The National Justice Project are a not-for-profit willing to go against the grain – here’s what we can learn from them.

Pictured above: Leetona Dungay announcing that she will go to the United Nations to seek justice for her son. 

When you think of your donors, what words stand out – ‘compassionate’, ‘kind’, ‘generous’, ‘empathetic’, ‘benevolent’? For Katy Tyrrell, Fundraising and Communications Manager at the National Justice Project, ‘brave’ is the first word she thinks of.

“Our donors tend to be the really brave individuals who want to hold government to account.”

Not-for-profit legal service, the National Justice Project is taking on some of our country’s most entrenched and inequitable systems and structures, along with the people and organisations who oversee them.

The consequence for their fundraising is a passionate but narrow pool of donors who are willing to hold powerful people and systems to account.

The National Justice Project – who they are and what they do

On 29 December 2015, David Dungay Jr, a Dunghutti man, died in a Long Bay Prison Hospital cell age 26, after being forcibly restrained for refusing to stop eating some rice crackers, dragged into another cell, held face down and injected with a sedative. Before he died, he said “I can’t breathe” 12 times.

In January 2016, Naomi Williams, a pregnant Wiradjuri woman, died from septicaemia following a year of desperately seeking medical assistance for chronic pain that was repeatedly denied. She was erroneously and repeatedly referred to drug and alcohol counselling despite a medical officer confirming there was no evidence of substance dependence. Naomi’s life could have been saved with antibiotics, instead she died along with her unborn child.

That same year, spurred on by the injustice they saw, lawyers George Newhouse, Dan Mori and Duncan Fine founded the NJP.

They had a vision of a social justice law firm supported by grassroots fundraising, delivering access to justice for marginalised communities and individuals.

The NJP strongly believes that, in Australia, many of our police, prison and health systems have been built on deeply embedded racist perspectives and philosophies, born and perpetrated by colonisation.

The organisation aims to change this narrative by advocating for the development of law and a justice system which is fair, just and equitable, taking on the most challenging cases that will advance human rights and empower the vulnerable and voiceless. They advocate for law reform, policy change, attitudinal change, improved services and community awareness. The ultimate dream is that this work will create a more equitable society and fairer societal systems for First Nations peoples, asylum seekers, people with disabilities and others in need.

On the path to that dream, they have represented the families of both David Dungay and Naomi Williams.

A coronial inquest into Naomi’s death stretched across 2018 and 2019, finally leading to the ground-breaking outcome of the coroner concluding there had been implicit bias in the treatment of Aboriginal patients. This is one of 18 cases that NJP has taken on relating to negligent or inadequate healthcare for First Nations people.

In 2020, the organisation worked with the Dungay family to seek justice for David. They demanded that Safework NSW prosecute Justice Health and the NSW Dept of Corrective Services, and that the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions investigate whether charges could be laid against the prison officers involved. They also called for the Health Care Complaints Commission to investigate the conduct of the medical personnel at Long Bay Prison Hospital on the night David died. By mid-2021, the Australian Commonwealth and NSW Government had failed to take any action and so now Leetona Dungay, David’s mother, is taking the case to the United Nations, with the support of a team of high-profile human rights lawyers including George Newhouse.

Another emotive cause thrust the NJP firmly into the public spotlight when they took on the federal government over the plight of refugee children held in offshore detention in Nauru. Combining strategic litigation with education and advocacy, their efforts paid off, with the last children leaving the island with their families in 2019.

“It set the precedent that the government has a duty of care for these children. We used tort law in a novel way to get a social justice outcome.” (A tort is a legal wrong which one person or entity commits against another person or entity). “Now we benchmark against that – and it’s become the heart of our lawyers’ practice,” Katy tells us.

The NJP continue to advocate for people on Nauru and Manus Island and are part of a small group of eight nonprofits that comprise the Medical Evacuation Response Group, facilitating the medical evacuation of critically ill refugees and asylum seekers held in offshore detention.

Another campaign included joining forces with the ASRC and GetUp! to gather 150,000 petition signatures that swayed Senator Jacqui Lambie’s decision not to support a bill that would see mobile phones removed from people seeking asylum.

Current priorities include heath justice, specifically for First Nation communities and people with disabilities; challenging misconduct in police, prisons and youth detention; coronial inquests including deaths in custody; using technology as a tool to deliver complaints pathways that improve access to justice; judicial impartiality and bias; working with allied community partners to communicate COVID-19 restrictions for Australia’s First peoples; and ‘Hands Off Our Charities’ – a campaign to stop the federal government’s proposed legislative changes that will muzzle Australian charities and civil society organisations – an issue many of you will be aware of.

It’s a huge and complex body of work that takes time and tenacity – so how does the NJP fund their mission?

The NJP doesn’t fund their work with government support, and here’s why:

Taking on the federal government in court on behalf of clients who have been catastrophically let down by our country’s inequitable systems, and taking a stand against unfair and discriminatory policies, means it’s impossible for the NJP to blur the lines by accepting government grants.

“We remain independent so we can fearlessly hold decision-makers to account for systemic discrimination,” the organisation states.

That doesn’t mean that cooperative relationships haven’t been established along the way. The organisation has a constructive relationship with the New South Wales Government, and have achieved some notable breakthroughs with Brad Hazzard, NSW Minister for Health and Medical Research, who accepted the recommendations of the coronial inquest into Naomi Williams’ death and made a public commitment to improve systemic issues in the NSW health system.

What it does mean is that the NJP needs to form relationships with a certain kind of donor.

“Our donors tend to be the really brave individuals who want to hold government to account,” Katy says.

How they fundraise

Alongside Katy, Fundraising and Communications Specialist, Tim Ginty, completes NJP’s fundraising team of two. Katy comes from a background in philanthropy and the arts while Tim previously worked in other social justice organisations.

Both joined the organisation in mid-2020. In 2019/20 the NJP achieved an income of $1.19 million, with 73% coming from donations and the remainder from grants, legal fees and COVID-19 support. Katy and Tim’s arrival helped grow overall income to $1.78 million in 2020/21.

For Katy, being clear on what your organisation stands for is key to achieving buy-in from your supporters. She points to CuriousWorks, a Western Sydney arts company with a focus on telling community stories, supporting emerging artistic leaders from all backgrounds, and celebrating Australia’s multicultural fabric. “Diversity is clearly what they stand for,” says Katy who sits on the board. Katy emphasises that once your organisation really knows what it stands for, it can truly be a leader in its field and gain the support and trust of donors.

With their limited time and resources, Katy and Tim focus on building strong relationships with their donors, most of whom they know very well. That donor base ranges from supporters who give $10 a month to high-net-worth individuals.

The NJP are acutely aware that, in order to retain support, they must make change happen, not just talk about it. Court victories are a highly tangible show of impact to donors, demonstrating real world outcomes of the fundraising campaigns they support. Importantly, court cases can deliver the law reform and policy change required to effect real systemic change. However, it’s not always possible to achieve an outcome through the courts and it’s not always the kind of justice that the NJP’s clients are seeking. Often what they seek most is acknowledgement, an apology, and an opportunity to have their voice heard.

With the support of a highly media-savvy CEO, the organisation channels the media spotlight to provide a platform that amplifies the voices of the NJP’s clients and communities harmed by government inaction and discrimination.

Community engagement and advocacy

Supporting their press coverage, is a strong social media presence, which they use as an effective tool for advocacy and fundraising. They focus on actions that supporters can take – petitioning, fundraising or participating in events.

Calls to action include raising funds for the #HealthJustice campaign that fights discrimination in healthcare, encouraging supporters to demand action from their local MP for Afghan refugees, and asking followers to join the Hands Off Our Charities movement.

Social media is also an important source of information for the NJP’s clients and supporters. The organisation shares inquiry submissions, campaign updates, collaboration with other civil society organisations and COVID-19 information.

Webinars raise awareness of issues that don’t often receive mainstream media attention, with the NJP bringing together different partner organisations, academics and advocates to open up the conversation. The success of these webinars, particularly as a form of connecting remotely during the pandemic, planted the seed for an exciting new NJP event.

LawHack – not your usual fundraising event

On 22 October 2021, the NJP will host their inaugural LawHack. It’s a unique event that will bring together teams of bright legal minds to tackle the injustices facing Australians living with disabilities.

LawHack has been designed as an engagement event that combines strategic positioning, thought leadership, advocacy and education. It will also be an important vehicle for fundraising via ticket sales, sponsorship and awareness raising.

The idea came from CEO, George Newhouse, who wanted an inspiring and highly interactive event that stood apart from more mainstream fundraising activity such as gala dinners. The event’s theme, disability justice, has been a growing focus for the NJP. Board director, Rob Silberstein, is a lawyer, doctor and advocate with substantial physical disability. A fierce advocate for disability rights, Rob is guiding the organisation through their work in this field.

Many of the NJP’s clients live with disabilities and, sadly, people with disabilities are increasingly overrepresented in all aspects of the criminal justice system. Many NJP clients have also experienced the intersection of disability with other injustices such as racism, the trauma associated with being held on detention camps, and mishandling by police or health systems.

Ten teams of junior and established lawyers will work together in a novel creative space, thinking outside the usual legal square, about how they can use the law for social justice. They will workshop or ‘hack’ problem statements, which represent five areas of societal systems known to fail people with disabilities: policing and incarceration, healthcare, disability support and aged care, rights and law, education and children, and housing and public spaces.

The problem statements have been created in collaboration with allied community partners, including the First Peoples Disability Network, People with Disability Australia, Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA), the Council for Intellectual Disabilities, Arts Access Australia and the National Ethnic Disability Alliance. The event will culminate in a pitch, with the teams sharing their hacked solution with an audience. All solutions will be open source, meaning that content and ideas can be picked up and adopted by any law firms in the future.

The role of philanthropic partners in LawHack

Starting with a sponsorship proposal, Katy and Tim set out to secure philanthropic support. They didn’t have a set fundraising target, but they did hope philanthropy would cover the event costs.

Fortuitously, Jessica Dixon, lawyer and former NJP volunteer, was looking for a worthy opportunity to support with her father, Geoff Dixon, former CEO and Managing Director of Qantas. Together they agreed to provided philanthropic backing for the event.

Corporate sponsors include RingCentral (a telephone and messaging provider that prioritises disability inclusion in their workforce), Norton Rose Fulbright (a global legal firm), the Information Access Group, and Thomson Reuters (supplier of law books, legal resources, platforms and software, and an existing NJP major partner).

The final major gift in the picture came from within the NJP board.

With the right approach, your board members can be major donors

Steve Castan, who hails from a family of incredible social justice lawyers, is the NJP board chair, and a barrister, nationally accredited mediator and family dispute resolution practitioner, and a lecturer at the Monash University National Justice Project Law Clinic.

His father, Ron Castan AM QC was lead counsel in the Mabo native title case , which secured land rights for Indigenous people. Steve’s sister, Dr Melissa Castan, is an associate professor and associate dean in the Monash University Law Faculty and the former deputy director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law.

Steve donated to LawHack, along with his family trust, the Chestnut Foundation. The major gift is an exemplar of the role board members can play as donors and fundraisers for their cause.

“If there was a message I could send to fundraisers, I think it would be this – as a fundraiser you have to treat your board like you would your major donors. Take really exciting opportunities to them, because if you can get your board excited, they will become champions.”

You may be aware of the growing conversation about the need for nonprofit board members to contribute and secure more funds for their organisations. The excellent 2019 Perpetual ‘Jump On Board’ white paper highlights how rare NFP board giving and fundraising currently is in Australia, which is to the detriment of an organisation’s ability to develop a culture of giving and attract charitable donations, particularly major gifts.

Katy thinks part of the solution is to consider your board as a donor group.

“If there was a message I could send to fundraisers, I think it would be this – as a fundraiser you have to treat your board like you would your major donors. Take really exciting opportunities to them, because if you can get your board excited, they will become champions” says Katy.

“Without a doubt, Steve and his family are supporting LawHack, not because that’s what they are obliged to do, but because they’re actually really excited about the idea of it.”

The client voice – at front and centre

Last, but certainly not least, is what we can learn from the NJP’s painstaking care in telling client stories. Their Anti-Racist Ethics of Practice is a guiding light for their work with clients. It steers them so they’re not exploitative in their communications, fundraising, or advocacy. It places the client’s voice, desires and outcomes as their benchmark.

This translates into the NJP’s practice, ensuring they have deep, informed consent from clients before sharing their stories. They work closely with clients through a sensitive, trauma-informed and culturally safe process that always obtains their permission, allows them time to think, seeks their quotes and own words, and works with them to finesse their message.

Every client is also at a different stage in their campaign or case – so the NJP have a responsibility to not share stories prematurely as it may affect legal outcomes.

To best represent the client voice, the NJP’s governance is also carefully considered. The organisation has five indigenous board members, and a strong Indigenous Advisory Board, which recently welcomed distinguished professor Larissa Behrendt from the Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research at the University of Technology, Sydney (the institute and university are co-hosts of LawHack).

“It’s about privileging the voices of our clients and privileging First Nations clients, not exploiting their heritage. That is absolutely crucial.” Katy tells us, and we can all learn from this approach as we share the stories of our clients, beneficiaries and causes in our organisations’ communications and fundraising.

Are you brave?

When you go about job today, ask yourself – do you put your client voice and consent front and centre of your storytelling, are you willing to say no to supporters who conflict with your values and reward those who share the same vision, and do you really know what your organisation stands for?

Because when you know the answers to those questions, you are ready to tell a powerful story that will secure the support of the people you need to stand alongside you.

LawHack 2021: Disability Justice takes place on 22 October. It will be a virtual event and everyone is welcome to register for free to join the final Pitch. Find out more here.

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