WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that this article contains the names of people who are now deceased.
By Rebecca Bridges
Agile and respectful philanthropy that centres on partnerships and community brings about better outcomes for everyone involved. Jackie Yowell from the Fairer Futures Fund (a subfund of Australian Commmunities Foundation) has experienced this firsthand since she and her husband, Steve Rothfield, established this fund with ACF more than twelve years ago.
Their motivation in naming the fund, Jackie says, was to “contribute to changing the circumstances that underly what is unfair or unjust in our society”.
From the outset, Jackie and Steve decided to focus their giving on Indigenous issues. They had learned much by working personally in partnership with Indigenous people, first up north in Cape York and in recent years in Shepparton. They also established a relationship with Melbourne-based non-profit Woor-Dungin, which has continued their learning journey about the concerns of Indigenous communities, by “understanding circumstances, history, hearing personal stories, observing the community in discussion and in action,” Jackie explains.
Woor-Dungin was founded by five Aboriginal women and Christa Momot, who had previously worked with the Reichstein Foundation on capacity-building with Aboriginal community-controlled organisations (ACCOs). The founders understood that funding was inaccessible to ACCOs and there was a real need to “get the resources for ACCOs to genuinely do what their community wants to do,” says Christa.
As Woor-Dungin founding member Aunty Glenys, a proud Taungerong women, put it “I don’t want to start another organisation that tells our mob what we can’t do or what we should do! It’s time we crack open philanthropy”.
The greater flexibility of structured giving, or “the beauty of philanthropy” as Christa calls it, is a good fit for ACCOs and helps foster meaningful partnerships within the community.
Jackie agrees that strengthening the organisations that Indigenous people control also builds their community’s progress, and so she has been a friend and funder of Woor-Dungin for many years. She says one of the biggest lessons is that “to be effective, we need to listen to the people who need the change, and how your support can work best for them”.
“There’s also the realisation that nothing can be achieved as quickly or as simply as hoped,” Jackie continues.
“Indigenous people often speak of dadirri – deep listening. In doing so, we discover differences that make us question our own perceived values and assumptions such as the significance of connections to kin and country and valuing personal relations above professional formality.”
Woor-Dungin and the coalition of partners it works with are at the centre of the change to bring more Indigenous people and Indigenous-led organisations into the conversation about philanthropic funding and the decision-making process.
“We’re just like a connector pen,” Woor-Dungin’s Christa Momot says.
“Once we bring Aboriginal partners into the partnership program, we go on country and meet with our partner staff and our board to talk about what it is they would like to do, their challenges and what resources they need.
“Based on these conversations we develop a community development plan and we’ll try to match resources to that plan.”
Resources go beyond funding to include accessing pro bono services, creating a network of volunteers and identifying what each organisation needs.
One of Woor-Dungin’s key projects, the Criminal Record Discrimination Project, is working towards two major law reforms, motivated by the injustices faced by many Aboriginal people, including Uncle Larry Walsh. The project has been championed by Stan Winford, Associate Director at the RMIT Centre for Innovative Justice and Professor Bronwyn Naylor from the Graduate School of Business & Law, RMIT University. It was also facilitated by Michael Bell, CEO of Winda-Mara Aboriginal Corporation, and was met with unanimous support at the Aboriginal Justice Forum in 2017. Winda-Mara Aboriginal Corporation in Heywood, Victoria, is a partner ACCO of Woor-Dungin.
“I love my work and I love that we are able to genuinely support ACCOs towards self-determination,” says Christa.
Earlier this year, Jackie was the joint recipient of the Aunty Frances Bond/Aunty Glenys Merry Award for her incredible contributions to Woor-Dungin over past four years. She shared the award with Sherree Chaudhry of Winda-Mara, saying “I am very honoured to share it with Sherree, knowing the work she does for her community and that it also reflects all the good work Woor-Dungin does to foster good partnerships.”
Jackie’s advice to other philanthropic funders looking to get involved in this work? “Seek out opportunities to meet, ‘yarn’ informally, listen deeply and understand the challenges of Indigenous people working their communities’ progress.”