Aiming high – what it takes
What the Indigenous student mentoring organisation, AIME Mentoring’s CEO, Jack Manning Bancroft can teach us about founding and scaling a social purpose organisation and the philanthropy needed. Jack talks to SVA’s Dave Williams.
In a decade spent across Africa and Latin America in international development I saw first-hand many isolated new ideas, programs, enterprises. However they lacked a real grasp of the deeper issues preventing local communities from creating their own futures.
Although appealing, the notion of the single, disrupting organisation or individual bringing about deep, systemic change hides the complexity of the problems they are dealing with. It takes an extraordinary individual or organisation to drive change in this way. So, is it time to close the chapter on the ‘lone disruptor’ model of social change at scale? Perhaps not – take the case of AIME Mentoring (AIME).
Since the first group of 25 kids in 2005, 15,000 Indigenous high schoolers and 5,000 university student mentors have now participated in the AIME program. The results are impressive: the kids mentored through AIME have ‘closed the gap’ relative to non-Indigenous kids – heading into jobs, training or university at a rate of over 75% for the last six years. Also, AIME states that it is the largest volunteer movement of university students in Australian history, surely contributing to a more reconciled future for the country. Among its boosters are Sir Richard Branson and the ex-Commonwealth Bank of Australia CEO, Ian Narev, who described AIME as one of the most impressive start-up stories he had seen in Australia.
AIME has recently set its sights on global expansion and is mapping a path to reaching millions of kids. It seems AIME is a social purpose organisation with a proven solution which is now scaling to reach its target youth population and more. The organisation even has a larger-than-life founder, Jack Manning Bancroft.
What might the AIME experience tell us about social change, venture philanthropy, inspirational founders and scaling impact? We sat down with Jack as he shared his advice and insights for those starting up a social purpose organisation and the philanthropists that support them.
The AIME office environment in Redfern is friendly and inviting when we arrive for the interview. Everyone makes a point of saying ‘hi’. We wait while Jack tends to his busy schedule. Suddenly, the lights are on and the production crew ready in the makeshift AIME recording studio. Its backdrop is a beautiful beach with, seen from afar, a tiny figure of a surfer in the shallows board in hand, looking out at the ocean before him.
It is fair to say Jack is a no bull**** guy, and styles-himself as such. Being true to that style, here are Jack’s top pointers.
Look for those metrics and numbers. Yes, it’s challenging… but there’s numbers in everything we do.
Advice for philanthropists
Recognise that what you are asking for is often impossible, at least in the short term, but ask anyway
Social purpose start-ups face a paradox. In Jack’s words: “Almost every major funding grant over $100,000 says, ‘Are you national? Have you been running for six years? What’s your evidence base?’
“How do you get an evidence base and survive six years unless you have funding?”
However, philanthropists need something more than a charismatic founder saying ‘trust me’. Recognising and accepting the inherent risk of social purpose start-ups is part of the answer.
Then, Jack urges philanthropists and supporters to “look for those metrics and numbers. Yes, it’s challenging to the people on the other side but there’s numbers in everything we do.”
This might seem contradictory. The reconciled message could be: it is challenging for an early stage social purpose organisation to know and communicate what outcomes are being achieved. However, with the encouragement of supporters, they should think about outcomes and impact and try to capture them as best as is practicable.
[A recent SVA Quarterly article discusses the benefits of identifying and capturing outcomes, and how to adopt an outcomes-focused approach.]
We have to have endpoint destinations for what we’re trying to do. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Advice for people starting up a social purpose organisation
Find a way to change something otherwise sit on the sidelines and support the people that are
Jack makes it very clear, you need to identify and define your organisation’s purpose. And that includes: make sure no one else is doing what you have in mind.
Concerning purpose, Jack insists that you have to imagine what future success will look like, “We have to have endpoint destinations for what we’re trying to do. Otherwise what’s the point?”
AIME provides a lesson in purpose and its definition. The change that AIME targets is to bring about parity between Aboriginal kids and non-Aboriginal kids in both school completion and positive post-school pathways. Yet underlying this is a fundamental purpose about raw youth empowerment. “My job is to say to any kids that we work with, ‘I want you to understand that the world is limitless. That your potential is limitless, and that your imagination is limitless.’”
This is what drove Jack to start AIME and then to take AIME global in 2017: “I don’t want smaller worlds, smaller operating minds and smaller thinkers.”
Jack’s other point is to ask yourself ‘is someone else already doing this?’ Given a 2010 Productivity Commission estimate of nearly 600,000 not-for-profit organisations in Australia, this seems sensible. Surely, any budding founder can identify at least one organisation amongst these that is doing something similar to what they had planned? Possibly.
However, entrenched social issues exist because the current approaches are failing to reach and empower all people and communities to overcome their challenges. So this requires new thinking and positive disruption, which speaks to the need for the ‘fresh eyes’ of a new organisation.
Having said that, the counsel to think hard about why the world needs another social purpose organisation is wise, especially coming from a charismatic founder who personifies self-confidence and maverick spirit.
Jack moves to the more prosaic, advising to get a lawyer and a board of directors as quick as you can. In his 2017 book, The Mentor, he thanks a diverse and impressive list of his own mentors.
As Michael Traill, the founding CEO of Social Ventures Australia, observed, “Jack was always quite honest and self-aware about identifying the skills that he thought AIME needed that he might not necessarily have.”
“It was Jack’s ability to harness a network of high quality supports, both individuals and organisations around AIME” that led to surefooted growth in the early days.
Jack’s first formal mentor was Greg Hutchinson, who has a long history of supporting the Australian non-profit sector as well as a 30 plus-year career at Bain & Company.
Following a period when Jack had been sliding towards emotional isolation, Greg offered him a unique opportunity: a self-reflective coaching experience. It was a turning point, and a lesson to all those who want to change the world, to identify and engage people who can share the load.
Don’t do it unless you have to because it sucks. This ain’t a glorious pursuit. It’s really, really hard.
Know (and back) yourself
Jack speaks confidently to the importance of self-awareness, central to the AIME approach with kids. Above all, he says knowing yourself is the first tenet for a start-up entrepreneur, although he admits that it came relatively late to him.
“You need to know your identity and your sense of why you’re in this, of who you are, of what you think your purpose is on the planet and how that completely aligns with your value systems. If that doesn’t check out you’ll get found out.”
He throws a bucket of cold water on those thinking of starting a social purpose organisation. “Don’t do it unless you have to because it sucks. This ain’t a glorious pursuit. It’s really, really hard.”
He describes his own journey of self-discovery with refreshing vulnerability: the pressure to be perfect, living up to his Young Australian of the Year award, before becoming more comfortable in his own skin.
He also tells of the tension at the heart of what he has created – his Aboriginal identity and the University of Sydney Indigenous student scholarship that led to his AIME destiny.
For the chance, Jack was willing to bargain, and follow through on, a lifelong commitment to a social cause: “If you give me this scholarship… I want to put back. If I do anything in life, I want to do something big.”
Easily said perhaps, but with that Jack set up an unpayable debt. He stoked a fire in himself, already lit with the strength of his ancestors, to roaring thanks to the struggle with his own Aboriginal identity.
And so, Jack would forever fear others thinking that he “took his Aboriginality for a ride by getting that scholarship to university”.
Jack’s wager might seem reckless and unwinnable at first, at least from my own path to social causes coming from a context of safe privilege with little expectation about what I achieve and commendation at every step for what I’ve given up.
With Jack, he’s all in. He’s wagered everything: borrowing from friends to get AIME up and running, devoting a full 13 years of his life to the organisation, recently dropping $10,000 of his own savings to expand AIME to Australian African youth in Melbourne. And he admits that at times he’s been “almost at breaking point and beyond zero in the petrol tank”.
Our board of directors and staff have easily been the most confronting set of audiences I’ve had to face.
But no matter how successful AIME is, will Jack ever believe that he has settled the debt? Unprompted, he suggests, “I think after working with 15,000 Indigenous kids I’ve probably repaid that scholarship”.
Jack’s ongoing reckoning is apparent in his justifying taking AIME global (initially to the US, South Africa and Uganda) when the job in Australia is unfinished. He was challenged including by some of AIME’s staff who “seriously questioned my commitment to Aboriginal people”.
“That was pretty hard… that people couldn’t see that going around the world doesn’t mean we care less about Aboriginal kids.”
Jack believes: “they can operate together.” Putting that case has been his journey for the last couple of years. “Our board of directors and staff have easily been the most confronting set of audiences I’ve had to face.”
Yet any self-doubt, let alone others’ doubt, melts in the face of how completely Jack backs himself. His steadfast self-confidence draws from his self-awareness and the limitless “strength of generations and generations of our ancestors” as his mother, successful artist, Bronwyn Bancroft put it once when encouraging Jack at a tough time.
The world’s longest continuous culture standing with you must be an unequalled ally.
Under-promise and over-deliver.
What did you wish you knew?
To the question, ‘What do you wish someone had told you as you were starting AIME?’, Jack pauses for the first time during the interview. Then he answers: “under-promise and over-deliver”. Having just heard Jack talk to global ambition, I doubt the younger Jack would have listened.
“Have fun, man”. And with that, the interview is over.
One of the videographer’s explained that the studio backdrop is a beach in Bulli, where Jack spends time.
On his way out, Jack confirms that he still hasn’t conquered his goal of learning to surf. He doesn’t have time, especially now he and his partner are expecting their first child. Notwithstanding, he cuts a confident frame, advancing into the ocean.
 Top banker Ian Narev funds novel Indigenous succession plan,Australian Financial Review, Dec 2015, http://www.afr.com/brand/chanticleer/top-banker-ian-narev-funds-novel-indigenous-succession-plan-20151125-gl7pp3