Moments of change often come out of the blue. A phone call in 2014 was one of those moments for me.
My news? The One Young World Summit was coming to Bangkok in 2015, just down the road from our school.
The summit is a massive undertaking, with thousands of attendees from 50-plus countries, who would visit to listen to high-profile speakers evangelising about change-making and positive impact.
Topping the bill for 2015 in Bangkok were Professor Muhammad Yunus – a Nobel prize-winning social change heavy hitter who initiated Grameen, the Bangladesh-based micro-finance bank – and Sir Bob Geldof.
Transforming our international school's charity work
Unfortunately, the delegate cost of this event was around $3,000 (£2,200) and targeted at graduates who work for large corporations. However, I knew what a great opportunity it was for our students.
As such, I did some networking and approached the organisers with a proposal – that they provide access to the event for my sixth-form students (with career aspirations in marketing or social enterprise) in return for them acting as interns and putting their considerable strengths in social media into supporting and publicising the three-day event.
They gave us the green light and we were off.
The students seized the opportunity and did their job brilliantly. Through the process, they took away many messages and teachings – from Professor Yunus demanding that, together, we work towards the “three zeros: zero poverty; zero unemployment and zero net carbon emissions” to Sir Bob calling for action from the young leaders and encouraging them to become fully engaged.
A powerful question
It was clear it made an impact. “Why don’t we do stuff like that at school, Sir?” asked one sixth-form student as we headed home.
It was a good question – one that hit me again when I was back in a very uninspiring staff charity committee meeting.
I realised why so much of what we were doing was wrong – not least the fact that we still had a “charity committee”, which mostly consisted of members of staff who had personal connections with a particular charity.
This encouraged students and parents to support the committee but with little long-term partnering or engagement.
Good work but no direction
We decided to act. The first thing to do was undertake a full-scale review of what students, staff and parents thought about how we were working. The results were clear: most parents, pupils and staff were disengaged with the charity work we did.
Students were fundraising without an understanding of what impact their activities had, and didn’t build any connections or benefit from learning about the lives of those they aimed to serve.
This also meant that staff and students worked in silos on ad-hoc projects with little crossover, preventing real long-term relationships from building between students and their communities.
Because of all this, students lacked a voice and advocacy for their work and any real autonomy, depriving them of decision-making responsibility, which meant that they were not working on the problem-solving and soft skills we expected them to develop.
Changing name, changing focus
So we immediately set out to change things – including getting rid of the name “charity committee” and creating a smaller and more focused “outreach team”.
We realised that the key to the new set-up had to be ensuring that students were linked directly to the work they would be doing and the impact it would have.
To do this, we undertook a full assessment of each relationship with charitable organisations and non-governmental organisations, and decided, pragmatically, to focus on a list of eight outreach partners in the first year, who were on board with our renewed approach.
Outreach teams of staff and prefects then interviewed a group of Year 12 students to lead particular relationships as part of the sixth-form Community Engagement Team (CET). A total of 16 students were selected from 38 applicants.
In pairs, students would then project-manage a particular relationship, mentored by a member of staff and prefect.
Working in collaboration
We also held workshops led by each outreach partner to help create an action plan for how we could best help them in their goals.
An example is our partnership with Action 4 Diabetes (A4D), where working together saw students, in pre-Covid times at least, attend family camps, in locations such as Myanmar and Cambodia, to work alongside local doctors in rural communities where mismanagement of diabetes leads to significant loss of life.
For the pandemic, we had to pivot our approach in order to make some of the same personal connections virtually, such as creating a short film to raise the profile of A4D’s work.
Within the school, each member of the CET is tasked with promotion of actions to help raise awareness and we encourage them to influence and enact community projects, track the meaningfulness of a particular action and measure returns.
We also set key objectives over a two-term action cycle and consider potential challenges. In addition, we pastorally advise CET members around balancing students’ academic and co-curricular commitments.
Students at the heart of what we do
Meanwhile, outreach staff’s role now is to facilitate skills sessions, set up meetings with partners and provide safeguarding checks. CET students (Year 12) lead the actions, with the support of younger peers (Years 7-12) and their mentors (Year 13 and recent alumni).
Putting students at the heart of community engagement fulfilled our promise of student-led engagement and resulted in more funds raised during the global pandemic than ever before.
Why? Because students are driving processes and are fully invested in building relationships. Our generous families see students making time for service hours and are inspired by their actions.
When the effect of the pandemic hit, the prognosis for our outreach partners was bleak: funding faltered, corporate donations dried up.
Yet our students stepped up, putting everything they had learned into practice, and helped to increase funding for every cause.
One such organisation is the Hub Saidek, a drop-in centre for young adults and children who live on the streets near Hua Lamphong Station in Bangkok (run by Childline Thailand).
We visit every Thursday with a group of students and staff, who build relationships with the young people through sharing food and teaching English and art sessions.
A powerful new initiative
Through lockdown and the enforced closure of the facilities, activities continued. Students created “lessons in a box” that could be self-led in the makeshift street camp.
Students have also set up a project to create and sell designer tote bags (through a local art supply chain) to raise further funds.
Overall, it’s clear that freeing our students and enabling their authentic leadership proved a success – something evidenced by the numerous groups that students have set up to raise awareness of issues they feel strongly about: empowering women in the community, planning and teaching Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) lessons at local schools, distributing personal protective equipment or supporting a local community and their monthly street market. All of these activities have focused on taking action and building relationships rather than fundraising.
And all this since we “disbanded” our charity committee.
I implore you to do the same – make it about outreach and putting students in the driving seat. There’s nothing better to witness than young people being able to effect the change they want to see in the world.
Greg Threlfall is head of outreach at Shrewsbury International School. He tweets @MrT_Economics on Twitter and is @OutreachSHB on Instagram