Better Philanthropy Award 2021

It takes time to make a difference

​Tourists passing through Cummins and its hinterland on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula see a charming township with a strong sense of its history, surrounded by rich farming land and a handy proximity to some stunning beaches. What tourists see, however, is not always the reality. Like every town, every Australian community, there are issues, particularly around mental health.

Emma Gale works in mental health in Cummins. Each suicide statistic has a profound connection in small towns, and the three local young women who took their lives in the past few years were all well-known. The cumulative impact of the deaths on the Cummins community was stark. “We knew the town was ready for a change,’’ Emma says. 

The support for that change came in the form of a unique approach that recasts the philanthropic model to provide a long-term and place-based approach to empower communities to resolve their own mental health challenges. It’s a program called Our Town, and it’s delivered across 10 years with the Fay Fuller Foundation to several small towns in South Australia.

 It’s an innovation that offers each of the communities an opportunity to take a long-term view about a solution that works for them. A traditional philanthropic approach may respond to the sense of immediate crisis with a new service model and funding to support it. But as Fay Fuller CEO Niall Fay points out, over time, those services will disappear, and the money will run out. “And the underlying causes, and the drivers in place that are holding so many of these conditions within your community which are leading to people in distress are still going to be untouched,’’ he says. 

Our Town is designed to help overcome that, by going deeper for longer. By the time it reaches its conclusion, Our Town will have become embedded in the towns, part of their community life for 13 or 14 years once the initial consultation and development is added to the decade-long support. There’s no rushed solution, no urgent response. It’s a slow understanding of the issues and a measured analysis of the solutions. “It allows the communities to move at the pace of community and if that’s quicker some day and faster others, they’ve got that ability to do it,’’ Niall says.

On the ground, that translates into an open dialogue that’s both supportive and empowering.

Emma, who is Our Town guardian for Cummins, says: “They recognised really, really early on that communities know what’s going on and they also have the skillset there to create change, so they gave us the support to identify what the real underlying issues were and where we would be best fitted to try to make change.’’ 

“They didn’t tell us what to do, they didn’t do it for us, they actually gave us the ability to do that for ourselves,’’ Emma says. “But never once have they said, that’s not the right direction, you need to take it this way…and to support you with funding and coaching to be actually able to tackle those issues…’’

The place-based philanthropic approach is one that has significant currency, and in one sense, Our Town represents a compelling vision of how it can be applied in Australia.

But Niall offers a word of caution about seeing Our Town as a conventional example of place-based philanthropy. “So, if place-based is the solution, then I think philanthropy often rushes to place-based where to do place-based right you need to move a lot slower,’’ he says. “To do it well, there needs to be a different attitude and that needs to start at the board level.’’

Much of the Cummins’ response has been based on community dialogue and research. Emma says discussions with the community identified the shortage of youth mental health support, which has started to be addressed with a youth-support facility and one of the local high school teachers operating as a ‘youth connector’’ to help teenagers learn how better to spot if their peers need help. 

Last year, Emma was part of team that undertook research with the local police, ambulance, GPs, among others to identify what they thought was the biggest contributing factor to poor mental health within the district. The answer came back – drugs and alcohol.

“No other town in Our Town has identified it as such a big problem,’’ Emma says. “We’ve normalized it… It’s a very sensitive subject – people are using drugs and alcohol for different reasons, not because it’s a cultural thing…’’ 

Additional research has tapped into the diversity of the town’s population, ranging from the LGBQTI+ community, to the CWA, the Men’s Shed and the Indigenous community, to ensure the underrepresented voices were heard. “We went to them and sought out their opinions. And took it back to the community and asked: ‘Can you see yourself in these insights and can you see your community in these insights’ – and they said ‘Yes’, and how do you think we can overcome this, and shared ideas about potential solutions, and then we themed them,’’ Emma says. The three themes were connection (between people and also between people and places); education and upskilling and thirdly, partnerships across the community, so that everyone plays a role in supporting community well-being. “They’ve perhaps recognized not everyone is playing an active role and there is an opportunity with Our Town to make that a reality, which is something we haven’t had before,’’ Emma says.

Despite the excitement and recognition surrounding the Our Town innovation, Niall is not advocating for the approach to become a template across the country. “We don’t want fundamentally to have created in 10-years’ time a network of 100 rural and regional communities that consider themselves an Our Town team under an Our Town model,’’ he says.

“What we want to do is to fundamentally prove at a community level, that community can be at the heart of catalyzing change.’’

And when it comes to the Better Philanthropy Award 2021, Niall also identifies Our Town partners The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) and Clear Horizon for their work, but also, fundamentally, the communities themselves. “The power sharing was very much about identifying that best practice philanthropy is not owned by philanthropy: it’s owned by everyone having a clear understanding what’s wanted and needed and expected of one another in a change space,’’ Niall says.

“The Fay Fuller Foundation is looking to go beyond traditional philanthropy. Focusing on trust-based relationships, spending time in the towns it partners with and paying what it takes to meet community goals,” says Anna Le Masurier, Regional Head of Macquarie Group Foundation during the Australian Philanthropy Awards 2021.

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