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Starting from the ground up: Lessons learnt from the Mirabel Foundation

Mike Doman
Technology Journalist

Mike Doman is a technology, lifestyle, industrial and education writer

Mike Doman
Technology Journalist

Mike Doman is a technology, lifestyle, industrial and education writer

The Mirabel Foundation has been built from the ground up on the back of hard work and dedication to the cause. We talk with founder Jane Rowe on what small businesses can learn from the not-for-profit sector.

When Australian of the Year nominee Jane Rowe started the Mirabel Foundation, dedicated to helping children orphaned through drug abuse, she didn’t grasp the scale of what she was starting. But now, 17 years later, it’s a multi-million dollar powerhouse in the not-for-profit sector, supporting 1,400 children and getting requests to go national every week.

The secret, she says, lies in a few key areas: having a vision, making the most of resources, and keeping connected. The heart of which lies in the staff.

“The staff are so passionate about what they do. They are so committed in what they’re doing, so they keep themselves motivated. But the ethos of Mirabel is we’re very much a team.”

To uncover the secrets of success, Smarter sat down with Jane to discuss Mirabel’s journey, and what’s made it one of Australia’s most respected and effective not-for-profits.

Adult and child figures against blue sky backdrop

Getting started

Mirabel started in tragic circumstances. Jane, a drug and alcohol counsellor at the time, went to the funeral of a young mum she was counselling. Her son, which the biological family didn’t know about, was surrounded by social workers.

“I lay awake all night thinking of that little boy and what he was going do. I thought maybe we could just do a benefit gig and with the money we raised, we could buy Christmas presents for the kids I knew [that had been] orphaned or abandoned in recent years. And by the Monday… we had a few Australian musicians ready to do a two-night benefit.”

To say the benefit was well-received is an understatement. It was the catalyst for the formation of the Mirabel Foundation.

Having a vision

“I knew what I didn’t want Mirabel to be, but it just took off because of the need.

“We had about three or four months until the gig at the Prince of Wales [the original benefit], to really be clear about who we were going to be. We all knew you couldn’t be everything to everyone and we did very thorough groundwork and very thorough research in that three months leading up to our launch [to establish its vision].”

And the formation of that vision was based on a diverse range of skillsets that could ensure Mirabel was meeting a genuine need in the sector. The 12 founding members included a family court judge, youth workers and musicians, among others.

“Everyone brought a different skill to the table and were able to go away and bring it to fruition. [The skills were] absolutely critical, from the legal side, to the service delivery, to the experience with working with traumatised children to the musicians.

“Those skills, they hold us up today basically.”

Maximising resource

From these humble beginnings, Mirabel grew. Today, its funding is made up of 11 per cent government funding and 89 per cent philanthropy, fundraising and donations.

“We need about $2.2 million a year at this point, to keep going the way we are.

“Mirabel’s catch cry is [that] we’d never turn a child away.

“And so for me on a personal level, it’s that awful fear of ‘if we don’t bring the money in and these numbers keep increasing, what are we going to do?’”

The answer goes back to effective staff, ensuring everyone on the team works together and not spending money on something that can be done in-house.

“I’ve got an amazing board of management [and] the way we’re structured is pretty lean.

“I really believe if we’ve got any spare money it goes in a really skilled staff member for that service delivery, to the kids. So we don’t have fundraisers, we don’t have submission application writers – we still do that ourselves, I still do that."

Getting connected

And for Mirabel to run properly, communication is key. With a team of 25 that can regularly be out on the road in potentially high-risk situations, being contactable in an emergency is critical.

“We’re all reliant on… work mobile phones, and we’ve got, I don’t know how many lines in our offices – all Telstra. The reason being… when [staff are] in remote areas, Telstra’s going to be the most reliable to be able to get coverage.

“If there is a problem, or there is an issue with a young person, it’s critical that they can get a hold of me or if an ambulance is needed, it’s absolutely critical that they’re able to make those calls. Or even if a child is suffering extreme separation anxiety we can ring a grandparent and say ‘look I think you should come and pick them up’. We have to be able to have that communication, to be able to make those calls.”

Mirabel’s operating environment is one that will be familiar to many business owners: one where the future is never certain. With around 90 per cent of their funding coming from donations, they’re heavily reliant on the generosity of Australians to do their work, but through technology, savvy use of resources and the right people, they make a huge difference.

There’s a lesson for everyone in that.

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