Data shows 30% of young people in Invercargill experience exclusion and disadvantage, compared with the national average of 20% (Photo: George Driver)

A mission to halve NZ’s disadvantaged youth numbers is starting in Invercargill

The Vodafone Foundation wants to cut the number of youth facing exclusion and disadvantage in Aotearoa in half – and it’s starting with Invercargill. George Driver travelled to the deep south to meet the organisations that are helping transform the future for local rangatahi.

How do you achieve an impossible goal? That’s what Lani Evans, head of the Vodafone Foundation, has been grappling with for the past four years. In 2017, the foundation – the philanthropic arm of the telecoms company – set a target of halving the number of rangatahi experiencing disadvantage and exclusion within 10 years. 

“I told the board this is what successive governments have been trying to do for the last 40 years and they have failed,” Evans says. “We have a much smaller budget and a small team. There’s no way we are going to achieve our goal alone. It’s not possible.”

But she knows she has to try – the assignment is too important. 

“Around 20% of young people in Aotearoa don’t have access to the resources and opportunities they need to thrive. They are not having the experiences of growing up that many of us take for granted,” she says. 

“It’s not a simple challenge to tackle – these are ongoing, complex and often intergenerational issues. There’s no easy solution. But we think it’s worth trying.”

The foundation is now starting a journey that might just make a solution possible. But it will take the help of a nation.

Lani Evans, head of the Vodafone Foundation in 2017 (Photo: supplied)

Evans, a bubbly Queenslander, is a rare mix; both relentlessly positive and ruthlessly critical. These traits proved vital when she started the job leading the Vodafone Foundation five years ago. 

Set up in 2002, the foundation’s core focus for the first 15 years was its flagship World of Difference programme. Each year it provided six people with $100,000 to undertake ambitious work to create better outcomes for young people around the country. Evans was one of the recipients in 2009, starting a youth programme in Otago to provide young people with positive first experiences of volunteering, advocacy and activism. She went on to leading roles in purpose-driven organisations, co-convening national youth network ReGeneration and becoming the founding CEO of social enterprise Thankyou Payroll

“Philanthropy is an area that excites me, because we have the opportunity to be bold and visionary, we have the opportunity to work toward structural change that will increase the opportunity of those who are least well off politically, economically and socially. We need to make sure that’s what we are actually doing.”

So, how do you ensure philanthropy is creating real on-the-ground change and not just generating nice stories? According to Evans, it’s by using data, partnering with locals and listening to the community. 

In 2016, the government released a report that identified the key factors that lead to poor outcomes for children and young people, based on screeds of official data, compiled as part of Bill English’s social investment approach to spending. The Vodafone Foundation used this data to set a measurable goal: to halve the number of youth facing exclusion and disadvantage in Aotearoa within a decade.

Evans says it was a bold step. Philanthropic foundations rarely set measurable goals, she explains.

“The focus will be on trying to reduce poverty, or strengthening communities, which makes sense – we’re not the actors, we’re the supporters. But we wanted to hold ourselves accountable to achieving tangible outcomes.”

But if the goal they’ve set is impossible, why set it at all?

“There’s no way we are going to do it. But what we are doing is drawing a line in the sand, pushing ourselves towards a seemingly impossible task because the current situation is unacceptable. We should not be failing so many of our young people. So we have given ourselves a really bold and ambitious goal and we will do our absolute best to get there,” she says.

“And hopefully we can bring others along on that journey.”

“There’s no easy solution. But we think it’s worth trying.” The Vodafone Foundation’s Lani Evans (Photo: supplied)

This month the foundation launched the Thriving Rangatahi Population Explorer, a tool which draws on government data to provide a digital snapshot of how young people are faring in different parts of the country in education, health, housing, income, employment and interactions with the justice system and protective services. 

The data shows that young people in regional centres are disproportionately impacted. And so, the Foundation has decided to focus on one regional centre to trial a new approach to hopefully make lasting change and develop a model that can be replicated and adopted around the country.

“We have limited resources and big ambitions so we have to keep refining our approach and asking ‘what’s the most effective way for us to contribute to this goal? How can we use our unique assets and position to create a more equitable Aotearoa? How can we increase digital inclusion? And how can we leverage the power of Vodafone as a digital services company?,” she says.

“Our hypothesis is that if we focus on one place, one regional centre, we might be able to turn the dial for young people and really contribute to sustainable change.”

The place is Invercargill. On paper it’s not the sexiest location to launch a major multi-million dollar philanthropy project. It’s not going to attract the most publicity or be the most visible. But it’s where they think they’ll be able to make the greatest difference. Vodafone’s data shows 30% of young people in Invercargill experience exclusion and disadvantage, compared with the national average of 20%.

“Invercargill isn’t top of mind when we think about community challenges in Aotearoa,” Evans says. “There are significant pockets of disadvantage and poverty in Southland that can be pretty invisible on a national scale.”

(Photo: George Driver)

The selection of Southland as a location has further importance to the organisation. In 2020, Vodafone signed a partnership agreement with Ngāi Tahu with a goal to improve outcomes for whānau across Te Waipounamu (the South Island), and is currently working on network upgrades in the area to enhance digital connectivity. Both of these things have the potential to make the Vodafone Foundation’s work on the ground more impactful, and lead to long-term benefits. 

“There’s a real opportunity for us to pilot some transformative work in Invercargill. How would outcomes change if we increased the digital capability for rangatahi? What would it look like if digital exclusion was no longer an issue?” 

Evans has been making regular trips from her home in Porirua to Invercargill to meet with community practitioners, social workers and iwi leaders to understand what people are already doing and what might help.

“There’s already great work happening on the ground. We want to support and accelerate that.”

The next step is to hear from young people themselves: their hopes and aspirations, what they want to achieve, what are the barriers and the opportunities for change. A group of researchers is conducting focus groups and talking to rangatahi and social services to find out.

The foundation will then set up an advisory board of local leaders and members of the foundation who will guide and direct funding based on local knowledge.

But what will they actually do?

“We don’t know yet,” Evans says.

A multi-million dollar project undertaking an impossible task and you don’t know?

“I trust that the community knows what they need to have better outcomes and meet their own aspirations, hopes and goals. Our job is to support them. The best people to solve problems are the people that are experiencing them and what we are doing is trying to put that philosophy into practice. That’s not scary, it’s exciting.”

And she says working with the local community means the load is shared across those with the best skills and knowledge to respond to the issues they’re facing; the foundation is there to help facilitate that action. 

“We’re not going to be able to do everything. But we can leverage the digital technology and skills of Vodafone, we can help drive some pieces of work and we can use our influence and networks to fill other gaps.”

Invercargill Town Hall (Photo: George Driver)

But just creating change in Invercargill will not halve the rates of youth exclusion and disadvantage in the country. Evans says the ultimate step is to demonstrate what’s possible, to show that there can be locally-led solutions to these seemingly insurmountable problems and get businesses, government, maybe the entire country on board. How do you achieve an impossible goal? You don’t do it on your own. 

“Vodafone is incredibly generous in the community and business giving sector – the company has donated more than $43m through the foundation spanning almost 20 years. We need more businesses contributing to strategic philanthropy as well. We want to build a movement across all sectors for positive social change – not just the non-profit sector and government – there’s a role for all of us.”

Visiting Invercargill I found a network of organisations already doing incredible work to help break down the barriers the city’s youth face. Often ignored and neglected, those I spoke to were hopeful – if not a bit bewildered – that a national charity was coming to help. But they know there’s work to do.

Judy Buckley runs Murihiku Young Parents Learning Centre, a school aimed at young parents who fell out of education after becoming pregnant. By giving them support, and on-site child care, Judy and her team helps up to 30 young people in any given year, aged 15 to 21 to gain qualifications, move into tertiary, find jobs and regain some self-belief.  

“Our girls are so bright and amazing,” Judy says. “If the negative factors are mitigated, these students can thrive and see parenthood as their biggest strength, rather than feeling like their life is over.”

A group of the māmā supported by the Murihiku Young Parents Learning Centre (Photo: supplied)

She says the most important thing the Vodafone Foundation can do is to listen to Invercargill’s rangatahi.

“We often give lip service to student voices but unless that voice is really listened to and then used to implement change it becomes just another box to tick,” Judy says.

“At Murihiku our wahine are young parents who live every day in their own lives. They feel the stigma of being ‘teen parents’, they experience not having enough money week to week, they know they are bringing a new baby into the world and all that entails. 

“I have huge respect for these young wahine and their partners. My hope is that the Vodafone Foundation listens carefully to what they say. I don’t know what comes next but I do know we must do better.”

Candace Bangura is director of Number 10 Southland Youth One Stop Shop, which provides free healthcare and social services to youth. She says they’ve been increasingly focused on helping young people overcome anxiety and other mental health issues, often exacerbated by empty cupboards at home and other trauma. Some also struggle with an entrenched stigma due to the socio-economic status of where they live.

“The importance of which suburb you live in is a real thing here. For a young person that has quite a powerful impact on their view of the world, their expectations, their achievement and hopes. Number 10 believes that all young people have a wealth of gifts and abilities that they can use to reach their goals and thrive in life.”

She says the different way Evans and the Vodafone Foundation is approaching its work in Invercargill – listening to the people who are already on the ground working with the community – is already tangible.

“It’s refreshing that they’re taking the time to know the players,” Bangura says. “It’s not the traditional way and I’m so pleased to see the Vodafone Foundation proactively engaging with our community.”

(Photo: George Driver)

Mata Cherrington is Kaihautū/chief executive officer of Awarua Whānau Services, a kaupapa Māori service aimed at addressing the social, health and educational needs of youth and whānau. Working alongside young offenders and their whānau, she has experienced first hand the challenges rangatahi Māori face in Invercargill.

“We are dealing with intergenerational trauma,” Cherrington says. “We have got two, three, four generations deep experiencing poverty. Not just financial poverty, a lot of them haven’t had the resources and experiences that come with positive parenting. They are just making ends meet and many can’t see beyond their current situation.”

For Cherrington, the most frustrating thing is how little things have changed since she was a teenager growing up in the city.

“I wasn’t valued at school. I didn’t get through my last two years of school because I experienced what it was like to be a Māori student here. I lament what our rangatahi are going through. They are experiencing the same thing I experienced growing up in Southland. None of the root causes have changed since I was a teenager and I’m 45 now. It frustrates me.”

The root cause is familiar one, according to Cherrington.

“Racism,” she says. “It’s a really well entrenched belief, it’s unintentional, but it’s systemic racism. The mainstream models don’t recognise te ao Māori values around what whānau looks like.”

Mata Cherrington is Kaihautū/chief executive officer of Awarua Whānau Services (Photo: supplied)

Her response when she heard the foundation was focusing its efforts on Invercargill?

“I threw my hands up in the air and said ‘hallelujah’. When they released their strategy, it was like exhaling. Finally.”

She says the strategy – listening to young people – is the best place to start.

“The way to help is by valuing rangatahi voices and experiences. They should be leading this mahi, but right now they don’t feel like they have a voice.

“This investment Vodafone are putting in is still short term, but it may be enough to be a catalyst for others to recognise the value of long term innovative funding, to do something different, not just deal with the symptom, but deal with the cause.” 

Because, Cherrington says, if you don’t start to deal with the source we are going to keep seeing the same results. To create impossible change, the approach has to change too.

“This is about our future, Aotearoa’s future.”




The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.