04: The Accidental Social Entrepreneur


John: So I’m super delighted to be in Sydney this afternoon with Deborra-lee Furness, the internationally acclaimed actress and passionate supporter of children and defender of their human rights across the globe. Deb and her actor husband, Hugh Jackman, have travelled to Africa, Asia and South America and see up close the plight of literally hundreds of thousands, in fact millions of children around the world without permanent loving families and they’ve set out to do something about it.

Deborra-lee’s the founder of not one, but two not for profit organisations devoted to creating a better future for children in need – Adopt Change in Australia and Hopeland in the United States. I should declare I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of being on the journey with Deb in Australia for the last seven years and a fellow director of Adopt Change, and knowing you as I do Deb, it occurred to me that we could describe you as the ‘accidental social entrepreneur’. Is that fair?

Deborra-lee: I love that you call me the accidental social entrepreneur ‘coz it’s totally what it is. Well as you know I, this literally my journey with this whole issue began as a knee jerk reaction to something that I read in the paper about a woman who had adopted a child in China and couldn’t bring her back and I just remember feeling so incensed that there’s a child that could have a loving family and because of bureaucracy it wasn’t happening and so I remember that day I wrote down drop off dry-cleaning and ring the Sydney Morning Herald and – which is exactly what I did – and then after that we got the editor’s editorial, the front page and they said Deborra-lee and her action lobby group. And I was like ah where would they be? And basically as soon as I realised how under the rug that issue had been for so many years, because so many people contacted me after that and said please keep talking. Please say something because it hadn’t been talked about. And therein began my journey and I, when I first started speaking out, I used the wrong syntax, I’m sure I said the wrongs things and I had many people coming at me from every which way including the anti-adoption culture which I soon discovered, which we can go into more depth afterwards. And thus began my journey. And people said to keep speaking out because as Hugh and I are well known, we have two adopted children and so many people would come up to me in the street saying, I would love to adopt but I can’t, it’s just so hard. And that simple thing is like my big thing is why? And I am a justice freak when I see something that’s not right, I do feel compelled.

You know I’m not the sort of person that has to have an issue. There are some people who just go out there and need an issue just to sort of go out there and you know fight the good fight. I wasn’t looking for it. I just felt passionate that this was wrong, especially when I had travelled the world and I had seen this scenario and I saw all these people that wanted to take on the job of parenting a child that needed a family. I’m just like hang on, why isn’t this working? And I’ve had a long lesson in why it’s not working.

John: So the paper reports Deborra-lee and her action group, you look around, where’s the action group? What happens next?

Deborra-lee: Yes, there was no action lobby group. No, so it wasn’t, and then my publicist, Victoria Buckham just said she’s not talking to any more… all the press that had contacted me, until she’s spoken to the Prime Minister. I was like oh God how did I get here so quick? So the action lobby group came when I met the likes of you and like-minded people that stood up and could recognise that yeah, you know what? This is not right, children are not being served and we need to do something.

John: So I described you as an accidental social entrepreneur because you ended up then founding a social enterprise in effect.

Deborra-lee: I guess. Well I did but I I didn’t, there was no structure to it, it wasn’t like a planned, thought out structure, it was an organic evolvement from a great need and I just literally was winging it every step of the way. I mean as you know, this organisation was run on the smell of a greasy rag and we didn’t have funding, we didn’t have a structure, we were sort of trying to gather a board together. I mean it was, we crawled you know to become an entity and establish National Adoption Awareness Week.

John: So Deb you could say you accidentally found one social enterprise, once is you know…

Deborra-lee: Once is an accident?

John: … is an accident and twice is downright careless. You went and did it again.

Deborra-lee: I know. I don’t know…

John: In America. So tell us well how did you go about founding a social enterprise in the United States and what’s that about?

Deborra-lee: See that wasn’t, in a way it was an accident. Well what happened is when I had the, the forum in Australia to speak at the Press Gallery down here about the history of adoption, which I gave a talk at the Press Gallery about the history of adoption and where we’ve come from and why we are where we are which is in not a very healthy place. And so I went, as I was living in New York, I went to as many informed people as I could find to be armed with information and knowledge and wisdom and facts so that I could present the argument. So when I was in New York I gathered together a great group of people who work within the adoption community, in Washington, in Congress and I had them educate me.

So cut to, we were so successful in Australia of getting our message across and the awareness and bringing it back out of the cupboard after it’s been literally for decades as you know just not talked about, pushed under the rug, nothing done about it, I feel that Adopt Change we’ve been successful in putting so much energy into this, it’s now on the table and we’re directing it and things are shifting. So I guess because of the success we were down here, that some of… they came to me… we had coffee and it was just… I was viewed as get out of the way. I feel like I was a tool, just being used in a way, just get out of me way ‘coz they came to me and we had a discussion, they said we want to do the same thing and they tried with awareness and it hadn’t worked and at that same week that these people came to me to discuss creating something, I get a call from this young Australian guy who’s new in New York, he’s in advertising and he’s seen the work that we’ve been doing in Australia and he wants to put his hand up to help with the creative. So it was serendipitous that it all just came in. They came to me, he came to me and I went okay, let’s go. And I did, I have to preface this by saying when we started this, it had been ten years I’d been working in Australia and it took everything out of me, it took a lot of energy and passion and drive and late hours. Obviously I’m in New York and board meetings down here at different times and I said I’m happy to help you know put this together but I, you know it’s a lot to run so glad to get involved.

So we went about doing the creative. This guy Sam came up with this fantastic creative which we worked on and nuanced with all my adoption rock stars as I call them, nuanced the messaging so that we had the right message and then we slowly gathered a fantastic board together that came on, started with the fundraisers and then I went to England. We couldn’t find a CEO and I think that is so important, the CEO who championed the organisation who runs it, is such an important piece and I was not going to be content that we didn’t have the perfect fit. So I ended up, I was in Europe and a friend of mine said you must meet my brother in England, in London. I went and met this guy and had a two hour meeting with him. He was very happy in the north of England with his two kids and family. He had a great job and after two hours I talked him into coming to New York and being the CEO and he is the brother of Hugh Evans. I’m sure you’re aware Hugh Evans is Global Citizen Festival which is happening in September again this year. He’s created a movement of change around poverty, which I’m involved in also because obviously that’s a big reason why there are so many children that are, do become abandoned and you know are looking for families is poverty.

John: So this organisation that you founded in America, it’s called Hopeland.

Deborra-lee: Yes.

John: Can you tell me what it’s about and why it has the name it has?

Deborra-lee: Hopeland has evolved from my education I think, my education because in Australia I was addressing adoption, because that was the piece that was broken in Australia. That was… people were waiting five to ten years it’s ridiculous and the energy from the department’s is not into making a system that works for everyone. So through all the work I did through adoption I kept looking at the big picture. Hopeland is the big picture of why are so many children abandoned or you know orphaned even if they have living parents because the parent, many of these orphans have living parents but they relinquish them in the hope that they have an education or find a better home – which is not okay. So I evolved my education at trying to get holistically at the root of the cause as to why there are so many kids and that is poverty, it’s mental health issues, it’s dysfunctional families, it’s maternal health, it’s education in Third World Countries of, you know, if you do become pregnant, how you manage it, how you can keep your child hopefully. So it’s about going to the root cause and putting energy into making that work so that a child is not in a position that they have to be up for adoption, but adoption is a big part of the puzzle when it needs to be. As we know in Australia in the foster care system, there are I think 40,000 kids who are permanently removed. Those children should not be stuck in a foster care system, they should be adopted.

John: Can you tell me a little bit about your own personal journey? You’ve mentioned obviously you’ve got two lovely kids in Oscar and Ava, what fired your passion for connecting children with permanent loving families? So I know you experienced the system as it was at its worst perhaps in Australia.

Deborra-lee: I just don’t think anyone… what, what does it feel like to be alone? I mean you have a mum and dad who’ve got your back, who teach you right from wrong, all that stuff. And as I said, I’ve travelled the world. I was in Cambodia looking at two year olds sniffing glue. There’s no adults around. They’re children just left there. It’s heartbreaking to me. So it was, I just can’t tolerate the thought of a child not having someone there to protect them and we know what can happen when there’s no other adults around, the terrible things… abuse and these children are so vulnerable to predators and it’s just such a heinous situation to me that I can’t knowing this, not speak out or try and do something. I just do my little bit for what I can do which is hopefully just bring attention to it. That’s what I can bring to it. So many people have different skill sets they can bring to it.

John: Deb I’m not sure many people appreciate the gravitational force of your effort as I’ve described it. You’ve really pulled into the cause some of the most powerful and passionate people in the world and I’m thinking here about presidents, prime ministers, I’m thinking about Bill Clinton, I’m thinking about Tony Blair, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull, Hollywood the rock stars. You know there’s many lesser known but incredibly qualified expert people in the child welfare field. How have you managed to get all of these people involved and what’s inspired you? Who among those, that galaxy of people that have come to the table have really kind of struck you as having just this incredible commitment to the passion and passion to the cause?

Deborra-lee: Well these are the people that can make a difference, you know political that we know to shift anything it’s got to be a policy too and you have political leaders at the helm. You know I’m in a position. I’m fortunate I get to meet these people. Chelsea Clinton’s a good friend of mine and she was going travelling in Africa with her father and said you know come as just part of the delegation. So I accepted an invitation. They were addressing all the Clinton global initiative stuff that I wanted to, cause I always hear, you know you hear third hand oh this is happening in Ethiopia with this orphanage or there’s this or that, and I thought if I go, I can be in the villages. I can talk to the locals, I can see up close and personal what’s really going on so I accepted that and it was an amazing experience. I did like eight African countries in six days and travelled with President Clinton who was a great story teller at night let me tell you.

President Clinton was the one who firstly started to change the whole tone in America around adoption and basically said you know he created I think it was eighteen months or nine months that the parents haven’t been involved then you, you lose rights to this child, does have the change to have a permanent loving family. He and Hilary Clinton have, that is part of their political agenda is to make sure that adoption and foster care and kids out of family are looked after. He’s a great leader.

Tony Abbott obviously was our first prime minister that we spoke to and we went through a few in Australia that saw the sense in it and took this on. I don’t think Tony Abbott and his chief of staff Peta Credlin realised the complexities and how entrenched the bureaucracy was in not making change. So I think it was a shock to them too when they took on this and said yeah, we’re going to change it, how big a shift needed to happen.

Tony Blair, his Faith Foundation I directed his piece for his Faith Foundation and he also travels the world and obviously is very involved with all the issues and he’s tried to hook me up with all the people in England. So I’m trying to make this an international, you know we’ve all got to be, we do need an international summit with all leaders from all over the world. This needs to be, what’s more important than the kids, the next generation? This needs to be a priority. I mean in the UN goals, family isn’t even managed as part of, one of the UN goals which I find kind of shocking that that’s not a priority.

John: And I think ah in Australia we’ve still got…

Deborra-lee: Millennium goals sorry.

John: … and we’ve still got the advocacy of the Deputy Prime Minister and I think the prime minister, the new prime minister, not so new now, also continued to support the idea that adoption can be part of a modern family mix.

Deborra-lee: Absolutely, yeah. Malcolm Turnbull’s on board, yeah.

John: This podcast typically concerns itself with the business of organisations needing to know their audiences and work out how to leverage technology to get an advantage and I often think in the not for profit world it’s almost every bit as competitive as what, you know in this sort of cause related marketplace as it is in the business world for organisations to stand out. So I was really interested to hear from you how you’ve gone about building an audience and growing these businesses.

Deborra-lee: See I should have a really good answer for that and as you said I’m accidental so I think I fall more into it. You know what you do? Delegation. I surround myself with a team of people who work in social media, such as yourself and such as my PR people that know how to leverage all the Instagram’s and the Face times and the Snapchat’s and all that stuff and how to get that message out there. I think that’s what you have to do, know your strengths and utilise those and then outreach, delegation to the people that know how to work it.

John: You and the Adopt Change team have managed to attract the likes of the Packer and Pratt family foundations and supporters and I was very interested to hear Sam Lipski from the Pratt foundation say that like any investor, for him it was as much about the passion of the team and its ability to get things done as it was the cause. Did that surprise you?

Deborra-lee: Well I think that, hey you look at the Pratt Foundation. They’re being hit on by everyone that you know needs to get funding. So they’re not silly. So I think that they can see authenticity and they can see passion and people who really do want to make a difference as to people who are just jobbing out there doing it, you know.

I think passion counts for so much, even sometimes even over expertise and skill. If you have a passion, it’s like necessity is the mother of invention, you want to get to that end goal, your passion can drive you and you do get creative along the way which is what I had to do. I had no experience with boards, I had no experience with organisations, or social – any of this. I literally am the accidental [laughing] you gave me that title because I was tripping and falling more times than not, you know through this whole experience.

John: You mentioned social media before and I was going to ask you how significant do you think the rise of digital technology is in the world of social enterprise, I checked this week and noticed Hugh now has 22.7 million Facebook likes I think so I suppose inside your household you know better than most the magnification power of this, of social…

Deborra-lee: It’s extraordinary. I find it both fabulous and terrifying.

John: Yeah.


Deborra-lee: We could go into that. That could be another podcast.

John: Part of the founding of an organisation is I assume like a business that you want to create momentum but also hope that there’ll be life after you’ve got the thing going, that it’s not always going to be dependent on your own personal efforts and labour. Have you thought much about the succession plans and how to, you know what the role is of these organisations once the founder has done his or her job.

Deborra-lee: And I think that’s knowing, it’s like a relationship, it’s knowing when to get in and when to get out and when you can maximise because it’s in this area, as I’m sure you’re aware, major burnout with people. It takes a lot to sustain that passion, that drive and the minutia of running an organisation. So I think visionaries and founders and people who create these things, need to come in and give their all and know when it’s time to extricate and to transition into it being a working organisation that gets on with the job.

John: So Deb for you, obviously you’re loving living in New York. You schooled there and came back and it’s such an exciting city. You’ve now got a place down the road here in Bondi, a lot of travelling between them and then there’s of course the core business of acting and directing…

Deborra-lee: Yeah.

John: … what’s next for you guys?

Deborra-lee: Slowing down. [laughs] What’s next for us? I really do feel, you know we talked, we use the word passion, I am trying to be smart about choosing my passions and I’m probably getting back more to my artistic core which is I’m very creative and love my art and I think when we are honest with ourselves and we’re not, we’re doing what we should be doing in that moment, I think everyone benefits. I think that the ripple effect of being true to yourself, being authentic and doing what you want to do, has a ripple effect to affect not only your family and your friends, but the world at large. I think there’s a lot to be said about joy and happiness and peace in creating that energy.

John: So it’s about living in the moment for a bit.

Deborra-lee: Yeah, really organically following what my heart is telling me to do.

John: Finally if you reflected back over the decade or so that you’ve been involved now in these social enterprises, what would be the most significant things you think you’ve learnt in that time as you’ve sort of reflected on the whole journey of founding, mobilising the passion, effecting the policy, bringing together these teams of people to work to your championing of the cause.

Deborra-lee: I think it was Margaret Meade’s famous quote, you always think that it’s, you know you think you want to change something but it’s so overwhelming, it’s so big and it’s governments and it’s big and you can’t do anything. I think she said it, it just takes one sort of impassioned citizen to make a ship and I think it taught me that just by sort of standing up for what you truly believe and then having the unity of others who are like minded join in that scenario, that it does create energy which in turn creates change. We’ve seen the change happen. I think that has just been the most thrilling thing for me. Like it taught me wow, and I think when I started out I was just like angry that it was so, and it was an injustice and I didn’t really foresee that you actually could make a difference and I think this has taught me that yes, anyone, anyone, anywhere just by believing and being passionate can really make a difference.

John: Deborra-lee thank you.

Deborra-lee: You’re welcome.