Often the most powerful leadership insights in the not-for-profit sector come from those with lived experience. CEO of Youth Projects, Ben Vasiliou, walks the talk on matters like poverty, homelessness, and mental health. He has firsthand experience in breaking that cycle and continues to give back to those that need us most.

In the last few years, a handful of TV shows have begun to break down the stigma of homelessness. Many of us watched as celebrities got a taste of sleeping rough for Filthy Rich and Homeless, while the ABC’s You Can’t Ask That gave viewers the chance to hear directly from those experiencing homelessness.

When it comes to destigmatising homelessness, opinions may have begun to change, but we have a long way to go.

“So many Australians still don’t really understand the root cause of homelessness,” says Ben Vasiliou, CEO of Youth Projects, a Victoria-wide charity that supports young people experiencing disadvantage, enduring poor mental health, unemployment, homelessness, and drug and alcohol issues.

“They just see someone who is homeless and think they should get off their lazy arse and get a job and a house.”

What Ben sees in the young people he works with is trauma, and the complexities that stem from trauma.

“We’re supporting people who share stories of physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse. A significant disproportion come from low-income families that can’t afford stable rent.”

To address the complex presentations of the 8000-plus young people who connect with Youth Projects each year, Ben and a team of 125 deliver services in health, mental health, homelessness, alcohol and drug addiction, and jobs and skills pathways. Due to their success they’re scaling up to support more than 15,000 people each year and the team will grow to over 200 to tackle some of our communities’ largest challenges.

“We support the whole person,” says Ben. “We support them with housing, with their physical health, food security, family violence, all the while thinking about how we can help upskill them for employment. All that we do is based on evidence, on experience and then supports are guided by the social determinants of health.”

Ben Vasiliou - standing yellow background
Ben Vasiliou

Supporting consumers and staff

When Ben was 16, he lost his young mother to cancer, leaving Ben and his sisters to fend for themselves. “We were incredibly poor, we lived in Housing Commission. Our dad had already fled the scene because he’d become addicted to heroin, and it was a really challenging circumstance for us to come out of that poverty and really make something of ourselves,” says Ben.

“For me, the success came from the support network around me. I had a wonderful youth worker, a fantastic counsellor.”

Ben now ensures the young people he and his exceptional staff work with are offered the same unconditional kindness and support. “We don’t make you earn trust or respect at Youth Projects. It’s automatically given on day one. The idea is that if we break down that barrier of having to prove yourself, then people are set up on a platform to flourish; they have less of a fear of failure, are a bit more confident in their abilities. We are here to raise aspirations.”

Ben believes in offering the same unconditional support for staff. As a former youth worker himself he understands both the rewards and the trials of the work and has an open-door policy so staff can share ideas and concerns.

“The pressure points for staff are purpose, pay and job satisfaction, so if we focus on their purpose, we pay them as much as we can and we make sure they are as satisfied as possible then they’ll have a great employment experience with us. This is the key lever for CEO in ensuring top quality service provision.”

Enhancing leadership with a scholarship

Ten minutes into a conversation with Ben and it’s clear his mind is sharp as a tack, but never having gone to university, when the opportunity for a scholarship to undertake study arrived in his inbox, Ben’s interest was piqued.

He applied for and was awarded an Australian Scholarship Foundation scholarship to do an Executive Education program in Social Entrepreneurship at Stanford University, managing to do the course in person just as COVID was hitting the news.

“You look at the problem, reverse engineer it and bring in the experts at different stages – and that’s led to some serious success for us.”

Ben Vasiliou

“It was amazing. The program was filled with talented lecturers and professors who shared wonderful problems for us to solve. The case studies were on point, they were relevant to the work that we do. It opened my mind to new ways of thinking and improved my analytical skills. Most importantly, I gained a trusted network of peers. I met some pretty incredible people at Stanford.”

When Ben returned to Youth Projects after spending an additional five weeks visiting not-for-profit organisations, he immediately applied the design thinking he’d learned in the program to the organisation’s strategic plan.

“We learnt to ask what is the problem that we’re attempting to solve here? Because that’s typically the work that we do, we’re solving problems. You look at the problem, reverse engineer it and bring in the experts at different stages – and that’s led to some serious success for us,” explains Ben.

“We’ve just secured a multimillion-dollar Commonwealth contract for five years that will set this organisation up for success and that tender was all managed under that process of design thinking, which I thought was incredible.”

Ben Vasiliou is Chief Executive Officer of Youth Projects, joining the team in 2017. Ben is an experienced CEO and Board Director with a genuine passion for breaking the cycle of disadvantage and creating equal access to social and economic participation for all people.

He was recognised in the Top 5 CEO’s of 2021 by Third Sector, and by Pro Bono Australia as Innovator of the Year and one of the Top 25 most influential and inspiring people in the social economy in 2020.

Ben was scholarship recipient Stanford Australia Foundation Scholarships, Stanford Australia Foundation (2019), he recently graduated from the Executive Education in Social Entrepreneurship Program at Stanford University (USA).

Girl jumping with umbrella front yellow brick wall

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