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”.
The flights and accommodation were booked, the agenda was ready, the coffee was practically poured. However, in the midst of all of this, the world as we knew it was changing. Things were moving rapidly and, it was decided that flying our townspeople from around country South Australia and bringing partner organisations from interstate for several days was not the best plan. And, as this was a mental health initiative, the welfare of everyone was always going to be our number one priority.
As luck would have it, we were working closely with the team from The Australian Centre for Social Innovation who rapidly formulated a Plan B. We would take the entire face-to-face retreat – from workshops to afternoon teas – and plug it into the virtual world. As a result, about 20 of our rural and regional town participants were beamed in from Berri, Ceduna, Cummins, Kangaroo Island, Kimba and the Mid Murray region. They were joined by our support team members in both South Australia and the eastern states, including our evaluation partner Clear Horizon. Over two days everyone was guided through a series of workshop activities and discussions. The technology allowed for real time collaboration on key issues, whole of group conversations and even small group video chatrooms.
Although our rural and regional representatives may have had some initial misgivings and were disappointed they didn’t get the chance to meet in person, they were really surprised at what could be achieved online.
Here are some of the things they said:
The town and regional representatives were even taken through an online video editing session and here is one of the great results from someone who was initially sceptical about her own talents! Even though we couldn’t fly over there in person, Jeanette was able to take us to her beautiful home in Kangaroo Island.
The support team was equally pleased with the outcome and could observe the participants sharing their expertise and learning from each other. Overall, while there were some obvious limits to the online environment, such as the fact that the usual interpersonal cues were missing, the retreat was deemed a resounding success.
Niall joined our foundation in November just as we were gearing up for a state-wide tour stopping in at the nine towns and regions that were shortlisted for Our Town mental health funding.
It’s been a busy few months for Niall who is new to the philanthropic sector but brings a fresh perspective and transferable experience from his work in the innovation and Research and Development space. He talked to Philanthropy Australia recently about his unexpected career path to get here.
Niall said the while he had a simple understanding of philanthropy beforehand, the day-to-day reality was different but the underlying aim was as he anticipated.
‘Our foundation is passionate about supporting the South Australian community and using what we have learnt to influence national conversations,’ he says.
Reflecting on his time so far, Niall says: ‘What I have seen is a foundation that has evolved and grown rapidly over the past 10-15 years.’
The Fay Fuller Foundation has gone from inception to having its first CEO and staff members and has refined its focus significantly over that time.
Niall says he’s comfortable with the current focus area for the foundation on health funding and the recent spotlight on mental health. He says the foundation was in a really good place when he took the reins, particularly the Our Town mental health initiative.
Niall says the visits to towns shortlisted for Our Town funding with The Australian Centre for Social Innovation brought home the realities that South Australia’s rural and regional areas are facing.
‘We may have read the applications but meeting people from these communities in person was extremely important in bringing their challenges to life and we learnt a huge amount,’ he says.
‘We weren’t anticipating the extent of the challenges that the communities were facing and the extent that they were let down by a system that wasn’t designed to meet their needs – this was eye-opening.’
However, also evident was a reservoir of resilience and commitment.
‘There was such a singular focus on people helping people – community supporting itself – often driven by necessity,’ Niall says.
He says the willingness of people to sacrifice their time and energy and their insights on the mental health challenges their communities were dealing with ‘blew me away’.
‘The communities demonstrated that they were more than willing and motivated to get in and make the changes they wanted to see over a long period.’
‘If they were provided with the power, agency and resources to start to address some of the systemic challenges they were facing, as well as a say in shaping the system which was holding some of those challenges in place, then real change could happen,’ Niall says. ‘The real excitement is going to be watching that unfold.’
As to the future of the Fay Fuller Foundation, Niall wants to build on the momentum started by his predecessor and the foundation’s inaugural CEO Stacey Thomas.
This included continuing to build understanding of the context in which the foundation provides funding, an understanding of its funding partners and the foundation’s practices across all areas.
He’s also looking at the potential for a ‘layered approach’ to funding and grant provision.
‘A layering approach is all about supporting learning over varying time frames and by different means whether it be via practice, investigation or experimentation. What is then crucial though, is turning what has been learnt into knowledge by sharing it with others,’ he explains.
‘Learning and knowledge creation happen in many ways and, as a result, I have a really open mind around who we might work with as a foundation.’
Niall is open to discussions with not-for-profit organisations, community groups, government or the corporate sector. The proviso is that those groups need to be strongly aligned to and committed to the health needs of the community.
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.