A leader in best-practice service delivery with a culture of innovation worthy of emulating, the Inspire Foundation has also discovered the key to funding sustainability. Liz Henderson reports.

A leader in best-practice service delivery with a culture of innovation worthy of emulating, the Inspire Foundation has also discovered the key to funding sustainability. Liz Henderson reports.

At a time when sustainability is the holy grail of most charities, the Inspire Foundation is truly inspirational. Last year, during the worst financial crisis since the Depression, this nonprofit with just 40 staff achieved a 33% income growth year-on-year – 40% of which came from corporates.

In just three years, its annual revenue has nearly doubled from $2.21 to $4.41 million. Their secret? A unique and increasingly pervasive philosophy of inclusion that is turning stakeholders – from the young people they support, to corporate partners – into the staunchest of allies.

Young people have always been front and centre for Inspire. The organisation had its beginnings in late 1992 when founder Jack Heath’s young cousin took his own life on a farm in north-eastern Victoria. Heath, an advisor to then Prime Minister Paul Keating, had been introduced to the embryonic internet while working on the Creative Nation policy. Amazed by its immediacy of response, he envisioned using this new technology to combat rising youth suicide rates.

The Power of Youth and Participation

The Inspire Foundation was formally established in 1996. Now each year around 360,000 young people engage with Inspire’s innovative online programs including Reach Out and Act Now, which in 2008 attracted 1.9 million unique visitors. These programs aim to reduce youth suicide and improve young people’s mental health and wellbeing, with the ultimate mission of helping them live happier lives. Since evidence shows consumer-led health services are more effective, young people themselves help design and deliver services.

In February 2008, Inspire took their all-in approach one big, bold step further by encouraging direct involvement from their entire stakeholder community. A group of around 120 – including donors, partners, policy makers, board members and young people – were invited to help set the organisation’s direction to 2020 at a mass three-day strategic planning session in Sydney called the All Inspired Summit. The result was much more than a punchy five-page roadmap to the future.

This novel initiative has magnified Inspire’s capacity to fund the plan’s chief goal – to grow and impact 1 million young Australians by 2012 in response to escalating need. About 26% of Australians aged 16 to 24, or one in four, experience a mental health disorder.

“It speaks to the power of participation,” says chief executive officer Kerry Graham; “letting people into your organisation to help define your future.”

“All those people in the room were part of coming up with the dream, then coming up with the very concrete steps we needed to bring that vision to life, including the resource generation model.”

“For the first time ever, we had a whole lot of ambassadors who were wedded to the success of that plan, who were prepared to open their networks to us, open their wallets to us and lend us their expertise to make it come to fruition.”

“The second thing we had was a well-articulated journey that allowed us to engage with our existing donor base differently and a new donor base altogether.”

“When we took that plan to our community who had not been at the event, they read it and went: ‘That’s incredible.’ They were moved by the story of where we were going.”

Inspiring CEO and Board

This enthusiasm was something Graham observed firsthand. The trained lawyer, who spent 15 years working with children and young people before joining Inspire in 2007, personally meets many donors and prospects – from individuals to government and business representatives. She is the primary relationship holder with high net worth individuals. Fundraising strategy, planning and implementation forms about 60% of her workload. “We are very personal in our approach,” she notes. “We try to meet prospective donors face to face, or [talk] by phone.”

Inspire’s six board members are also heavily involved in making supporter approaches. “Our board has vast networks across many aspects of community, government and business in Australia,” says Graham. “When members are connected in some way to prospective donors they do make approaches on behalf of Inspire.”

“We are grateful for this help and regard it as critical to our success,” she adds. “Obviously personal connections make a big difference when you’re trying to make contact with someone who may never have heard of your organisation and the work you do.”

Fundraising Through Relationships

Before the All Inspired Summit, Inspire’s model for fundraising was based on one-on-one relationships. Colleagues and friends of Jack Heath, now executive director, were the first to catch his passion for the cause and their wholehearted backing has continued through the organisation’s 11 years. One such connection was with Microsoft, another with the Macquarie Group (then Macquarie Bank). Both have become pivotal corporate partners.

By bringing stakeholders together, the Summit harnessed their combined power and took their engagement to new heights – with outstanding results. As Graham puts it, “It’s unlocked sustainable funding for us. For the first time we were able to approach lots of different types of funders – individuals, corporates, trusts and foundations – who actually funded us to implement the plan.”

“For example we had the Australian Stock Exchange fund us to improve our financial systems, because we had made that a critical improvement project. People took small projects saying: ‘You know what, you’re never going to get funding for that from someone who’s not been part of this process, and we understand that it’s critical.’”

Lotterywest Kicks in Major Donation

Perhaps the most notable success to date has been winning a grant of more than $758,000 from Lotterywest to roll out the strategic plan in Western Australia. This was made possible because fired-up Summit participants from the state went home and formed their own local Inspire community. In a year and a half it has already grown to the point that Inspire could forge collaborative relationships with key organisations in Western Australia and apply for state funding.

Appealing Efficiency

Cost-efficiencies are another strong motivator for funders. One key milestone of the strategic plan was determining the cost to consumer ratio. It costs just $11.50 for one young person to access Inspire’s programs for one year. The ratio of fundraising costs to income is also low at 4.3%, compared with the industry average of 20%.

While web-based service delivery helps keep costs down, the loyal commitment of supporters has contributed immensely, along with Inspire’s willingness to grab opportunities. One example Graham gives is the assistance from Corporate Evolution, the consultancy firm that led the All Inspired Summit. Another is a partnership with Razor Media, a media buyer, which began through a staff contact and has been nurtured through staff changes over the years.

“The last financial year we spent $90,000 on a campaign to get our flagship program out to young people,” she says. “Razor leveraged that to $1.9 million of media spend. Year on year they amplify our impact 10 times over, and they’ve been doing that for 10 years.”

“When you’re constantly trying to innovate – and you have to, to engage young people – you really value other people’s input. So when Razor came along we bent over backwards to jump at that opportunity. That has now grown to a partnership that’s driven up our awareness to 55% of young Australians knowing about us.”

What’s next?

The next move for Inspire is emphasising community fundraising. To Inspire this means more than the conventional sense of the term. Although it encompasses fundraising events held by supporters – which last year accounted for 7% of Inspire’s annual income – it also refers to a broader notion of building communities to help the organisation fundraise strategically.

The first regular giving program, future fund and bequest programs have either recently been implemented or are about to, and are crucial to raise the money needed to help triple the number of people by 2010.

Income increases are funnelled into service expansion, and Inspire’s reach and impact is already widening. Inspire launched in America in mid-September last year, and in Ireland in October. Independently funded, these new entities are sharing their Australian forerunner’s intellectual property, content, strategy and brand to enhance the organisation’s scope to assist young people.

Now as always, Inspire’s future relies on partners and community supporters. The generosity that has been central to their accomplishments will be even more important as their journey continues.