founder melissa abu-gazaleh

I started Top Blokes Foundation in 2006 when I was 19. Being involved in gender studies, child protection and youth work had opened my eyes to social justice issues. Looking at the statistics surrounding suicide, mental health and violence, I realised young men were highly represented.

The Top Blokes vision was if we could increase the rate of young men doing good for themselves and the community, then we could break down the stigma that they were hooligans, violent and up to no good. Young men were often painted as liabilities in the media — it was rare to hear positive stories. What was missing were programs for young men’s mental health and wellbeing. I wanted to change that by connecting them with positive male role models. A lot of people dismissed my idea, saying that as a woman I should focus on girls.

I worked seven days a week to get Top Blokes off the ground, eventually giving up my weekday job to be with the foundation full-time. We employed four or five staff before I drew my first wage. I had little to no knowledge of business and governance, but I’ve never been afraid of approaching someone with the skillset or knowledge I need. I’m also comfortable admitting when I don’t know something; there’s no benefit in faking knowledge. If I’d started Top Blokes now, in my early 30s, I would have been a lot more reserved and risk-averse.

Men at Risk

  • Suicide is the #1 killer of young people
  • Suicide rate for young men in rural Australia is twice that of capital cities
  • 36% of all young male deaths are suicides
  • 41,000 young people aged 12–17 have attempted suicide
  • Young males 3.5x more likely to die of an accident than young women
  • 82% of those in juvenile justice system are male
  • 16 is average age a young male starts drinking alcohol
  • Young men 4x more likely to be hospitalised for alcohol-related violence

Sources: ABS, AIHW, Rural Health Alliance.

Skilling up

Our biggest asset is our team; our programs are only as good as our staff and youth mentors. We have a great team, predominantly male, who run the movement themselves. It’s amazing to see the power and impact of peer mentoring, especially with some 14- to 15-year-old boys who are at the point in their life where they could go either way.

One of the biggest risks we have is key personnel loss. Over the past 12 months, we’ve focused on upskilling staff, increasing their responsibilities and building their resilience in areas outside their usual roles. The best thing I’ve done is to let go and let the team drive the business.

We also have to be mindful of social impact risk. We talk about controversial topics — pornography, sex, drugs, alcohol — with which come a spectrum of opinions, so we have to make sure our hiring processes are strong so that we’re going into the schools with unity.

During the recruitment process (which includes four months of training) we have to tease out any conflicting personal beliefs, like homophobic, pro-illegal activity or political views. We need to ensure we have people who share the organisation’s values and want to be of service to young men’s health. A big part of my role is helping the staff to monitor professional boundaries, so we can protect the children and the foundation’s reputation.

We also have other controls in place — staff work in pairs when delivering programs. It doubles the cost, but ensures safety and quality.

Growth

Our long-term vision is to see all young Australian men receive mentorship, which means scaling our work geographically. We are in 49 schools and groups across NSW and hope to be in Victoria and Queensland next. You need to get the model right before you replicate it, so we’re focusing on controlled growth.

In one year, we went from one region to four, and from a team of five to 15. There were a lot of changes that needed to be made — infrastructure, processes, HR and quality control. We now have remote teams and have to ensure they feel connected, supported — and deliver a quality product. We’re currently trialling the licensing of our programs so we can move into regional and rural areas in a cost-effective way.

We have also commissioned a social impact study with EY to evaluate the difference we are making. We want an ongoing relationship with the community and to embed ourselves within the school culture. Having never relied on government funding, we’ve had to be resilient and commercially savvy right from the beginning.

Leadership

When we were smaller, I needed to be on the front line, but as we’ve grown, I’ve started to direct my attention towards more strategic activities.

The more we grow, the more the (seven-member) board and I realise there’s a need to protect ourselves with strong governance and compliance. I’ve done a lot of work in this area over the past six months and it will continue to be my priority, with the help of the board.

The board and I have had honest discussions about my skillset — I’ve instructed them that the minute they think I’m not the right person for the managing director role, they need to tell me to step aside. There’s no founder syndrome or ego here. I haven’t worked this hard just to become a limitation to the organisation.

 

Melissa Abu-Gazaleh was part of the Millennials feature from our March 2018 issue. Read the full article here.