Niall joined the Foundation from outside of philanthropy bringing a diverse professional background and experience working in multi-disciplinary teams. This background has given him an appreciation for the insights people with broad expertise can contribute towards a shared vision. The focus on forming strong partnerships with a horizontal power structure is something he wants to bring to the philanthropy sector. The goal is not to “fund and forget”, but to invest in understanding where the need is, as identified by the community and to fund the best people and organisations to work collectively in finding a solution.
This past year Niall has dedicated time to building his understanding of the nuances and intricacies of philanthropy. He described philanthropic organisations as the “custodians of public money” and identified the potential to move beyond the constraints of traditional philanthropy such as short-term, discreet investments and to instead broaden impact by evolving granting practices, deepening relationships, and innovating funding models. “We are already beginning to see some of the ideas, processes and concepts at play in initiatives like Our Town be picked up by government departments and other philanthropic organisations”.
It has also been a year of internal change for the Foundation as it grows both in terms of giving, with a corpus that has nearly doubled in size, and staffing as it grows to a team of three. “In 2021 we’ll be implementing some of the big ideas from the past 12 months, including opening up a new funding area from July next year”. New additions to the team bring with them a range of experience in the non-profit granting space and the international development sector and are dedicated to creating change and impact within the community.
With this growth comes a responsibility to ensure our practices across all areas mature – this includes reflecting on past funding practices and the composition of our board and team. “It’s important that we reflect on the Foundation’s previous work and use our learnings to inform our future practices across everything we do”. Part of beginning this process has been to establish a set of values central to who we are and where we as a foundation came from. We are now in the process of taking the values and translating them into principles to use as a measure of how closely our work aligns with the goals of the Foundation and to which we can be held accountable. By next year we intend to have these available, both as an internal charter and as a social contract accessible to the public via our website.
Niall praised the work of the Foundation’s previous CEO Stacey Thomas, now CEO of the Wyatt Trust. “Stacey laid down a great foundation for me to come in and continue to evolve our practice informed by my own experience and background”. He finished by saying “When it gets to a point where I feel I’ve given everything I can, I too hope to have been able to create the conditions within the Foundation for someone else to come in and take it even further”.
We were joined on this fascinating and inspiring tour by members of The Australian Centre for Social Innovation. Our itinerary took us to the banks of the River Murray, into pastoral land on Eyre Peninsula, wine country in the Barossa Valley, the Murray Mallee region and onto Kangaroo Island. The landscape changed significantly but many of the stories were the same. We heard about the devastating impact of suicide on small communities, the battle to cope with a lack of mental health services and, in many cases, a roll up your sleeves resolve that ‘if no one else is going to help us, we’ll do it ourselves!’
All the communities we met have been able to achieve so much with so little such was their commitment to making a difference. There was a clear demonstration to us that they were all ready to embrace change and try something different.
The rates of volunteering in these communities was among the biggest strengths that we saw.
This was a real positive for their communities but we also heard about the risk of ‘volunteer burnout’ which was a mental health challenge in itself.
We saw the way towns were able to create shared community spaces that were embraced by their residents. These included libraries that could be used by both schools and community members and sporting complexes where several codes shared clubrooms.
However, we also saw some of the obstacles to change that we’re hoping the Our Town initiative will help to tackle.
In their applications many people mentioned the stigma that still exists around discussing mental health. There is so much pride in these towns and regions – particularly in our farming communities. This could make it difficult for people to talk about what was really going on under the surface.
We also heard about the challenges of engaging some of the harder to reach groups in rural and regional communities. These could include LGBTIQ communities, isolated residents or those who might have moved to the regions more recently seeking relief from increasing cost of living.
Isolation was a prevalent issue and this wasn’t just isolation from the city, there was also isolation within communities especially for people without transport. This could prevent the meaningful connections that are essential for good mental health.
Other barriers to community connection included the impact of inter-generational trauma and the issue of identity and belonging within communities. There were many discussions about what it meant to be a local and how long someone needed to live in a community to be seen as local.
Despite all of the challenges, the people we met showed incredible drive and hope for the future. We saw so many examples of people working tirelessly to make their communities even better places to live. We are excited to partner with SA communities for Our Town and see just how much can be achieved.