Adrian Appo: ‘I’d love to say we’ve solved it all, but there’s still a way to go’ 

Fri, 7 Jul 2023

Adrian Appo is a Gooreng Gooreng man from the Bundaberg area in Queensland. Here, he talks on eldership, breaking down barriers facing First Nations’ enterprise; why 95% of indigenous businesses have a social agenda; the Voice to Parliament; capacity building and how his portfolio area is planning to make a real difference in the Indigenous jobs space in a six-year spend-down.   

Adrian was one of the co-founders of First Australians Capital, a founding board member of Australian Centre for Rural Entrepreneurship and founding CEO of Ganbina, a highly successful Indigenous school-to-work transition program empowering Indigenous communities to achieve social and economic equality. He currently leads a First Nations portfolio at a large foundation.  

Adrian is to be one of the Co-Chair’s of Philanthropy Australia’s First Nations Funders Group and his directorships include the Salvation Army Australian Territory Board and the Social Enterprise Australia Board. Adrian has his own business and also sits on Indigenous Advisory Committees at Mannifera, Westpac and Equity Trustees. He served in the Royal Australian Air Force and is a graduate of the University of Sydney, Melbourne Business School, Harvard University and the Fairley Leadership and Williamson Leadership Programs. He has been awarded the Defence Service Medal, Centenary Medal and Order of Australia Medal. 

Adrian on his relationship to his own elders and what the theme means to him. 

When I was growing up, I wasn’t really aware of First Nations eldership being a special space, like I am today. My mum and dad had an open house, so if people came to visit, suddenly the food went further, beds were made to extend the hospitality. As I’ve gotten older, I see now that was all an extension of Aboriginal culture. If you are welcoming someone on to your country, if you’re welcoming someone into your home, it’s your responsible to ensure that they’re cared for and safe. I’m one of eight siblings and we have many nieces, nephews and cousins, so the food has to go a long way sometimes! 

I was in my mid-20s when I became more aware of connecting with my elders, sitting down and understanding the meaning behind stories, rather than just listening to them. I spent a lot of time with my dad and uncles, taking in their wisdom. And as my sisters took some joy in reminding me a couple of weeks ago, that as I’ve turned 60, I hold eldership now, so the responsibility has translated from acknowledging the wealth and wisdom from my elders to imparting the wealth and wisdom. But eldership is not about oldership, it’s about the wisdom you bring to the table. 

I’m always learning too. I know part of my history, where I grew up on Gooreng Gooreng country, but I have no claim to expertise about living in remote communities or desert country. When I visit there, I’m just as awestruck to an extent as I was when I was a young fella and my dad talked about how you catch mud crabs here or watch out for crocodiles there. Now my grandkids ask me how I know all these things and I take them out on to the lands where my mum grew up to get them connected.  

On breaking down the barriers to accessing financial services and economic structures that First Nations entrepreneurs face.   
I’d love to say that we’ve solved it all. Sometimes I think, ‘Wow we have made progress’ but there’s some way to go. There’s great opportunity, but we have to balance that with the limitations that inhibit Aboriginal people from where they could be in terms of economic development. Aboriginal communities and individuals are inherently asset poor. They don’t have the family dollars to draw on to start businesses. The biggest asset that most people use in the western system to access capital is land. And yet, in a cultural sense, land is Mother. For an Aboriginal person, you’re being asked to put a family member up as collateral.  

On capacity-building aboriginal organsations. 
Whether it’s access to capital or funding via philanthropy, we need to ask, ‘Are we providing these to Aboriginal organisations or businesses in a way that allows their capacity building so they can move forward?’ 

I come across any number of entities who say to me, ‘Can you find us an Aboriginal investment that’s fund-ready? And the reality is, that while there are some, the majority aren’t. And it’s because of trickle-feed funding, so we’ll fund them by project but they’re never able to build the capacity they need to utilise opportunities. If we really want to empower the Aboriginal space, investors need to be prepared to invest early to develop the capacity, then invest again to get the financial or social return. 

The other challenge is that First Nations people aren’t allowed to fail. If we do fail, the funder or investor disappears, and not just from that particular business or social enterprise, but from the First Nations sector. And yet we know that the vast majority of entrepreneurs fail three, four, five times, but they’ll get one thing really right. That mindset doesn’t apply to First Nations businesses, so they don’t get those learning chances. 
On co-chairing Philanthropy Australia’s First Nations Funders Group and its focus. 

There was a time when coming together to just share experiences served a purpose but philanthropy in Australian has matured a lot and if we’re wanting to change the status in the First Nations space, this group needs to be more active and proactive moving forward.  

We need to be looking at how are we doing best practice in First Nations philanthropy. We should be bold and look outside of Australia to see how we’re matching up. I’ve never shied away from doing things differently and being ambitious, so my aspiration would be, ‘Why can’t Australia be leading best practice philanthropy in the First Nations space internationally?’  

On why 95% of aboriginal businesses – both social enterprise and for-profit – tracked by First Australians Capital tended to have a social agenda, such as creating more employment, mental health programs or caring for the land. 

This is interesting and it’s just my view, but generally, if you ask an Aboriginal person what’s important to them, they’ll say, ‘Family, community, country, culture’. Then it’s having a job, money, revenue, assets, like a house and car. It follows that the jobs, revenue and assets have to benefit or support those higher priorities – they can’t be to their detriment.  

If it was all about making money, every Aboriginal group in Australia would be out there mining their land themselves and not worrying about sacred sites or what destruction is happening to the land and environment.  

One of the beauties of being a First Nations person is how we’re connected, not only to each other in Australia, but to other First Nations groups wherever they are in the world. The Iroquois nations in America talk about what your actions are doing to benefit seven generations ahead, and that’s how our worldview is different to westernised thinking that’s more focused on the here and now.  

On his current work focus as the First Nations Lead at a large foundation that has made a commitment to spend down its funds by 2030. 

We’re revising strategy now because we’ve only got six years. Our north star is around the economic space of jobs and revenue. Why? Because from my own experience and research, it’s clear that when First Nations people have been fully engaged in the economy, the social and welfare indicators have improved compared to similar countries, such as New Zealand and Canada.  

So for me, if we can become part of the real economy, we will be determining our own future. And it addresses those Closing the Gap target areas that have become important since 2008. The latest data I saw was that only four of the 15 targets are on track to be achieved.  
We’re doing some scoping work, but we’re looking at making the impact in the next six years of 20,000 jobs and $2 billion in revenue. To enable this, we need to build a network of around 4,000 resilient Aboriginal organisations.  

In some cases, we’re dealing with 200 years of imposed trauma and problems, so you’re not going to solve that with 12 months of funding, or in our foundation’s case, six years. Our focus is lifting philanthropy up to give more and give better in the First Nations space. Our aspiration is essentially to replace ourselves.  
On the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. 

Just say Yes. It’s really difficult for me to understand how anyone could do anything but say Yes.  
When people talk about the constitution being an enshrined historic document, actually that historic document actively discriminates. Then there are the laws of the land that say we can’t practice racism or discriminate and yet we can, through that constitution. So it perplexes me that we could be happy to live with that confusion.  

The other thing is that I served in the defence force, as did my brother. I’ve got three great-nephews who are serving members. Many Aboriginal servicemen have died, especially during the Vietnam War. So why is our country happy for us to serve and give our lives, but finds it so difficult to recognise us as people?  

On why Adrian has chosen the two stories he has Philanthropy Weekly. 

I wanted to focus on the work that FAC is doing because this is what needs to happen if we do want to make systemic change in relation to First Nations communities. The other aspect I wanted to highlight is the difference that long-term philanthropic partnerships can make through the way that the AMP Foundation has supported FAC. What AMP has shown is that if you’re funding something really good, then you fund the capacity-building, you last the distance, and as the research shows, you pay what it takes. In terms of Firesticks and NAILSMA, I wanted to highlight a story that shows knowledge and practice that’s 65,000+ years old solving the 21st century problem of controlling carbon pollution that is world-leading.  

On what could enhance collaboration and relationships between First Nations peoples and the philanthropic sector?  
There’s room to develop when it comes to relinquishing control of what is seen as success. And in looking at how we engage with First Nations leadership, communities and organisations so that we listen to them around what the problems and solutions are. Then funding them to deliver.  

Instead, what we often do is come in with a mindset or a model that’s been successful elsewhere and try to use that as a blueprint across the issues First Nations communities are dealing with. All too often as funders we come in and rather than ask what the issue is – we instead say “we’re prepared to fund employment programs or health programs” or some other particular pre-determined issue, instead of talking to the community first.  What we fund and how we determine success is determined by our own bias.  

In his book Decolonising Wealth, Edgar Villanueva discusses the power imbalance in decision-making, among other issues. Funding decisions on what is good or not good for First Nations communities occurs without any First Nations input. There is a caution for philanthropy that we don’t set the agenda by the power of our dollars. 
On what questions non-indigenous Australians should be asking First Nations peoples. 

The biggest one is just that – non-Indigenous Australians aren’t asking, they’re telling. Non-Indigenous Australians are not trying to understand that our definition of success is different to that of a western and commercial perspective. Remember the order of importance I mentioned for Aboriginal people – why would they do a job or run a business if it hurts family, community or country? Non-indigenous Australia sometimes think they’ve got things 100% right, but if you look at what we’re doing to the environment and how the climate is changing, how could you think that?