieving. I think the focus on program outcomes has been key not only in ensuring what we do with children is working but also in helping us build stronger support from generous Australians - while strengthening our partnerships with business and government.


How has COVID-19 impacted the children and families you work with?


The effects of COVID-19 have exacerbated the already challenging and stressful circumstances too many children and their families were experiencing pre-pandemic.


At the start of the pandemic, almost a quarter of the students we support didn’t have access to a laptop with reliable internet at home. Children can’t complete their schoolwork if they don’t have the right tools or are not connected at home.


When schools were pushed to remote learning we heard story after story of how our families were struggling. One mum and her son were going to their local shopping centre to get Wi-Fi access - until they were told to leave by security guards. We helped that family out with a Digital Access Pack, which included a computer, plus internet access and tech support. Thanks to generous corporate partner assistance, we were able to provide more than 1,200 families with these packs at the height of the pandemic. They were so relieved to get this help for their children’s home learning.


Even so, today one in five of the 57,000 students on our Learning for Life program still do not have a home computer with reliable internet access. Some families also took the huge financial step to purchase more devices, so all their children could manage remote learning. Sadly, that has created a bigger financial burden in some circumstances.


Parents also shared with us their lack of confidence and skills in navigating online learning, on top of trying to help their children generally with their school work. So there was a whole host of problems going on behind the scenes we were trying to help with.


Do you have any observations of COVID-19 and its long term impact on those more vulnerable in our community?


The disruption to education and learning as a result of this crisis has exposed the deep educational divide between the haves and have nots. Many children who lacked the appropriate resources while learning from home, especially those impacted by the extended lockdown in Melbourne, are now in danger of falling even further behind in their schooling or disengaging altogether.


This is a long-term problem which requires long-term solutions, including initiatives like catch-up tutoring and targeted mentoring programs. ANZ has been a fantastic partner for the latter, leading the digitisation of our Work Inspiration program. Work Inspiration is a business-led initiative and provides young people with opportunities to experience the world of work first-hand, helping them make more informed decisions about future career paths.


The pandemic has confirmed the need for the whole community to work together to tackle issues of equity and disadvantage. In response to challenges posed in this year, it has been good to see governments, schools, corporations, philanthropists and the community at large working together to support vulnerable students.


This is a welcome first step but students experiencing disadvantage will need more support long-term as the nation moves forward.


Was there anything that surprised you this past year?


I've been humbled by the generosity of the Australian public this year. I think the stories of our families and what they were going through with the lack of digital access, and then the added burden of COVID-19, really resonated with the Australian public and our business partners. We’ve been extremely grateful for the extra help.


Obviously for some donors and supporters, circumstances changed and while some weren't able to continue their support, many actually increased their level of support for our work. The level of generosity is incredibly heartening. It proves once again how quickly Australians step up to help each other when help is needed and we’ve really appreciated that.


You were recently appointed to the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission Charity, Philanthropy and Fundraising Group, and the Charities Crisis Cabinet. Can you tell us a bit about your work there and what the groups are focussed on?


I was honoured to be appointed to the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission Charity, Philanthropy and Fundraising Group. Unfortunately, I can’t talk about the specific deliberations of the group but our role was to provide the Commission with input so they could advise the Federal Government on how to anticipate and mitigate the economic and social effects of this global pandemic and to facilitate the fastest possible recovery.


The Charities Crisis Cabinet was formed to discuss how to tackle the current challenges brought by COVID-19 and to ensure as many charities as possible survive through the pandemic, so they can continue to provide essential services to communities in need. The group advocated for a broad range of initiatives aimed at addressing challenges experienced across the sector, with a view to ‘not wasting the crisis’, by having a focus on building capacity as we emerge.


Do you have any reflections as from your time as The Smith Family’s CEO? What are you most proud of?


I would like to think my legacy at The Smith Family is our focus on measurable outcomes. We've grown enormously in the time I've been here. And through that period of growth, I've been very focused on effective growth. It’s been a priority focus of mine that the work we're doing with these families is making a measurable difference to the outcomes they're achieving.


Are they more likely to finish school? Are they more likely to go into a job because of the support we give them? For me, achieving meaningful and life-changing outcomes is the essence of the actions we take. And when people support our work, they want to know we're delivering on that. I think we are now an organisation ensuring that's what we're delivering.


Sadly however, there are still so many children in our community experiencing the effects of poverty on their educational outcomes. Much more needs to be done to break that cycle of intergenerational poverty. Judy Barraclough – The Smith Family’s current Head of Strategy and Philanthropy will become Acting CEO after my departure. I feel sure that Judy will be as focused on this as I was.


Launching the Joyspreaders Scholarship


ANZ has made a seed donation to launch the ‘Joyspreaders Scholarship’ in recognition of Lisa’s contributions to The Smith Family and the sector over the past ten years.


The Joyspreaders were a group of group of people that used to act on The Smith Family’s behalf to support children and were integral to The Smith Family in the early days of the organisation.



Compounding challenges for families living in disadvantage

The Smith Family highlights concerns around the impact of COVID-19 on students and families experiencing poverty.

Pandemic exposes digital divide

Dr Lisa O’Brien, Chief Executive Officer of The Smith Family shares her views on the long-lasting effects COVID-19 will have on vulnerable children in Australia.

Keep going, keep strong: breaking the cycle of poverty

We asked The Smith Family’s CEO, Dr Lisa O’Brien, about how COVID-19 has impacted young Australians already living in poverty.