Founded in 1985, Make-A-Wish Australia works to provide very sick children and teenagers with tangible hope for the future. By receiving once-in-a-lifetime experiences, these children are offered not only moments of joy, but the strength to face the challenges their illness puts in front of them. Thirty years after its inception, the organisation has granted wishes to many thousands of children with life-threatening illnesses. One of the people behind this success is CEO Gerard Menses, a man with a wealth of experience in helping those in need.
“I’ve had quite a varied background,” Mr Menses says. “I started as an assistant to the Anglican chaplain at Macquarie University. I worked as a school counsellor, and family therapist. I actually started doing work with young offenders running Anglicare’s Care Force.”
We did ground-breaking work with young offenders who required out of home care. Mr Menses admits that his work with young offenders was the perfect preparation for the world of management. During this time, a large amount of exciting and creative work was done with troubled young people, creating a context of success within challenging lives.
“I then moved to South Australia. My wife became the director of the National Trust there, and I worked as a therapist with the Dulwich Centre, which is one of the leading family therapy centres in the world. It’s a very exciting place to work.”
Experience with young offenders showed that they need more than psychological help and that it was critical to challenge the unintended structural barriers keeping them in a vicious cycle of poverty or crime. They needed opportunities provided by more stable housing, supportive education and employment So Mr Menses, became involved in the not-for-profit sector in South Australia.
“I [then] ran the South Australian Council Social Service, and I did a really intense apprenticeship in politics, economics, government lobbying, and it was great job, because I was representing the entire not-for-profit sector in the state and getting to challenge structural poverty”
This work also provided Mr Menses with a fantastic opportunity to learn about the workings of the not-for-profit sector, knowledge which has continued to serve him well in the later roles of his career.
“I then accepted an offer to run,” he explains, “what was then called Anglican Community Services, in South Australia, and merge all the different small Anglican services into one big organisation.” The organisation became known as AnglicareSA; indeed Mr Menses was the architect of all Australian Anglican welfare organisations adopting the common name of Anglicare.
After his work with AnglicareSA, he was asked to run Australia’s biggest state-based charity, Endeavour, in Queensland. Endeavour helps people with intellectual disabilities, and at the time was in some organisational trouble.
“The organisation received minimal government funding. In essence Endeavour was being asked to provide 24/7 supported care for individuals at a cost to government of only $4,000/year/individual. At the same time State
Government services were costing $150,000/year/individual. Endeavour’s services were independently assessed to actually be of the same quality, if not better, than the Government’s. We won an addition $30m recurrent funding and ensured the long term security of many people with intellectual disability. Endeavour was an amazing organisation and provided a lot of commercial experiences as we transformed the prize home lottery, reinvented a chain of 52 op shops and reformed 52 “sheltered workshops” into supported business enterprises.
On the back of his experience with Endeavour, Mr Menses was invited to lead Vision Australia, a project that brought together the three biggest blindness organisations in Australia.
“We subsequently brought eight [blindness organisations] together,” Mr Menses says, “to create this national organisation working with people who are blind or have low vision. And that again was just an amazing experience.”
The project helped the organisation build to be the biggest service provider in Australia. After successfully delivering on this enormous project Mr Menses took a short sabbatical after several years of incredibly tough charity work.
“When Make-A-Wish asked me to come in, and I wasn’t certain about taking on the leadership of what was then a relatively small organisation, but I am so pleased I did.”
Originally, Mr Menses agreed to do just two years with the organisation. He has now been working with them for four years, and freely admits that he’s fallen in love with the place and the work.
“It’s brought me back to my therapeutic roots. It’s brought me back to being much more creative. It’s brought me back to working directly with individuals, and I’m able to use all the skills I’ve got from the bigger organisations to help this place grow.”
As part of the international network, Mr Menses is Chair of all the international affiliates, representing them to the international body. “I’ve got the scale that keeps me intellectually challenged,” he says, “and I’ve got emotional and direct work that keeps me satisfied.”
Using the Imagination
The organisation’s vision is to give every eligible child a wish. Make-A-Wish provides wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions, which they must have to qualify. This doesn’t mean, however, that all the children are terminally ill.
“Most people think that what we do is give gifts to a dying child, and that’s not the case at all. We actually are making a psychological intervention with a very sick child, to give them the emotional strength they need to overcome the illness.”
Some of the children do have terminal illnesses, but for the most part it includes complex medical conditions such as cancer, tumours and other similar conditions with the real potential of shortening or ending the child’s life.
“70% of the children who we work with go into remission,” Mr Menses explains, “or move on to live a longer life. We describe ourselves as an essential component of the medical system, and I sometimes jokingly say that we’re too beautiful to be taken seriously.” I say this as the media usually only report the wish itself rather than the amazing transformation it brings.
The organisation endeavours to harness a child’s imagination, looking to identify the one true wish in their heart, and to then work with them to help them anticipate the realisation of this wish, before going on to realise it beyond their expectations.
“[If we] do this say, over an eighteen month to two-year period, we actually build the child’s resilience. We give them something to live for. We give them something to ground them and normalise them, because once they’re in the medical system, they get into a negative spiral.”
The wish and the anticipation of the wish help a child cope with the endless medical questions, treatments and hospitals, during which they have little chance of experiencing normalcy. It helps children look beyond this reality and gives them something to live for.
“A lot of kids will tell us: I actually don’t want my wish until I’m well. And it actually helps the family as well. It gives the family something to do other than talking about the child’s illness. They can talk about what they’re going to do with the wish.”
Recent scientific studies, such as one by Israeli psychologist Anat Shoshani, give credence to the positive psychology of the process, showing that if a child receives a wish, he or she sleeps and eats better, has reduced anxiety and is able to retain a more positive outlook on life.
“Arguably, [the child] even responds to the medication better than a child that doesn’t get a wish,” Mr Menses adds. “In Spain, Make-A-Wish is actually physically part of the medical team, and there are three specific instances where they will prescribe a wish.”
The first instance of this is palliative care, where the condition is terminal. The second is in cases where the child is not responding to medication, and the third is to help the child in the final stages of recovery, giving them additional motivation to fully recover.
“It’s fantastic work, because it’s just so creative. It’s very emotional work, because you’re dealing with children and families at an extraordinarily difficult time in their lives. But it’s such uplifting and inspirational work.”
The journey of the wish has a transformative effect, not just on the child, but on the entire family. Mr Menses admits that one of the most exciting parts for him is that it also manages to have a transformative effect on communities.
“Domenic [Pace] wanted to be Iron Boy. Domenic has Cystic Fibrosis, and Domenic felt weak and he wanted to be strong, that’s what his wish was actually about. His wish was about finding strength.”
With the help of Disney, Make-A-Wish was able to make Domenic’s wish come true, resulting in thousands of people turning up to watch him battle Ultron on the steps of the Sydney Opera House in February this year.
“Thousands of people tweeted and spoke to us about how this actually gave them hope, and reaffirmed their own dream. Two billion people worldwide saw that wish or were touched by that wish, because it just went crazy around the world with twitter and other social media”.
The response to Domenic’s wish was on the same scale as that received by American cancer survivor Miles Scott, whose dream to be Batman for a day garnered worldwide attention as he took to the streets of San Francisco as the Caped Crusader.
“The community is looking for hope, and Make-A-Wish is there giving it in spades. I believe it helps us reconnect with those years when we were children, with the wonderment of imagination and the power and innocence of the belief that we had.”
This sense of wonderment and imagination is typified by many of the wishes the organisation grants, such as that of five-year-old Scarlett, who wanted to see a unicorn fly, with a horn that tasted like a rainbow.
“We made the impossible possible for Scarlett,” Mr Menses says, “and therefore we are also making it possible that she can get well. So it’s a very powerful psychological intervention.”
In terms of the progression of the organisation, Mr Menses is looking to reach two goals. First is to make sure that the power of the wish and what it can achieve is properly harnessed, so it can in turn have a positive effect on families and communities.
“It’s a carefully designed psychological intervention to create hope, strength and joy,” he explains. “To give the child the emotional armoury they need to have the best chance of life. We’ve rediscovered that in the organisation, that’s giving us a lot of energy.”
Secondly, Mr Menses insists the organisation must now go on to realise its vision, and believe it’s a vision that is possible to achieve, which is to reach every child in Australia with a life-threatening medical condition.
“That means we need to do 2,000 wishes a year, and that means we need to quadruple the number of wishes we’re currently doing, because we’re only doing 500. We, together as an organisation, since I’ve started, have moved from 300 wishes, getting up close to 600 now.”
In Australia, six children every day are diagnosed with a life-threatening medical condition, meaning Make-A-Wish needs to drastically increase its output to keep up with the number of eligible children who would benefit from their service.
“We understand, from medical statistics, that there are at least seven and a half thousand children in Australia living with a life-threatening medical condition, and we want to get to every single one of them.”
The target of 2,000 per year would allow the organisation to first catch up with the amount of eligible children already in the country, before moving on to reach all future children in a way that is physically possible to achieve.
“So that’s where we want to go, and we’ve got a ten-year architecture that we’re on a journey to achieve, and we’re about to see if we can accelerate that, because there’s an urgency in what we want to do, we want to get to every child as quickly as possible.”
With such a large number of charitable organisations out there, all doing different things for different groups of people, it is important for organisations like Make-A-Wish to form the right professional affiliations to support the cause.
“The charity sector shouldn’t be seen as a beauty contest,” Mr Menses says. “We’re all responding to different needs, and all the needs are important. We’re filling gaps that are not filled by governments and not filled by the private sector.”
All these organisations are driven by a powerful vision and sense of vocation for the work that is being done. Mr Menses feels lucky, bearing in mind his professional history, to have had the privilege of working in many different settings, with many different people.
“I absolutely respect the work that everyone else does.What will touch one person’s heart, may not touch another person’s heart. What I think touches people’s hearts with Make-A-Wish is that you can actually see the impact fairly quickly on an individual.”
The organisation works with a number of partners, and not just to receive financial support. Make-A-Wish helps companies retain employees and experience the creativity of building and creating a wish, and is more than happy to take them on the journey.
“[We want them to] see the hope that they can create, to rediscover their own imagination. To live the joy with the people that we’re working with. So, we are a charitable cause that people can work with and be part of the actual service delivery in a very hands-on way.”
These relationships are all the more important as Make-A-Wish relies 100% on fundraising, boasting 1,200 volunteers, organised across 57 branches throughout Australia, each of whom undertake local fundraising across the country.
“We’ve got an amazing business partnership team. We’ve got some amazing business partnerslike Krispy Kreme, Barry Plant, Adaptive Insights, Qantas, Caltex, who come and work with us and ensure that their employees also work with us to realise a wish.”
The organisation doesn’t run a specific, annual fundraising campaign, rather these partnerships are ongoing throughout the year. On top of that, there is World Wish Day on April 29th, a day which sees the organisation’s worldwide work celebrated.
“We don’t have a specific campaign,” Mr Menses explains, “like Red Nose, or a door-knock campaign like the [Salvation Army]. We’ve got a variety of diversified strengths.
One strategy involves working with partners to discuss what they want to receive back from the commitment they give, because the organisation knows that consumers will actually support a company which has affiliations with a charity.
“If they’ve got a choice, the charity that the organisation supports, or the fact of them supporting a charity, influences the choice positively. We know that companies are looking for new and clever ways to retain their staff and encourage innovation and creativity.”
Make-A-Wish works directly with its partners to tailor the experiences of employees, to ground them and give them experiences beyond their day-to-day jobs. The organisation does not just ask for money, but works to create a genuine partnership.
“[We say] we’ve got some things that will help you achieve your outcomes, and through your financial support, and your staff, you can help us achieve our outcome – which is, really we want to quadruple the number of wishes.”
These partnerships are managed through quarterly meetings, where discussions are focussed around what can be done together, including opportunities that can be created for the staff. One idea that has been put into practice is the Make-A-Wish Business Challenge.
“We’ve done this with Apple now for a couple of years, and Deloitte. We actually spend a day with 70 or 100 employees and we talk about the work at Make-A-Wish. We will bring in an excellent motivational speaker and we will share some of the wishes.”
The course involves the dissemination of some basic psychological training to participants regarding the impact of the wish journey, before splitting off into teams to work on real wishes and running through the entire wish process.
“So they will understand how the wish is captured, they will work with the information that we’ve got from a wish capture to then build a wish journey. They will then have some insight into how we might then generate the funds for that wish journey.”
Mr Menses admits to often finding that employees will tap into their own networks to help particular wishes get realised.
“The companies that have done it have just raved about the experience, because they get to meet a wish kid and a wish family, they get to hear about the experience that’s been hadbut they get to really have a great opportunity to do their own team building.”
The program has already proved extremely successful with the companies who have taken part, and Make-A-Wish is finding more and more companies and employees wanting to get involved in this unique, creative and inspirational experience.
“We do charge for the day. We do talk to the company about what it is they want, and we can tailor the experience to match expectations on the day. So it’s a lot of work from our part, but it’s just a fantastic experience for the company.”
What is clear after talking to Mr Menses, is the huge amount of passion and excitement he has for his work at Make-A-Wish. There is little doubt that he will keep working hard to achieve the next stage in the organisation’s development.
“Whilst we seek to inspire the children,” he adds, “we’re often in turn inspired by them, and that’s what we actually find with the corporates who come on board, they too are inspired by the courage of the children that they meet.”
To read and download the full profile click on the cover image below. To view this editorial as it appeared originally in The Australian Business Executive magazine, click here.
Interview by Jesse Landry
Editorial by Nicholas Paul Griffin