Save the Children Australia and Hands on Learning Australia are joining forces to prevent disengaged children from dropping out of school.
The merger, announced Monday, will see the work of Victorian-based Hands on Learning expanded across Australia with the aim of improving educational and life outcomes for vulnerable young people.
Save the Children CEO Paul Ronalds told Pro Bono News the merger would address the “burning need” for this kind of program.
A recent study by the Centre for International Research on Education Resources found the rate of Australian school students finishing Year 12 is in decline with one in four young people dropping out.
Ronalds said Save the Children would facilitate the expansion of the program, in which two “artisan teachers” work with 10 children one day out of the classroom every week.
“Hands on Learning have got a tremendous program that’s running currently in 65 schools in Victoria, but when we look at the national statistics, we have 80,000 students around Australia who are failing to finish Year 12 or a vocational equivalent,” Ronalds said.
“So while the Hands on Learning program is fantastic and it’s doing a great job in those 65 schools, we have a burning need for this program to be rolled out nationally.
“That’s what’s at the heart of this merger… [leveraging] a capability, and particularly a national footprint, that Save the Children has to take what is a fantastic Victorian program… national so that it can actually go much closer to helping those 80,000 kids each year.”
Since 2008, Hands on Learning has helped more than 7,500 disengaged Victorian students stay at school.
Executive director Cameron Wiseman said the merger would scale the program’s impact, particularly within remote and economically disadvantaged communities.
“Right now, only a fraction of the number of students who could benefit from HOL are doing so,” Wiseman said.
“Together we can leverage our joint expertise and our local knowledge to support more young people to stay at school. We can also consolidate funding efforts and have greater influence on government policy and the systems that support children.
“It’s a real win-win situation.”
Ronalds said the merger developed from an introduction to Wiseman nine months ago.
“One of our mutual funders introduced us, which is actually an interesting way that philanthropy can play quite a significant role in terms of connecting organisations that they both fund and support to actually look for ways to increase the impact,” he said.
“It was an opportunity for me to learn more about what their program was. I met with Cam, really liked the program, and he shared with me their desire to actually take this Hands on Learning program national.
“But the fact is they thought, on their current infrastructure and run rate, they just didn’t have the capabilities to do that.
“And essentially out of that early conversation, that merger developed as the most natural way for the two organisations to have a much bigger impact on this 80,000 student problem.”
When the merger takes place on 1 April the 12 Hands on Learning staff, separate from the organisation’s teachers, will move to the Save the Children office, and the program will be a stand-alone unit within Save the Children’s Australian work.
“From there we will look to leverage our national footprint. Save the Children now works in every state and territory and in more than 200 locations,” Ronalds said.
“So we’ll look to [expand] that Hands on Learning program, particularly into Queensland and Tasmania in the first instance, but we’ll see where state governments are willing to partner with the combined entity to address the problem that we’ve identified.”
Ronalds has been a passionate advocate for both mergers and greater collaboration in the not-for-profit sector.
The Hands on Learning merger is Save the Children’s second merger in as many years.
In May 2015, the charity merged with Good Beginnings Australia with the aim of supporting disadvantaged children and their families through early childhood development programs.
Ronalds said the merger allowed them to scale impact as well as generate significant financial savings.
He said Save the Children would “absolutely” consider future mergers if the right opportunity arose.
“There’s 600,000 not for profits in Australia, there’s more than 50,000 charities. My view is that there is just too many charities with too many overheads chasing too few dollars, and we really need to look at situations, where it makes sense, and it’s not always… for organisations to come together and use their shared infrastructure,” he said.
“And I think this is a really good example of it. Hands on Learning could have tried to replicate Save the Children’s national footprint at huge costs, and take probably decades to do that.
“I think that’s a terrific recipe that I would encourage other organisations to follow.”
But Ronalds also said there were other ways to increase impact while saving money.
“The danger here is we’ll see mergers as being the only way to increase collaboration, it’s not,” he said.
“Save the Children’s new offices in Carlton for example, we purposely took an extra floor on our building so we could actually bring in like-minded organisations where we would work together.
“So Oaktree Foundation, which is a youth-based international aid and development agency, are now co-locating with us. And that has huge opportunities for us to do common campaigning on international aid and development issues.
“It’s not a merger, it’s just a co-location with some strategic cooperation going on, but another example of a way to actually make one plus one equal three.
“Mergers are a great solution in the right circumstances, but my view is actually there needs to be a lot more collaboration across the sector so that we’re actually using what are very scarce resources in a much more effective way than we currently are.”