Q&A: Madeleine Buchner OAM, Little Dreamers
In 2009, a group of young carers came together and asked, “who cares for the carers?”.
13 years later, Little Dreamers is Australia’s leading not-for-profit working to improve the quality of life of young carers. Their Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder, Madeleine Buchner OAM, is one of Australia’s outstanding young leaders.
In June 2022, VFFF approved $900,000 over three years to build Little Dreamers’ capacity to respond to increased demand. In this Q&A, we spoke to Maddy about Little Dreamers, her recent experience at the 2022 Philanthropy Australia Conference, and what it is like being a young leader guiding an organisation through a significant growth period.
VFFF: You started Little Dreamers while you were still in school. How and why did you start the organisation?
Maddy: My parents always instilled in me the perspective that ‘if you don’t agree with something, or something doesn’t feel right, you have the power to change it’.
I grew up as a Young Carer for my brother and mother, who had a myriad of health challenges including chronic illnesses, allergies and learning difficulties. This had a profound impact on my childhood and the type of person I am today. I have used my lived experience to ensure that no child with a caring role grows up feeling like I did – lonely, isolated, angry, frustrated, and unvalued.
When I think back to how I started Little Dreamers, it was a lot of googling to try and figure things out. I was nine years old when I ran my first fundraiser to support the siblings of sick kids, and 16 when I officially launched Little Dreamers. Over the past 13 years (or 20 years really) I have come to understand the power of asking for help, and the strength in admitting when you don’t know how to do something.
Today, I am proud to be an entrepreneur and social innovator with a passion for supporting people often overlooked in the Australian community, Young Carers.
Since then, Little Dreamers has grown to a team of 50, with offices in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Bundaberg. How has it felt to be a young person leading an organisation through a period of significant growth?
I have grown up with significant anxiety and stepping into a leadership role has been very daunting at times but also incredibly rewarding. In order to be the best leader I can be, with what feels like little ‘technical’ experience, I am constantly trying to upskill to support the team in the best way possible.
"One of the greatest lessons I have learned as a young leader is the power of courage, honesty, and authenticity."
I strongly believe in an environment where every person feels comfortable to talk about how they feel and what they think, even if it isn't always positive. As a leader it is important that my team know how I am feeling and what I am striving for. I have weekly meetings with each of my team members, in which we have an open and honest discussion about progress, what can be improved and how this can be achieved. The only way we can get better is by being realistic, hearing criticism and growing from it.
I believe one of the greatest things I have embedded at Little Dreamers is a culture of growth, leaving behind our comfort zone and looking beyond the realm of what we even may think is possible.
Little Dreamers received VFFF funding under the Contributing to Society focus area, aligned with the funding outcome more organisations genuinely embed youth voice in their work. Can you tell us how Little Dreamers works to elevate the voices of young people?
Little Dreamers is driven by lived experience, with Young Carers represented at every level of our organisation. Our intake and assessment process applies a goal setting approach, where Young Carers drive their own support needs with our Family Support Workers to create an execution plan. Our programs all go through a regular co-design process, not only at the beginning of building a new program, but annually to ensure that everything we do ensures young people have the most important seat at the table.
Two years ago we formalised our Young Carer Ambassador Program and 16 incredible Young Carers came together to develop the first Young Carer Advocacy Report. This report represented the views of hundreds of Young Carers who participated in focus groups and completed online surveys to have their voices heard by the community. Our Ambassadors created key recommendations for community and Government and continue to meet quarterly to elevate the voices of hundreds of thousands of young people growing up with caring roles in Australia.
"Including Young Carers in our volunteers, staffing team, on our Board and in our advisory networks is not a tick box for us, it's crucial to the success of Little Dreamers into the future."
Earlier this month, you accompanied VFFF to the Philanthropy Australia Conference. What did you view as some of the key takeaways of the conference, and what was your experience as a not-for-profit attendee?
Firstly, a big thank you to the VFFF team for giving me the opportunity to attend the Philanthropy Australia Conference! The conference was a great opportunity for me to gain insight into the priorities and focus areas of philanthropists. It was like getting an inside peek into the back end of the funders that we submit grants to, but not in a sneaky way. It was amazing! Over the two days, I took pages and pages of notes about what we could be doing more of, how we could position Little Dreamers to be more accessible and attractive to funding partners and how I could further mobilise my team to create more impact.
My key takeaways from the conference were:
- Don’t skimp on impact measurement – invest in both data metrics and personal stories to create a powerful pitch to donors;
- Don’t rely on one donor, or one form of funding – develop a multidimensional revenue strategy for long term success; and
- Network network network! – pre-COVID I would meet with new people weekly, and this conference reminded me of just how important that process is. You never know who you will meet or who they could introduce you too.
What advice do you have for other young changemakers looking to start their own organisation or initiative?
My greatest piece of advice is that even on the days you hate your job, and it feels like you’re pushing a broken wheelbarrow up a hill, make sure you love what you do.
I am incredibly emotionally attached to Little Dreamers, but irrespective of that – I absolutely love my job. I love building programs, working with our families, and sharing Young Carer stories around the world.
As young changemakers we are going to pour everything we have into our organisations and initiatives. Over the past 20 years I have found that when everything falls apart, the only reason I have been able to keep going is because I genuinely love what I do and pushing through all the mud just allows me to continue to love it for another day.