Listening to locals for better granting impacts

Emily Berry, CEO and Johan Kortenhorst, Board Director Thu, 15 Jul 2021

When your community covers more than 20,000 square kilometres of rural land, natural and man-made disasters and emergencies are inevitable. For some regional communities, facing adversity and responding to crises has certainly been part of life for many years.

We as a community foundation have learnt that the only way we can truly support our communities and environments, is to ensure that they are resilient and prepared. So, in May 2020 the Northern Rivers Community Foundation (NRCF) launched the Resilience and Regeneration Fund.

This began as a research project whereby we contacted our network of grant recipients, local councils, peak bodies and community groups, to find out how they were coping in light of COVID-19 and the most recent bushfires.

We needed to better understand the diverse range of issues affecting our local communities and how we could support our partner organisations to not only survive but thrive during this time of great need.

What’s more we understood it was time to start focusing our funding on the regeneration of our forests, beaches, rural land and the wildlife present therein, to be more resilient to drought, fires and floods.

From there, NRCF stepped up to lead the community in raising funds. We engaged regional media as well as local, national and international foundations for support, and had our most successful fundraiser to date. As a result, in December 2020 we were able to fund 35 organisations and projects that focused on supporting recovery and building resilience in our communities.

There are several distinguishing features in this relationship between community foundations and community: collaboration, trust, a willingness to share information, being open to new ways of working together and understanding each other’s perspective. With a focus on connecting with community groups to understand what is required, community foundations are well placed to respond to community needs by encouraging, promoting and facilitating a ‘whole community’ approach. 

Somewhat ironically, it is precisely this pursuit of community connection that has led to one of the most significant crises in our region. As COVID-19 continues to highlight the importance of community and connectivity, our cities are emptying in search of this connectedness that a rural regional life can offer.

Over the past nine months, significant wealth has flooded into the Northern NSW region with over $300 million worth of real-estate changing hands in the Byron Shire alone. However, this influx of people has displaced many locals and we watch as families are forced into homelessness, our elders sleep in cars, local businesses cry out for employees and young people are forced to leave their communities to find more affordable accommodation.

So how are community foundations best placed to respond to new and constantly changing issues? Through the NRCF Resilience & Regeneration Fund we have learnt that there are three priorities when responding to any community issue.

Firstly, we need to listen to the community to understand the issues in order to advocate for the most appropriate impact and change. This means accessing data, reports and regional, national and international briefing papers. Making connections and having conversations with community organisations, peak bodies, councils, state and federal government representatives and community groups is also a critical process.

Secondly, we need to engage with our community on how best to address the most pressing issues, and become part of the solution by convening and/or supporting community forums, workshops, working groups, strategy sessions and partnerships. One example of this is the NRCF Aunty Project through which we have partnered with a private philanthropist, community housing provider, pro bono project manager, and ‘at cost’ builder to seek council support for, and develop, an affordable housing project for women over 55 – the fastest growing homeless demographic in Australia today.

Thirdly, we need to provide a vehicle for philanthropists to donate in support of these solutions. For NRCF this includes our Housing Fund which we have created to encourage philanthropists to support a variety of different housing solutions that address a cross-section of people in crisis.

The NRCF Housing Fund offers two different giving avenues. The first is the Impact Now Fund which allows donors to support local community organisations as they try to address the increase in demand for homeless support services, while also providing solutions that focus on homelessness prevention. The second is the Housing First Fund whereby donor funds are pooled and invested in long-term affordable housing projects like the Aunty Project, allowing for ongoing investment in our communities’ infrastructure to achieve long-term housing security.

Another example of a locally driven, community-led response to a widespread problem is the End Rough Sleeping Byron Shire Project – a pilot of the state-wide End Rough Sleeping Collaboration initiative which aims to halve rough sleeping across NSW by 2025. One of the priorities of this Byron Shire project is to give a voice to those with lived experience of homelessness. More than just collecting data, it is about listening to the stories of the homeless through case studies and including these voices when workshopping the challenges our region is facing. This creates a deeper connection and understanding of the issues around homelessness and allows for more realistic targets and goals to be set and met. Eventually, it is hoped that this initiative will reshape homeless services to focus on prevention, alongside ensuring homes for the most vulnerable.

We cannot engage, inspire and motivate philanthropy without knowing what the need is and what solutions are out there that can have real and lasting impact.

Community foundations serve as a bridge between donors and beneficiaries, and it is our role to build that bridge and keep the flow of information and funding walking freely across it. The strength of a community foundation lies in ongoing connection to community organisations and their projects, understanding the issues from a broad perspective and proactively seeking solutions and funding to bridge the gaps.

But this is not without its challenges. The difficulty is, that depending on the size of the region the community foundation works in, such an approach can require extensive resources. We have 300,000 people in our Northern Rivers community, however the geographic footprint is over 20,000 square kilometres. Despite the wonders of technology, communication methods such as Zoom just do not suffice when trying to engage authentically around an issue like homelessness. It requires a lot of driving, a lot of meetings and a lot of listening, and eventually you hope to connect people with the same goals and motivation to make a difference. Community groups often have different priorities around an issue, so it is important when bringing people together, that everyone in the room has an understanding of the collective goal.

The key is to look for the gaps, assess their significance, and proactively encourage solutions to fill them. All of these steps require community consultation which takes time, presenting another challenge for community foundations who are often under-resourced.

The primary reason we do not see this community foundation approach being applied in other circumstances is this challenge of time and resources. It is so much easier to sit in the ivory granting tower and keep doing what we are doing while our community is dramatically changing around us. Instead, in these times of great change we need to ask ourselves – Are we still relevant? and Are we still making an impact? We have to be as agile as possible and prepared to review and change our grantmaking practices at any given moment to serve our communities as effectively as we can.

Philanthropy Australia’s Thought Leadership series on Participatory Grantmaking features Lani Evans, from the Vodafone New Zealand Foundation and Michael Jarvis, from the Transparency and Accountability Initiative in Washington, and will be held on Tuesday-Thursday, August 24-26.