On 26 June Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a re-elected Coalition Government would provide $48 million over four years to The Smith Family’s successful Learning for Life program.

The funding, which will help an additional 24,000 disadvantaged students improve their educational outcomes, was the result of over two-years’ hard work by the charity’s leadership team: CEO Lisa O’Brien and Head of Research and Advocacy Anne Hampshire, ably supported by Head of Policy and Programs, Wendy Field and a dedicated support staff.

The outcome is a shining exemplar of an adage we at Wells Haslem tell most clients seeking an outcome from governments: it isn’t easy; you need to put a watertight case; you will need to meet with a broad cross-section of MPs, bureaucrats, committees, ministers and advisers and most important of all: be patient.

The Smith Family is a national, independent children's charity helping disadvantaged Australians to get the most out of their education, so they can create better futures for themselves.

The Learning for Life program currently provides 34,000 highly-disadvantaged children across 94 communities in Australia with targeted educational assistance throughout their school years and is having a significantly positive impact on their educational outcomes. 

It provides emotional, practical and financial support to help disadvantaged children and young people with their education. The Smith Family’s support starts in the early years of learning development and continues through primary and high school.

Learning for Life provides long-term support in three ways:

  • Financial: to help families cover core education-related expenses such as books, uniforms and excursions.
  • Practical: A Program Coordinator (The Smith Family staff member) who works with the family and their school to support the young person’s long-term participation in education.
  • Programs: A range of short programs to help a student develop the skills, knowledge, attitudes and behaviours needed for long-term educational participation and success. Programs include literacy and numeracy, learning clubs, mentoring and career activities, as well as digital and financial literacy initiatives for parents.

Its results are outstanding. Since 2012, The Smith Family’s support has enabled over 6,500 disadvantaged young Australians to finish Year 12. In 2015, more than four-in-five (84 per cent) former Learning for Life students were engaged in employment, education or training, a year after leaving the program.

Last financial year The Smith Family raised just over $50 million from individual Australians, corporates, universities and philanthropy to support children and young people on Learning for Life.

When The Smith Family approached Wells Haslem in early 2014, the challenge the organisation faced was that while its brand was likely well recognised in Canberra and State capitals, many MPs and their advisers did not know what the organisation did.

Very few were aware that The Smith Family’s primary focus was helping children break the cycle of disadvantage through improving their educational outcomes. 

Nor were they aware of the partnerships that The Smith Family formed with various stakeholders across the community, from parents, teachers, volunteers, small businesses, major corporates and local governments to develop a whole-of-community approach to helping children break the cycle of disadvantage.

Working closely with Lisa and Anne, Wells Haslem developed a government relations communications strategy to position The Smith Family as a major resource for politicians and advisers seeking information on, and insights into, helping disadvantaged children maximise their educational outcomes.

The Smith Family has a strong research focus, reflecting its strong commitment to evidence-based advocacy.

It regularly produces reports on topics related to disadvantage in Australia and how to better support disadvantaged children, young people and their families.

By meeting with key political stakeholders and providing them with credible, straight-forward information about the economic and social significance of its work, The Smith Family was able to establish strong relationships with governments.

Central to the organisation’s communications was not promoting its own individual interests at the expense of disadvantaged young people.

It focussed on the national benefits of its work, even from local initiatives, relying on an evidence base in all advocacy, be it in meetings or written materials.

This approach over time led to a greater understanding in government of what The Smith Family does and how it could help governments develop better policies to improve educational outcomes and lift people’s standards of living.

During its work, it was crucial for The Smith Family team to position itself as wanting to work with government and not as mendicants asking for the next grant.

As with any good government relations approach, The Smith Family had to operate within the government’s agenda: to improve educational outcomes, boost employment and economic activity, lift the standard of living for disadvantaged Australians, particular those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage; break the cycle of intergenerational welfare dependency and increase parental engagement in children’s education.

Lisa and Anne met with Ministers from a wide range of portfolios relevant to The Smith Family’s work, including Education and Skills; Indigenous Affairs (About 6,000 Learning for Life students are of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background); Employment; Status of Women; Human Services and Social Services.

Other Government MPs with backgrounds or interests in education were also briefed, including backbench policy committees and senior bureaucrats. Meetings were also held with key Labor Opposition members.

The Smith Family advocated that efforts aimed at improving the educational outcomes of disadvantaged young people are most cost effective if they involve balanced long-term support across a young person’s life.  

The Smith Family showed, through its own experience, how a sustained and early intervention approach is far more cost effective than one-off or short term programs for young people, or remedial efforts aimed at preparing adults for the workforce. 

The organisation was also able to show how parental engagement in their child’s learning matters – and how its approach of working closely with parents supported children’s educational achievements.

The Smith Family team had many meetings with various levels of government over more than two years. This hard work and discipline has delivered an outcome that will benefit thousands of disadvantaged families and over the longer term, the Australian community.

But much more needs to be done. The Smith Family will continue to rely on the generous support of its individual and corporate donors.  

If you’d like to donate or sponsor a child, please visit The Smith Family website.