The role of community foundations in bushfire recovery

By: Ben Rodgers   |   Executive Officer for the Inner North Community Foundation and chair of Australian Community Philanthropy

This summer, a seven-year old called Adella Churches, from Wodonga, spent her holidays making cards. Like all of us, she wanted to help people impacted by bushfires, and used her skills and energy to raise money for the Border Trust Bushfire Relief Fund. To date she has raised $1500, and her story has been shared across north east Victoria.

Adella’s story is just one example of how local people in Albury Wodonga are seeing themselves in the story of their community. The Alter Family, owner of the Myer Centrepoint Albury has given $50,000 and Hume Bank branches are collection points for the appeal.

This sense of community is obvious across the country and helps drive engagement with the local community foundation – many Australians are turning to their local community foundation as a way of strengthening existing relationships and to ensure an effective response to local events.

  • In NSW at the foothills of the Snowy Mountains, the Community Foundation for the Tumut Region has reactivated its Disaster Appeal. Last month the Tumut Turf club held a race day with a gold coin entry that went to the Appeal. One child brought in large jar filled with more than $800 in coins. The day raised $4,700. When the smoke finally (and literally) clears, funds raised will be used as vouchers in local stores so that the local economy is stimulated and local people get resources.
  • In Western Australia, donors in Fremantle have come together to start the Freo Fire Fund at the Fremantle Foundation, to help fire-affected communities and advocate for strategies that reduce the severity and frequency of bushfires.
  • In South Australia, where the Fleurieu Peninsula has a strong affinity with Kangaroo Island, local fundraising planned by the Fleurieu Community Foundation is being re-directed to support its neighbour.

This is a national effort that is felt at very local levels. Across ages and life circumstances, people of all levels of wealth are being generous for bushfire-impacted communities. There are different roles to play, both in immediate relief for shelter and crises response, and the long-term strengthening work for rural communities that will continue in the months and years ahead.

Partnerships are critical to get better outcomes for people and communities, and the community foundation model is one part of the mix. It is a way to shift capital from where it is and to where it can be turned into community value. It gives local people choices about how funds are used that are appropriate in their region and leverages other community assets beyond grants.

Of the 42 local government areas receiving federal government bushfire relief support, 24% are served by a local community foundation. Ideally, all communities would have access to a local community foundation that can provide a place for local social infrastructure, and over time this will grow. 

After the 2009 Black Saturday, the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund established five community foundations in Victoria’s northeast. This was well supported by the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal (FRRR), who played a key role in developing:

the Stronger Community Foundations grant program to enable these five Community Foundations / Trusts to navigate the complexities of grant-making in their individual community contexts, be networked and connected to others in their field and best practices, and be positioned to reflect and be a voice for local community issues and priorities.

Because of this investment 10 years ago in social infrastructure, communities like Wangaratta have a local organisation playing a critical role in the current response. Into Our Hands, a community foundation in north-east Victoria has been run by the right people at the right time with the result that it has built its organisational capacity and leadership to be a trusted, local expert.

Our American colleagues have a saying: “If you’ve seen one community foundation, you’ve seen one community foundation.’ They have different inception stories and respond to different local circumstances but provide a similar way for communities to mobilize around issues and help build the connective tissue that binds people to their communities, and each other.

It gives people who see themselves in the story of their community a place where they can all contribute to their shared long-term prosperity of place. These events demonstrate re-affirm that people of all ages can be philanthropic. We’ve all got a role to play - whether you’re a seven-year-old or a local business leader – and community foundations can support people’s contribution to the place they call home.

*Since this piece was written, the Fremantle Foundation has made its first grant from the Freo Fire Fund. A grant of $8,000 has been directed to the Community Foundation for the Tumut Region to help with a part-time appeal co-ordinator, something the volunteer board stated was desperately needed.

Feb. 12, 2020

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