Going the distance - Cathy Freeman Foundation

Perpetual Impact

Addressing the challenges facing remote Indigenous communities requires a long-term commitment that draws on the experience of people on the ground. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Programs Director, Emily Wellard talks about the importance of community based-initiatives, the challenges in funding them and what to do when potential donations don’t align with an organisation’s values and mission.

Tell us about the Cathy Freeman Foundation.

The Cathy Freeman Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation that works with four of the most remote Indigenous communities across Queensland and the Northern Territory. Our goal is to empower Indigenous Australians through culturally supportive education with five key programs targeting students from pre-prep right through to Year 12.


How are you using a community development approach to support Indigenous communities?

We have an office in each community staffed by local, Indigenous staff who are responsible for implementing our programs on the ground. We currently employ eight fulltime and nine casual Indigenous workers across our four partner communities. They are best placed to consult with the community, understand the needs, challenges and priorities and tailor programs to match. The result is consistent program delivery that is sustainable over the long-term, rather than the fly-in-fly-out model of so many organisations working in remote Indigenous communities.

By concentrating resources into our partner communities, the Cathy Freeman Foundation is building the capacity of local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to not only implement, but to shape our programs to suit individual community needs.


How long do your community programs run?

The Cathy Freeman Foundation will work with each community for as long as the challenges continue. This is a significant point of difference from many organisations that are only able to commit to working with communities for one, three or five-year funding rounds.

We strongly believe our long-term commitment is critical because there are no quick fixes for complex community and social challenges. Rather than rushing projects to meet short term funding commitments, the Cathy Freeman Foundation recognises that progress toward achieving high level outcomes takes time.


What are the challenges in attracting funds to support a community development approach?

Pressure from funders to see short-term, tangible outcomes from community development programs that are designed to address complex, often multi-generational issues can present a challenge. In the case of remote Indigenous Australia, the very high cost of delivering programs relative to the comparatively low populations of these communities can be hard to sell to a funder who is primarily concerned with a cost/benefit ratio.

“Unfortunately many funding bodies shy away from providing funds for staff salaries, preferring to fund operational activities.”

The Cathy Freeman Foundation firmly believes that building the capacity of communities by employing local Indigenous staff to implement programs on the ground is the most effective way to invest in communities and ensure that programs align with community priorities. Unfortunately many funding bodies shy away from providing funds for staff salaries, preferring to fund operational activities.


How do you decide when to accept or decline donations?

The Cathy Freeman Foundation is very cautious in approaching potential donors. We would never approach a donor or enter into funding negotiations with potential funding bodies if we were not certain that their values aligned with that of our organisation.

Ultimately, the decision to accept or decline funding donations sits with the Board of the organisation. We are very upfront in politely declining potential funding offers if we feel it is most appropriate to do so. More importantly, the Cathy Freeman Foundation is proactive in promoting the community development approach we utilise, as well as our values and mission in order to attract appropriate funding with shared values and missions. 


What advice do you have for NFPs that might find themselves with similar ethical challenges regarding donations?

One trap that I have seen many non-profits fall into is letting funding drive programs - letting the tail wag the dog. Community development organisations need to have a clearly articulated goal and vision as well as a logical and practical pathway to achieve this goal. This makes it easy to determine whether or not funding opportunities will contribute to the achievement of the goal. Although it can be hard to turn down potential funding, in my opinion it is less detrimental to  the organisation, the community and the donor than accepting funding that does not align with the achievement of all of their goals.

In the past I have seen organisations chase or accept funding that does not align with their core work. This has led to issues – both internal and external – with organisations attempting to deliver programs outside their area of expertise. It can also lead to huge fluctuations in staffing and resourcing when organisations receive large-scale, short-term contracts for programs that do not align with their values or mission. External expertise has to be brought in to support the programs and the quality of the programs invariably suffers.

“Do what you do well, demonstrate it to the sector and appropriate funding will follow.”

I strongly believe that when organisations have a clearly defined goal and strategy to achieve it, supported by evidence-based program development, then they become more attractive to funding bodies. Do what you do well, demonstrate it to the sector and appropriate funding will follow. This is the approach we take at the Cathy Freeman Foundation and to date it has been very successful. 


How do you involve communities in setting their priorities to ensure the values of donors (corporate and otherwise) align?

Although the ultimate decision to accept funding sits with our Board, as an organisation we talk to our community-based staff about potential donors if we think there may be any risks involved in accepting funding. Community members may have views on the appropriateness of accepting some types of funds or what the expectations are of the funder.

More broadly, we report back to community via a range of consultation groups and meetings – some led by the Cathy Freeman Foundation. We provide these groups with copies of our annual reports that include information about all of our funding sources. We also use these forums to address any concerns regarding current or potential donors.


What advice do you have for philanthropists who are considering where to direct their funding?

Understand the needs of the sector you want to fund. This involves more than reading the research – philanthropists should try where possible to spend time with not-for-profits to fully appreciate their approach and the needs of the communities they serve.

The best organisations will have close working relationships and open and honest communication with their communities. Philanthropists should see good NFPs as communication conduits to hear the voices of those they are trying to support. By engaging with organisations working within the sector, and listening to their needs, priorities and challenges, donors are better able to determine where and how their funding will be most beneficial.

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