Bolder Philanthropy Award 2021

In on the ground floor

Nine years ago, mindfulness and well-being were ideas searching for their time. Technology was vibrant and dynamic, but the ideas we’re so familiar with now, didn’t exist in mainstream discussions in 2012: think Uber. Consider any app that brings a service to your door. How many of those were around in 2012?

And bringing the two notions together – mindfulness and technology? In 2012? Exciting but untested. And for the funder who supported that vision way back then? Well, it’s the very essence of boldness.

But that’s what happened when the founders of Smiling Mind Janey Martino and James Tutton had a vision for a new way of approaching children and youth mental health. Tapping into the appeal and growing popularity of app technology, the pair formulated a resource based on the research to provide a positive preventative approach to mental health and well-being for young people delivered through a simple app. Building resilience for teenagers could be delivered to them directly, via their phone. 

It was not far removed from funding a start-up: speculative and risky perhaps. Except the Gandel Foundation had no qualms: it had funded mental health initiatives in the past and it came in on the ground floor with Smiling Mind. Now, Smiling Mind’s app has 6.6 million users. It’s a success story based on an identification of need among kids, their families, and their teachers.

“It was very new, very innovative,’’ Gandel Foundation CEO Vedran Drakulic recalls. “It was very bold and sometimes those things by definition can be risky but to us, it didn’t feel too much of a risk because it was that whole idea of using technology and targeting young people – that’s a target audience that needs that kind of support – Smiling Mind’s tools were very much evidence-based, and they were taking a pro-active approach to mental health.’’

“It wasn’t reactive, waiting for kids to say: ‘I need help, I’m not feeling well’. In the most simple of terms, it was just put it on your phone, click on it and see how it goes,’’ he said.

 One of the most important early contributions the Gandel Foundation made to Smiling Mind was to fund a curriculum mapping project fundamental to Smiling Mind’s goal of putting mindfulness on the school curriculum. The result was the development of lesson plans that underpinned much of Smiling Mind’s early work. 

Dr Addie Wootton, who has been Smiling Mind CEO since 2015, hails the Gandel Foundation for its commitment to the organization, from the earliest days.

“They’ve been fantastic to work with,’’ she says, “…that ability to take a bit of a risk and back it in those early days - not every philanthropist can do that or wants to do that.’’

Addie explains that Gandel Foundation support had been pivotal in helping the organisation develop its education strategy. 

The nine-year relationship has been multi-faceted and provided on-going reassurance to Gandel that Smiling Mind was evolving, and its early spark of innovation remained bright.

“We’ve had a really strong and continuous relationship in that time – some of them have been multi-year grants, some of them one-off grants,’’ Vedran explained.

 “The key thing is that we’ve seen that they have grown, they have matured, they scaled their programs. And they’re constantly innovating, constantly looking at new things, how they can improve,’’ he said.

“It’s not just about students anymore, it’s about teachers, it’s about families…and that’s what we’ve really enjoyed about this journey with them. They’re quick to move, to add new things into the mix.’’

One of those moments arrived in 2015 when it became clear that demand on the app was outstripping its technical capacity. Addie remembers that in some ways, the app was a victim of its own success.

“About 900,000 had downloaded the app by then,’’ she says. “We were about to crack a million mark and the app wasn’t coping with the extra demand.’’

“There was a particular problem at night - there were periods when lots of families were using the app to get kids off to sleep and establish a healthy bedtime routine,’’ Addie says. The app struggled to keep up. Time for a new version. “So, my job was how are we going to fund the next stage of the app, which was going to cost a lot more than [the original] $25,000,’’ Addie said.

Addie talked to Vedran, who was receptive to the idea. He provided the important guidance and help, directing her to other foundations and other names who were potential supporters. As Addie acknowledged, she is a trained psychologist, not a fundraiser: Vedran guided her through an unfamiliar landscape.

“Vedran is a great mentor in how to position things,’’ Addie says. “He so often has feedback about what we’re doing well and what we can improve on in terms of what we’re telling people, why we’re doing it. He’s a great sounding board….’’

For the Gandel Foundation, the partnership was a mutual exchange of ideas and advice. “It was always very much a two-way street, a very strong relationship and it helps knowing that you can talk to the organisation and if you need to scale things up to adjust, or to change course, to re-design an approach,’’ Vedran says. “We always felt they would be happy to listen, to accept those types of advice from us - not that they needed it.’’

“It’s very much driven by the [Gandel] family because they see their philanthropy as being there to provide absolutely and definitely always, funding – but also advice, simply support, backing, connecting, advocating, and networking.’’

Some years ago, Smiling Mind announced its goal of reaching 5.5 million users by 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic has helped smash that figure. “We’ve seen two million come into the app in the past 18 months or so…with the pandemic the demand has gone through the roof,’’ Addie said. “It’s not great as a marker of our collective mental health. We would never have thought we’d get to such scale.’’ But in many ways, the pandemic has underlined just how important the app can be in supporting our younger generation.

And it’s that kind of growth – highlighting an evolving demand to help support young people – that means that the Gandel Foundation is staying with Smiling Mind.

“Our first grant to them was a community grant,’’ Vedran explained. “We tested the waters, and they delivered for us, in spades. They communicated with us, kept us in the loop and they told us about their vision and their aspirations, and it went from there. There’s still work there to be done…there’s still unfinished business we can do with Smiling Mind,’’ he says.

"The support from Gandel Foundation for Smiling Mind has been very much social risk capital, enabling the organisaton to strenghten the evidence that underpins their programs, and also very importantly to expand the reach,’’ Vedran says during the Australian Philanthropy Awards 2021.

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