Helping local people implement local solutions

By: Natalie Egleton   |   Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal

One of the best parts of my job is being on the road, checking in with rural, regional and remote community leaders and assessing the kind of impacts the grants FRRR distributes are having. It’s also a great way to build on our understanding of the issues, challenges and opportunities in the communities we support.

I learn something new every time I talk to local leaders from small communities about their situation and about what they want to improve, change or grow. One of the first things you realise is that there is no one size fits all solution!

Rural and regional communities have many challenges and gaps. While many needs are similar - such as fixing a dated community meeting space, lack of educational resources or how to attract tourists - there are key differences, and it’s critical to understand them.

One of FRRR’s fundamental tenets is that locals are best placed to make the important decisions about what is needed in their community. So if they say that they need an air-conditioner or new stove for the local hall, we listen.

Small grants, big impact

The majority of our programs offer small grants, many of which go toward essential infrastructure, repairs and resources that enable them to create sustainable places in which to hold events, attract tourists and generally come together. We get hundreds of requests each year to fund things like air-conditioners and dishwashers for community halls, to buy toys and books for pre-school aged children and signage for local tourist attractions. They’re not always the most exciting things but they make an enormous difference in rural and regional Australia.

For example, we recently helped the Ellendale Hall Committee, in Tasmania, to purchase and install an audio-visual system at the community hall to improve the ability to communicate to large numbers of people during emergencies. This simple equipment helps to make the community safer, as well as making the Hall more suitable for community events.

In another example, we funded a group in Toolangi in Victoria to set up a fitness program. It was intended as a short-term program to help locals recover from the 2009 fires, but ended up being a long-term community fitness and well-being scheme. We’ve just funded an evaluation which found benefits in physical and mental health, greater community connectedness, and reduced trauma. Interestingly, there was a marked increase in volunteering and involvement by participants in community groups which is a strong signal of increased connectedness and therefore resilience.

Enabling connections

These kinds of small grants will continue at the core of what we do, but increasingly FRRR and our donor partners do more than provide funding. We also contribute our knowledge and networks to help local leaders tackle bigger challenges. Place-based programs enable a combination of time, money and facilitation to help locals address persistent issues and new challenges.

More and more, we’re helping communities to convene conversations about what the future can look like, and figure out the steps they need to take to make it happen.

It can be a challenge for communities to coalesce around an issue, but we can offer our experience, and that of our partners, to help bring the right people together. We each bring different perspectives and networks, and can help communities tackle issues by finding common points of intersection.

We are currently working with the NSW government, the philanthropic sector and local community groups to address pressing and persistent social issues in three regional NSW communities.

It’s early days but we are working with the community to help them plan and prioritise the areas where they need support. Making local connections is a logical approach because it brings together people who are knowledgeable about their local context, with donor partners who can help them to connect with the whole community system – from government, philanthropy, business, not-for-profit organisations and foundations and the citizens.

Taking a long-term view

We also use small grants to support projects that have a long-term approach to raising social capital, building economic resilience and doing things on a bigger scale. SSE Social Change 101 is a good example. FRRR has partnered with the School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE) and the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund to deliver SSE’s Social Change 101 program in three regions that were impacted by the 2009 Victorian bushfires.

It is helping people in those communities explore new ways to create opportunity and address gaps by creating a social enterprise. This will also help build capacity in the community for the long-term.

Combining resources to raise local funds

Many not-for-profits in rural, regional and remote Australia don’t have DGR1, and are not likely to obtain that status. By accessing fundraising capability via FRRR’s Donation Accounts, which allow people and entities to make a tax deductible donation towards the project, if they channel the funds via FRRR, we can put power in the community’s hands. It enables them to explore the full range of philanthropic opportunities to raise funds directly for locally developed projects. This is critical, for example, when applying for large grants where matched funding is required.

Often, it means they can ‘think big’. The tiny community of Bower, in South Australia, is one such group that is harnessing this opportunity. They have gradually been improving the facilities on the local recreation reserve, including creating a Post Office service, caravan park and improving the local hall, just to list a few of their initiatives, all of which have benefitted the community both economically and socially.

There are so many ways that philanthropy can help to build adaptive, sustainable, vibrant rural, regional and remote communities. Ultimately, it comes back to understanding context, which we believe is best done through consultation, and then collaborating to determine the best solutions. After all, the locals know best.

May. 13, 2016

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