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Reach Out!

Author: Julie Caulier Grice
Published Date: 10 April 2008

In recent decades in Australia, as overall suicide rates were falling, suicide among men aged 15-24 years has more than doubled. There was no change in suicide rates for women in the same age group. In 1995, there were 434 suicide deaths among young people aged 15 – 24 years, accounting for 25 percent of all male deaths and 17 percent of all female deaths in that age group. Australia was among the highest third of countries for which suicide data is published. Further, it is estimated that for each suicide of a young male, there are 15 or more attempts, while for every female suicide, there are more than 100 attempts. Contemporary research also reveals that in an average Year-12 classroom of 30 pupils, seven will have experienced a recognised mental disorder. Of those seven, just two will have sought professional help and at least one will have attempted suicide. Youth suicide rates have declined by 46 percent since Reach Out!’s launch.

Jack Heath was instrumental in formulating the idea behind Reach Out!. In 1992 Heath’s young cousin took his own life on a farm in North Eastern Australia, an event which had a big impact on him and his family. At the time Heath was working as a Senior Adviser to Prime Minister Keating. As part of his work, he was involved in the development of Multimedia Initiatives, which was part of the arts and communication policy statement ‘Creative Nation’. Daniel Petre, Michael Rennie and David Harrington were also heavily involved in the creation of these initiatives. Petre was then head of Microsoft Australia, and Rennie and Harrington were working for management consultants McKinsey and Company. Heath took time off from his work in 1995 to consider his desire to address the increasing problem of youth suicide in Australia. Inspired by the immediacy and power of an online demonstration of Microsoft’s new online developments, and through ongoing discussions with Daniel Petre, he decided to use the Internet to address the need he had identified. Through discussions with Petre, Heath identified the unique potential of the Internet in addressing this issues related to youth depression. Young people could log on to the internet anonymously, post comments and stories and through doing so they could relieve stress and unburden themselves in a safe way.

By using the internet, Reach Out! were breaking new ground. It is only recently that research is beginning to emerge that supports Heath’s initial belief that Reach Out! would be more effective and lower cost than other initiatives aimed at young people with mental health difficulties. This potential was also bolstered by the growing importance of the internet as a resource for young people to turn to for access to information and support. 85 per cent of young people are connected to it and has now become the most preferred source of information and support after friends and family.

In 1996, and with the help of Daniel Petre, $10,000 of seed funding was provided by Microsoft, to fund a prototype of the Reach Out! service. At this point research also showed that 15,000 young people were using the Internet. In late 1996, Paul Guilding, until recently the Head of Greenpeace International, joined Heath, Michael Rennie and Alexandra Yuille in formally establishing what is now the Inspire Foundation. It was also in 1996 that Corrs Chambers Westgarth joined as a pro bono legal partner. The Inspire Foundation was established as a national non-profit organisation with charitable status. It targets young people aged 16-25, aiming to provide opportunities for them to ‘change their worlds’ through three distinct programmes: Reach Out! which “offers information and support for young people to get through tough times”; ActNow which “provides resources and skills to help young people take action on the social issues that affect them and their community”; and Bean Bag a programme that “partners with youth centres around Australia to build social connectedness among disadvantaged young people through technology”. A key part of Inspire’s mission is the involvement of young people themselves in the design and running of the programmes.

In 1997, the proposal for Reach Out! was accepted by the Federal Government of Australia. The Australian Government at that time had made the issue of youth suicide a top priority. While there was a huge amount of community concern about the issue, there was also little evidence about practices that worked to address it. The Government, quite unusually, funded a number of initiatives including Reach Out!, to tackle youth suicide on the understanding that they would be thoroughly evaluated and help create an evidence base for future initiatives to address youth suicide in Australia. This was an adventurous move by Government and Reach Out! credits the Government for contributing to the success of its pilot, which was in many ways significantly ahead of its time in its use of technology to address a social issue.

In a different context, Reach Out!’s technology-based intervention might not have received support from Government, as it was an untested and somewhat risky venture. Reach Out! did not rely purely on government funding. It also secured seed funding from Microsoft. And in 1997, 7,000 young Australians donated to the radio station Triple J’s ‘Real Appeal’, an on-air fundraising appeal. ‘Real Appeal’, an ad hoc partnership, provided a much needed $180,000 of funding and helped raise the profile of Reach Out! among young people early on. Diffusion/scaling up Reach Out! was officially launched in 1998 by the Honourable Warwick Smith, the Australian Minister for Health and Family Services. During the next few years Jonathan Nicholas, Inspire’s Director of Programmes, explains that the business plan went through a number of different reincarnations. In the early days of Reach Out! until around 2001, the initiative’s focus was on entrepreneurial ideas that would keep the momentum of the business going. The team was constantly seeking new, creative and innovative ideas, but acknowledged that at the start the organisation lacked a strategic plan. From 2001 onwards, there was a conscious decision to slow down and take stock of where the organisation was placed and its future direction. The change of pace was partly prompted by a need expressed by funders to understand what the organisation stood for and by the desire among staff to move away from a focus on launching ideas to a focus on building and nurturing their growth.

In 2002, the board decided to re-launch Reach Out! It rejuvenated the website by updating much of the content, and developed a marketing campaign that employed a ‘youth brand’ to target young people directly rather than via their parents or the community. There are a number of factors that Reach Out! claim were important to their successful growth. While State and Federal Governments have provided some ongoing support, Reach Out! has drawn strong financial backing from individual donors, trusts and corporate partners, such as Coca-cola and Macquarie Bank. Reach Out! was helped in this regard by being established at a time when community business partnerships were quite normal and diversified funding was strongly encouraged by Government.

They were further helped by their strong marketing as a ‘cool’ youth brand and attracted considerable corporate funding because partners understood the benefits of technology in connecting with young people. At a time where evidence of effectiveness was still being developed, non-Government supporters often focussed their decision-making around the quality of the team and the idea rather than a long history of service delivery. Early on, the decision was taken to avoid a model that required significant staff costs. As Jonathan Nicholas says: “The number of young people we can reach has never directly related to how many staff we employ. That was a very conscious decision and that was to do with not going down a direct service delivery model”. Initial research uncovered the high costs of offering web-based counselling, and so Reach Out! chose a model of building its infrastructure around promoting the website as the source of a self-help community rather than offering counselling over the web. This meant that when funding fluctuated as it inevitably did, Reach Out! was far less likely to over-extend itself, but could easily take simple measures such as cutting the next advertising spend.

A major early challenge revolved around how to create awareness of the service. This was originally accomplished through Rural and Regional Tours, during which individuals travelled round the country promoting the service to communities in person. This approach was chosen for several reasons. First, it was a more effective way of engaging donors who were better able to understand the need for money to fund a publicity tour, rather than to fund the building of a website. Second, at that time, many parents were weary of the Internet and did not see it as a particularly reassuring context for the service to be working within. The Rural and Regional Tours were somewhat effective in reassuring and educating communities about the Internet and the service.

Reach Out! is a good example of an innovation that had to change people’s attitudes in order to encourage the growth of the service. Now that the Internet is more widely available (with a penetration rate over 80 percent in Australia) the service has moved from something novel and anonymous to becoming an obvious resource for young people. International Expansion Since its inception, the board aimed to take Reach Out! to other countries. In 2003/04 they began searching for other organisations in the US that were taking a similar approach to youth depression. However, they were unsuccessful in finding them, reinforcing their belief that they had been ahead of their time in approaching the issue as they had.

Reach Out! were keen to scope the market before committing to it, and therefore sought and gained funding from within the US for a feasibility study with a non-profit management strategy organisation called The Bridgespan Group. US funding was obtained in order to minimise the risk to the Australian operation. Reach Out! used Bridgespan for the study partly because of their expertise in non-profit organisations, but also because they had a good reputation with US donors. The study was partly an attempt to encourage and convince large foundations in the US to back the venture, as well as to show them that nothing like Reach Out! presently existed in the country, a claim Reach Out! felt would evoke scepticism among foundations without independent verification. Reach Out! chose to create a mutually reinforcing network through international expansion, rather than an ‘export model’ transferred in its entirety to another market. As Jonathan Nicholas, Director of Programmes for Inspire says: “Each local project will have a localised front end that will be customised to the local conditions so it’s not a franchise model, but there is an element to which we share common infrastructure”. Intellectual Property for example, is freely shared between the network. However, Reach Out! is aware that this only works when each of the members feel they are getting more out of what they are doing than they are putting in. This is a dynamic that will need to be managed carefully. Reach Out! intends to make continued use of the expertise at Bridgespan, in particular their experience in Intellectual Property sharing.

Reach Out! has identified cultural differences between the US and Australia as one of its key challenges to diffusion. For example, inter-personal violence is not a major issue in Australia, whereas Reach Out’s research suggests that it is in the US. Issues related to ethnic diversity also vary significantly between the US and Australia. However, Reach Out! believes that the basic processes need to be the same, for example potentially using some elements of the same website, while ensuring that the website content is culturally relevant. To describe the relationship between the two organisations, they use the analogy of two recognisably similar houses that share the same foundations and dimensions, but can have different numbers of rooms and furniture within them.

Reach Out! found that one of the more challenging aspects in scaling up through partnership building was ensuring that their original core values were maintained by the partner organisations. Reach Out! placed specific emphasis on the need for new partners to have a youth involvement model. Reach Out! claims it will not employ anyone that does not share these values and has placed great importance on ensuring that members of the Australian, US and Bridgespan teams meet each other and spend time being assimilated into the know-how and processes of the original organisation. Because of Reach Out!’s emphasis on a core ethic of ‘youth involvement, much of the institutional knowledge is held ‘within the heads’ of the people who have been through the process of expanding and growing the organisation, and this can easily be lost without face-to-face interaction. Reach Out! therefore emphasises the importance of its US partners spending time in Australia to escape the dynamic of the founding organisation visiting and imposing its will over the new one. This same dynamic means that loss of a few key staff could significantly affect the future development of the organisation.