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'WHAT WEALTH MEANS TO ME' - Annabelle Chauncy OAM CEO and Founder of School For Life

People & Companies / Profiles

May 09 2019

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Annabelle is styled in this shoot by Everybody Know Mars | Dress: Alessandra Rich via Harrolds Australia | Earrings:  Miu miu (click on the names to follow on Instagram).

At the fresh age of 21, lawyer and social entrepreneur Annabelle Chauncy wanted to make a difference in the world. Growing up in Sydney’s lower North Shore and educated at Frensham, lightning struck when she visited Uganda and experienced first-hand the poverty families and young children lived in. Fast forward 10 years to today and the multi-national NGO Annabelle stewards has raised over $6.5m in funding, has had 50-100% year on year growth, built 3 schools in rural Uganda which educate over 1000 students and has over 120 staff. Through School for Life, Annabelle has garnered support from thousands and continued to deftly overcome cultural, political gender barriers driving positive change.

School For Life’s 10-year anniversary gala ball was this year, where Annabelle raised a further $435,000 with the long terms vision to make the school financially self-sustainable.  

Initially starting with donations from high net worth families and corporates, School for Life has experienced rapid growth and its tenth year the goal is to make the organization financially sustainable on its own. Annabelle talks about what wealth means to her and the huge personal satisfaction that comes with a rich life well lived.   

What does wealth mean to you?

Wealth isn’t just about money to me. Wealth is about living a full life with good health, experiences, memories and making an impact. It doesn’t matter about the material possessions, it matters about the way we touch people’s lives. It matters about the way we lead, and inspire, and impact those around us. The legacy that we leave is so important and we should apply our skills and resources to experiences, people and causes that are bigger than just ourselves.

What does “building wealth” mean to you?

To me, its about education. Wealth is about quality of life, choice, and freedom, education is the key that enables wealth to be built. Each generation uses the education of the previous generation to springboard to greater and greater heights. 

You have had to trade off your passion for your project and your vision for the goal, has there ever been a time when things have gotten really tough?

Absolutely, I have put a lot on the line to make School for Life work, including making the big time and personal sacrifices. There are hard times. There are times where I’m not sure I have the skills or the experience to make the hard calls. But I am surrounded by many mentors who help me through those times. Mentors from a range of different backgrounds and skill sets. I also have a cohort of fellow startup social impact CEOs who are an amazing network to bounce ideas off, share learnings and experiences, and be in the presence of people who truly get just how hard it can be running a non-profit.

What’s your view on social investment?

I think there are a lot of growing exciting opportunities for social investment, including a rise of social impact bonds which are interesting ways for people to gain a social and financial return on investment. 

You have had to ask a lot of people for a significant amount of capital, what has been the primary driver for your supporters? 

Most of our supporters want to contribute to something larger than themselves. Supporters connect to my story, to the real and tangible impact that we are having on the ground in Uganda, and to the value for money. Money goes such a long way in Uganda, in fact, $10 feeds a child 3 nutritious meals for an entire month. The fact that School for Life is a grassroots organization has meant that I have developed deep relationships with supporters and understood exactly why they’re giving. I can give donors a meaningful giving experience that perhaps some of the larger organisations can’t. If you give me the funding for a water tank today, I can literally start construction tomorrow and send you text message updates on the progress and impact.

What have been some of the of challenges you have had to overcome with School for Life?

There have been a lot of diverse challenges. In the beginning, it was trying to convince people to support me, aged 21 with half a law degree, and to invest in a dream on a piece of paper. Then it moved to challenges around the execution of an ambitious goal. Working with very diverse groups of stakeholders can be tricky – whether that be the Ugandan government, the communities in which we operate, or navigating our Australian supporter base. Different people need different communications and accountabilities and you have to be able to satisfy everyone to ensure you can get an organisation like this off the ground.

It has been quite tough at times being a woman in business in Uganda. I have sat on many doorsteps of Government officials for months on end and been sent away because I am a female and females don’t have a place in business.

What would you describe as your greatest success?

My first ever cohort of 5-year-olds passing their National Exams last year and making their way onto High School would definitely be up there. It was the first time our students had been tested against the nation and we were anxiously awaiting their results. I’m proud to say 100% passed. In fact, 75% achieved the top band and 15% achieved the second band. There hadn’t been a band 1 achieved in our community in over 20 years so the children were paraded around the village on the shoulders of their proud parents!

What’s your end game with School for Life? 

Global scale and sustainability. 30 schools, 10,000 kids and the creation of a generation of leaders who will drive real change in the societies in which they live.

You have built 3 schools from scratch, which now educate over 1000 students, why schools?

Education is a gift that cannot be taken away and lays the foundation for success. Without an education, and specifically literacy, you don’t have employment prospects, especially in developing countries like Uganda. Education empowers people to create their own futures and opportunities.

Can you describe some of the processes from day 1? 

First, we needed to do proper R&D to create a model for success – this included working with the Ugandan government and Ministry of Education to identify the neediest areas in Uganda. 

We then drafted business plans, and get licenses and registrations to operate so we lobbied for pro bono legal support. We wrote a constitution, built a Board of Directors, applied for charitable status, partnered with Rotary for credibility and tax deductibility. Then we asked anyone who would listen for pro bono support, donations in kind and in cash. An architect kindly assisted in designing the schools and providing us concept drawings to make it easier to bring the idea to life for potential investors. Then it was time to secure capital and that meant knocking on a lot of doors. I had a lot of people tell me I was crazy, to come back when I’d grown up or not come back at all. After a few years, I decided to go large and booked the Grand Ballroom at the Hilton Hotel in Sydney. We managed to get 650 guests to attend and raised $100,000 that night. The next day we flew back to Uganda to find and purchase land. Its Old System title there so we needed to find the title in order to own the land. The land transaction was settled in wheelbarrows full of cash as there was no such thing as an electronic funds transfer at that time in Uganda and $1 was equal to 2500 shillings (the land cost $16500)!

You have raised $6m to date and your goal is to move School for Life to be less reliant on external donations, can you describe what your vision is long term to put this financial sustainability into practice? 

I believe that we will always need a hybrid portfolio and that diversifying revenue streams is the most sustainable way to grow and manage risk. We have a combined vision of the provision of quality education, coupled with community uplift and investment. If we are able to help the communities become more productive and profitable around us, in time they will be able to pay their own school fees. Community uplift is executed through empowering the locals in our communities with contextually appropriate skills such as better farming practices or micro-finance loans to gain access to capital for a value addition tool like a mill. In terms of investment, I believe that a future fund and potentially a venture capital type fund for investors who are willing to take a risk for a social return is also an option – an example of this is to purchase a block of land closer to Kampala on which to build some offices or homes, to let out for an income and in time realise a capital gain.

Have private donors or corporates been your primary support? 

Primarily private donors, many who work under corporate umbrellas and many who have their own private ancillary funds or who have been successful entrepreneurs and businesspeople. In 2015-17, we also had a big investment of $1.15M USD from the Cotton On Foundation which was pinned on infrastructure and enabled us to build another primary and high school.

Read more about Annabelle HERE.

Connect with Annabelle on Linked in HERE.

Follow Annabelle on Instagram HERE.

Follow school for life foundation on Instagram HERE.




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