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March 7, 2015

Be better tomorrow – the AIME approach to caring for staff

In a sector dedicated to supporting others, how do we take care of the carers? For AIME supporting its staff is central to how it goes about helping to close the gap in Indigenous education.

In a sector dedicated to supporting others, how do we support those on the front line? How do we ensure that our staff are happy, fulfilled and productive? How do we take care of the carers?

One organisation making strong inroads in this is the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME). In 2013 the charity was ranked 26th in BRW’s Best Places to Work in Australia; the only non-profit organisation to make the list that year and the first ever Indigenous organisation to make the top 50.

The journey to establish AIME as a great place to work began in 2005, when 25 Indigenous and non-Indigenous students from the University of Sydney walked down the road to a local high school in Redfern to meet with 25 Indigenous students.

Ten years on, AIME is the biggest provider of educational support in the Indigenous space and one of the largest volunteering organisations in Australia. AIME operates at 18 universities and is on track to connect 4,500 mentees with 1,600 mentors this year.

It’s about enabling people to be that little bit better tomorrow.

Most importantly, kids in the program are bucking the trend: in 2013, the Year 9 to university progression rate for AIME students was 22.1 per cent – nearly six times the national Indigenous average of 3.8 per cent and approaching the national non-Indigenous average of 36.8 per cent. Across Years 9-12, completion rates are almost on par with non-Indigenous students[1].

By 2018, the organisation seeks to reach 10,000 Indigenous kids across Australia and have 3,500 university students as mentors each year.

Jack Manning BancroftJack Manning Bancroft: “The AIME Team” – and the dynamics within that team – is a top priority.

AIME’s CEO, Jack Manning Bancroft, was 19 years old when he and 25 uni mates started down the road. Today, Manning Bancroft stands at the helm of a 92-stong staff body. Fifty-one per cent of AIME’s staff identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. That rate is higher among AIME’s 31 casual staff, 77 per cent of whom are Indigenous.

Manning Bancroft says “The AIME Team” – and the dynamics within that team – is a top priority.

“It’s about enabling people to be that little bit better tomorrow, and one of the ways we do that is to keep things fresh – to set the agenda, know the formula and then shake it up. It’s not uncommon for us to have performance meetings at the beach or café, or to have people hooking into a video conference from seven locations across the country.”

AIME has always been driven by the idea that if the people running the program are well supported, then they will be doing the best they can for our volunteer mentors, who will then support the kids to be the best they can.

Since the early days, AIME’s approach to staff engagement has been underscored by a philosophy of ‘Building Australia’s future leaders’.

“AIME has always been driven by the idea that if the people running the program are well supported, then they will be doing the best they can for our volunteer mentors, who will then support the kids to be the best they can,” says Hannah Donaldson, Director of People and Performance.

It’s this philosophy that stands at the crux of AIME, and it supports the firm belief its staff share in the power of mentoring. Manning Bancroft is often heard to say, “For every step forward that you take in life, you throw a hand back to bring someone with you.”

Building the organisational culture

AIME has four fairly frank values that guide its organisational culture: do your job, be relentlessly positive, have fun, and don’t be a d*ckhead. While the last line may jar for some, these principles are strongly embraced by the team and together they drive a culture of positivity, enthusiasm and openness.

It’s about empathy. You’ve got to think through your actions and consider those around you; your colleagues and your presence in the community.

“If people can follow those four values, they’re going to have a pretty special career to look back on at AIME,” says Manning Bancroft. “We’ve invited a lot of staff feedback around this piece, and that’s given rise to a host of new initiatives.”

“This year for example we’re trialling regional AIME Institutes so that the team can run the show at their own sites. It’s using the model that’s worked for the past nine years – bringing the team to one location for dedicated learning and development over a number of days – but enabling the sessions to be tailored to the local needs of staff at that site.”

For Amy Priestly, AIME’s Research Director based in Redfern, the culture is very inclusive. “It’s about empathy. You’ve got to think through your actions and consider those around you; your colleagues and your presence in the community. Everyone’s very supportive of each other.”

The organisation is committed to flexible working arrangements, such as working from home options for long-serving staff and creative meeting spaces.

Across the country, AIME’s offices have a distinct look and feel. Walk into AIME’s headquarters at the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence in Redfern for example, and you’ll find no permanent desks; multi-coloured hot-desking and lockers are the norm, alongside break-out areas decked out with bean bags, standing desks and even a London style red phone box for staff to make quiet phone calls.

Doing the job well

Of course, staff need the skills and resources to perform effectively in their roles. This can be a challenge for even the most established of organisations.

After ten years, AIME is well down that path.

“In a rapidly growing organisation it takes time to develop the right structures, processes and procedures so that people can focus on the job at hand,” says Donaldson.

“These days we have specific systems to handle a lot of our internal processes. Our staff involved in program delivery use a video learning portal to share videos and tips about how to capture the kids’ attention with powerful storytelling. Our managers connect on a monthly basis to unpack what’s working and isn’t working across different teams, and to take a high level view at what it means to be a great manager.”

Caring for staff: the initiatives

AIME has instigated various initiatives to help foster a positive culture and ensure its staff not only do the job well, but can develop professionally and personally.

Some of these initiatives include:

  • AIME Institutes
  • Mentoring
  • Dedicated leave
  • Dr Happy
  • Reward structure.

AIME Institute

Commonly referred to as ‘AI’, the AIME Institute has become a bastion of the organisational calendar. The initiative harks back to 2009, when a small contingent of staff began gathering at the University of Sydney to transfer ideas and experiences about program development and delivery.

Hannah DonaldsonHannah Donaldson: “The learning emphasises how to get the most out of yourself…”

These days the team gathers in Sydney twice a year. Sessions are delivered by staff, and past workshops have been hosted by representatives of AIME’s corporate partners, including Google, Atlassian, Virgin Australia and the Coca-Cola Australia Foundation. While the content of sessions varies depending on the needs of the organisation and its team, one thing remains the same: learning and development goes hand-in-hand with team building. In recent years staff have taken part in a scavenger hunt, karate and yoga lessons, and various other team building experiences run by Hidden Door.

“The first stage of learning and development focuses on building the capacity and skills that our staff need to do the job, and do it well,” says Donaldson.

The learning emphasises how to get the most out of yourself, and how to work with the people around you in the most effective way.

Today AIME Institutes are more holistic. Many sessions focus on how to look after yourself physically and emotionally, maintain your energy, work better as part of a team and be productive and happy.

“The learning emphasises how to get the most out of yourself, and how to work with the people around you in the most effective way,” says Donaldson.

Darren BradyDarren Brady: “AIME gives and gives, and as staff, we transfer it to the mentors, and they transfer it to the kids.”

For example, at the most recent AIME Institute in January, a representative from Google led a session called ‘5 steps to kick-starting your productivity’.

Currently all staff including casuals participate in up to 14 days learning and development.

“The professional development at the AIME Institutes is a huge gift to staff. It benefits me not just in my role, but outside work,” says Darren Brady, AIME’s Queensland Program Director based in Brisbane. “AIME gives and gives, and as staff, we transfer it to the mentors, and they transfer it to the kids. It’s what Jack calls the ripple effect.”

Mentoring

As an organisation whose business is mentoring, AIME staff practice what they preach.

Mentoring is a tool; a chance to build the capacity of mentor and mentee alike, so that each is stronger from the relationship.

“We see mentoring as a chance to return to that era where people talked and explored ideas,” says Manning Bancroft. “We learned from the model that has seen Indigenous people in Australia become the oldest continuous culture in the world.”

“Mentoring is a tool; a chance to build the capacity of mentor and mentee alike, so that each is stronger from the relationship. The idea to extend mentoring to our staff made perfect sense: it worked for the kids, it worked for the uni students, it would work for our staff.”

In 2011, Manning Bancroft individually partnered each staff member with a mentor from his network. Now that the AIME team is nearly tipping 100, staff are supported to reach out to their own professional and personal mentors.

Sam RefshaugeSam Refshauge: “We try to make sure all staff are surrounded by mentors and coaches.”

“Mentoring is what drives our program, and we try to make sure all staff are surrounded by mentors and coaches who can share their experiences and support their growth and development,” says Sam Refshauge, AIME’s outgoing General Manager. “Personally, Jack has connected me with eight mentors over the past four years.”

Dedicated leave

To support staff to develop themselves and their skills, AIME introduced extra leave opportunities. The offer includes up to one week of Study and Development Leave (for courses, study or extra-curricular interests), three days of Cultural Leave (to learn about your own culture or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture), and one day of Legend Leave (to work with a charity or community initiative of your choice).

It’s a chance to pursue other things that are going to make me happy.

Brady has taken up the Cultural and Study and Development Leave every year over his four years with AIME. “I’ve used my leave for personal development, specifically to build relationships with people in the music industry so that I can take the next step with my music career. It’s a chance to pursue other things that are going to make me happy.”

Chief Happiness Officer

Dr Tim Sharp is one of Australia’s leading psychologists and founder and Chief Happiness Officer of the Happiness Institute. Since mid 2014, Sharp has also been working with AIME as its Chief Happiness Officer.

Affectionately known as Dr Happy, Sharp runs a tailor-made ‘happiness session’ at each AIME Institute. Past themes have covered ‘staying motivated in the off-season’ and ‘bringing the real you to work’. Sharp also works with a different team each month, contributes articles to AIME’s internal newsletter, and responds to individual staff enquiries via the organisation’s intranet. Four scholarship positions are also available for intensive coaching with Sharp, with the recipients decided by the senior leadership team.

The risk with that is burnout. They do love it but other parts of their life can be put in jeopardy or ignored.

Sharp’s definition of happiness is important: it’s not just about the joy, the fun and laughter (although he says these are often underestimated); it’s about doing work with meaning and purpose, having quality relationships, being physically healthy, and having a sense of optimism that what you do will lead to a better outcome. It also incorporates having the ability to use your strengths.

“If you put all of that together there are benefits to being happy both for individuals and for organisations,” says Sharp. “Many of these qualities are easy to see in an organisation like AIME.”

However, he sees two particular risks for AIME: the challenges of rapid growth and the assumption that when people are passionate about what they do, they’ll automatically be happy.

The risk with that is burnout, he says. “They do love it but other parts of their life can be put in jeopardy or ignored.

“While we want people at AIME to put in as much as they can, they still need to attend to their physical health and wellbeing and their other relationships.”

Sharp is incorporating some positive psychology principles to address these risks.

AIME cares about my wellbeing and that feeds back into my work. I really value that.

One of the staff members currently participating in the one-to-one sessions with Sharp is Amy Priestly.

Having had a tough time personally last year, Priestly accepted one of the four scholarships for intensive coaching with Sharp over six months. “I feel very supported,” says Priestly. “The company is making an investment in me and my future. AIME cares about my wellbeing and that feeds back into my work. I really value that.”

Reward structure

The AIME Award wage and salary structure provides transparent salary and bonus progression. AIME has developed wage incentives for ‘loyalty’ or longevity with the organisation. The bonus grows year by year.

At the end of year staff catch up, awards and gift vouchers are given for stand-out performances as Best Internal Communicator, Most Reliable, Most Improved, The Resilience Award, Above and Beyond Award and Outstanding Performer.

The most important goal is that staff are invested in AIME and its strategic goals.

Measuring the impact of these initiatives

Why does AIME put such a high value on staff wellbeing?

As Donaldson says, the most important goal is that staff are invested in AIME and its strategic goals. “AIME’s whole premise is that a supported, satisfied and happier person is a person who is empowered and committed to be the best that they can be.”

“We also believe that if staff feel supported and cared for, they’ll be able to sustain their work for longer and therefore be able to support more kids through school and into uni, employment or further education,” says Donaldson.

AIME tracks staff turnover for full time and casual staff. For the last three years, full time staff retention has been 83 per cent. Retention of casual staff has markedly increased from 12 per cent in 2011-12 to 78 per cent in 2014-15. Donaldson attributes this to AIME better connecting the casual workforce with the rest of the organisation, including involving these employees in AIME Institutes.

Assessing staff engagement is the other way that AIME tracks the success of these initiatives. After each AIME Institute, surveys are conducted to gauge how each training session was received, and whether employees felt that it contributed to their capacity to do their job.

AIME also invites staff to contribute to an annual ‘What’s your job’ survey, which focuses on what skills employees would like to develop and whether they have the necessary support to excel in their roles.

From little things

AIME’s growth is impressive. But behind the story of 4,500 Indigenous high school students and 1,600 university student mentors are nearly 100 staff who will drive the program’s success this year. The culture of high expectations, positivity and empathy, and the initiatives to support staff will make the journey much smoother.

While unique in its purpose and culture, AIME’s approach yields lessons for other organisations. Its story shows that staff wellbeing is central to organisational strategy. Indeed, thriving staff are the lifeblood of any effective organisation.


SVA and AIME

SVA has supported AIME through the venture philanthropy model of funding and business support since 2009. Within this partnership, SVA Consulting has provided strategy development, operational support, SROI analyses, program logic, measurement and evaluation and mentoring support.


Endnotes

[1] AIME Annual Report 2013


If you’d like to know more, contact Karen on kprout@socialventures.com.au

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