Caption: Cathy Freeman Foundation works to close the education gap between indigenous and non-indigenous children.

A fundraising challenge by Dick Smith opened new doors and provided extra motivation for the Cathy Freeman Foundation to ramp up its major donor activity, discovers Nicole Richards.

As far as iconic Australians go, they don’t get much bigger than Cathy Freeman and Dick Smith. The high-profile pair had met several times at various events over the years and it was a relationship that Sonya Stephen, chief executive officer of the Cathy Freeman Foundation (CFF), did not want to leave untapped.

“Dick has always been very positive about our work and the outcomes we’re achieving,” Stephen explains. “He loved that we employ local community members as part of our program sustainability and that we foster strong partnerships in our work on Palm Island.”

Looking to convert that sentiment into financial support, CFF made a direct approach to Smith a year ago which resulted not only in a gift six months later, but also in a direct challenge.  “Dick told us he’d give $50,000 and said that he’d double it if we could find another donor to match his $100,000,” Stephen says.

Sourcing a $100,000 donor

Faced with this unique opportunity, Stephen says CFF wasted no time in taking up the challenge. “This really motivated us to have conversations with people we hadn’t reached out to before,” she says. “We’re a small organisation without an extensive list of major donor contacts, but Dick’s name opened doors and new fundraising channels for us and his involvement was really motivating for donors too.”

After making several phone calls, the challenge looked achievable when an anonymous matching donor – who CFF had been in conversation with for almost two years – expressed interest. The donor had been watching CFF closely, having visited Palm Island twice and conducted extensive due diligence, but admits it was Smith’s challenge that was the catalyst for their first donation.

“The deal sealer for us was the challenge posed by Dick Smith,” the donor explains. “With this challenge we knew that every cent we donated would be doubled by Dick and therefore enable the organisation to do more of their great work.

“When we combined the program impact with the leverage our funding would provide, it was a no brainer,” the donor adds.

Inspiring others to give

For his part, Smith’s criterion for choosing an organisation to support is breathtakingly simple. “I make a decision based on what will give me the most satisfaction,” he says.  “That changes from year-to-year but I get great satisfaction from helping people who are less well-off.”

“I had sat next to Cathy at an event once and she was just so inspirational that I thought, ‘wow, what an incredible person’,” he continues. “I also knew a little about Palm Island and realised this was important work.”

The fundraising challenge, Smith says, was designed not only to raise additional funds but also to prompt more wealthy Australians to give. “The reality is that I can only help about 1% of the requests I receive, so if I can motivate other Australians to lend their support then that makes me very glad.”

Stephen says Smith’s challenge resulted in more than just financial support. “Dick’s involvement really excited us,” she says. “For him to not only give his word that he was going to help us with a donation but also to say ‘I believe in you guys enough that I’m going to help you get more money’ speaks volumes for the work we’re doing. To be able to use his name is massive for us.

“For some organisations $200,000 may not be so much, but for us, a contribution like this enables us to move forward into more indigenous communities much more quickly,” she adds.

Small foundation behind matched gift success

Launched in 2007, the Cathy Freeman Foundation works to close the education gap between indigenous and non-indigenous children. The foundation’s work is currently focused on Palm Island in far north Queensland – the birthplace of Cathy Freeman’s mother and grandmother – which is one of the most disadvantaged and largest remote indigenous communities in Australia, with less than 10% of students finishing high school.

With a small but committed group of around 1,500 active donors, CFF uses a range of fundraising methodologies including annual appeals, community fundraising and strong corporate engagement to raise in excess of $1.5 million per annum. Its Deadly Runners team is the focus of the foundation’s community fundraising efforts, with the running group taking part in the Gold Coast Airport Marathon, Sun-Herald City2Surf, Melbourne Marathon and the Australian Outback Marathon each year.

CFF has five key education programs helping more than 500 school-aged children aspire to a brighter future through education. It works in partnership with the Palm Island community, council, parents and carers, plus the Australian Literacy & Numeracy Foundation and the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation.

Nicole Richards
Nicole Richards is a freelance writer who specialises in NGO communications.

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