It all started with a playgroup in Broken Hill. Maari Ma, an Aboriginal community controlled regional health organisation in far west NSW, decided to establish a playgroup for Aboriginal children as part of a strategic framework document around Aboriginal child development and well-being.
At that stage, Maari Ma had no government funding, but in the words of its CEO Bob Davis, “…it was us putting our money where our mouth was.’’ Maari Ma planned that the playgroup for Aboriginal children would be led by an early childhood trained teacher and supported by clinic-based staff. And that’s where the CAGES Foundation came in.
For the past nine years, CAGES has been part of Maari Ma’s progress, although that first playgroup is something that still gives Bob Davis a sense of achievement. “Very soon we had a weekly playgroup attended by large numbers of families who saw the playgroup as a sanctuary and a safe space, which eventually culminated in a float in the Broken Hill Christmas pageant. It was glorious to see,’’ he says.
The relationship between Maari Ma and CAGES has been important to both organisations.
Gemma Salteri, CAGES Foundation Executive Director, is candid about the impact of its work with Maari Ma. “CAGES has learned more from this relationship with Maari Ma than they have from us,’’ she says. “The key lesson is to trust community vision and community capability. It’s challenging as a funder, and as a human in anything to leave your own world view at the front door…you have to constantly check in and remind yourself that your vision of success might be completely different to another community, another culture’s vision of success.’’
For Bob Davis, it was CAGES’ preparedness to be engaged with what Maari Ma was doing. “CAGES was the first philanthropic organisation to ever approach Maari Ma, so that was a unique situation for us. And straight away that made the relationship different: we hadn’t gone looking for funding with our hat in our hand: CAGES had asked around and gone looking for something specific that would achieve their own objectives,’’ he says. “That was specifically a community-led organisation focussed on Aboriginal maternal and child health and wellbeing. ‘’
One of the consequences of CAGES funding that playgroup was that it opened up Maari Ma to government funding. And that changed the situation too.
“If CAGES had not funded the playgroup, we wouldn’t have had the actual data and rich stories of the impact the playgroup had on the lives of the children and their parents. Seeing children learn through play, seeing their parents understanding their child’s development, learning through role modelling, taking that important position as their child’s first teacher, building connections for people, supporting people to access the other services Maari Ma offers…this all came about through that first playgroup,’’ Bob explains. “Government could not deny the importance of it after that and that was all thanks to CAGES.’’
Once the playgroup was up and running though, it didn’t mean that CAGES walked away from Maari Ma. It shifted its focus to help in other areas. “CAGES supported the training of two Aboriginal allied health assistants to work with our new allied health team. Then they provided funding for our maternal and child health program; and now they have funded the expansion of a school readiness program we were running in Broken Hill which we can now offer in Wilcannia and Menindee,’’ Bob says.
Gemma explains that CAGES has grown with Maari Ma, and the funding arrangement has changed to reflect Maari Ma’s priorities. “It’s really been driven by Maari Ma,’’ she says.
So perhaps it’s entirely appropriate that Maari Ma means “coming together’’ or “working together.’’
But the relationship between funder and recipient has also, in some ways, highlighted how different it is to government’s approach in the same space.
“Government funding is done on such a macro level that it doesn’t have flexibility or space for communities to use that funding to deliver unique community needs and every community is different,’’ Gemma says. “Governments fund in such [a] regimented siloed way, organisations are then just trying to scramble to make things fit to what governments need.’’
Rachel Kerry, CAGES Executive Officer, says there are clear differences between government and the Foundation when it comes to the relationship on the ground. “We put trust, autonomy and self-determination on the table with the funding we give to Maari Ma,’’ she says.
And it’s clear from discussions with Maari Ma and CAGES that the critical element of the relationship is Maari Ma’s independence and preparedness to set the direction and priorities. When asked to identify the key elements of the relationship with CAGES, Bob Davis talks about their equal footing and shared vision.
“CAGES do not take Maari Ma for granted and we do not take them for granted,’’ he says. “A long time ago, Maari Ma had discussions with government about the need for longer term funding than just two, three or five years as is the norm. In order to make a real difference in Aboriginal health and families, you need to invest for at least 10 years. Well, this is what CAGES has done. We are very grateful that CAGES shared our vision for supporting Aboriginal families.’’
Gemma agrees. “We try to create space for organisations to do two things – to build out a strategy that makes sense to their community and is driven by their community, but also to just have the ability to respond to community needs as they arise,’’ she says. “And I think that’s what government funding fails to do.’’
Bob calls it “…reliable quiet support…’’ and says it’s made a ‘huge difference’ to Maari Ma. “We would encourage other philanthropists to take a similar approach: support over a longer term rather than a shorter term makes a big difference to an NGO or community-based organisation and the ‘data’ you get back will not just be numbers but richer outcomes in children and families’ lives,’’ he says.
In the absence of other players, Gemma sees philanthropy has a vital role in demonstrating and building evidence that autonomy with funding provides the most effective outcomes.
“Certainly, in our experience with Maari Ma and across many other Aboriginal-controlled organisations that we fund, our experience has been that if you give autonomy and agency with funding then organisations just deliver superior outcomes every time,’’ she says.
"Ninti has been a sponsor for this award to recognise the relationship between philanthropists and communities that improve the lives of Aborigional and Torres Strait Islander,” says Alison Page, Board Member at Ninti One Limited and Chair, Ninti Pty Ltd at the 2021 Australian Philanthropy Awards.