Seven questions with Ben Rodgers, Executive Officer from Melbourne’s Inner North Community Foundation, that explore the need to reflect and harness diversity, the importance of making philanthropy more accessible and why we need to break down the power imbalance between funders and grantees.
The Inner North Community Foundation is quite unique in terms of its set up. Can you explain a little about the history of the Foundation and its focus on employment pathways, as well as the support you have for the corpus and expenditure?
BR: In the early 1980s, what is now Moreland, Darebin and Yarra city councils took a visionary step to establish a not-for-profit entity, to improve employment and economic opportunities across Melbourne’s inner north. This entity is now known as IntoWork Australia, which has become a national leader in specialist recruitment, employment and training services.
In 2007, under the leadership of the Chair, the Hon Alan Brown, IntoWork established the Inner North Community Foundation to contribute to local vitality and prosperity in perpetuity.
A commitment of $5 million over 10 years, plus administration costs, was the founding investment, generating grants to local nonprofits to build stronger pathways to employment.
Our focus on employment reflects the founding purpose of IntoWork, which is an essential element of any place-based funding: work is crucial for community prosperity. It gives people money in their pockets, contributes to their sense of identity, and helps them connect to their community and each other.
Our story illustrates an exciting model of philanthropy that can be replicated across Australia—local government collaboration working through a not-for-profit entity, creating an independent community foundation.
Why is recognising and supporting diversity so integral to the work of the Foundation?
Often diversity is seen as a challenge, but really it’s a strength.
Generations of migrants who settled in the inner north have made our region stronger, smarter and better connected. There are many examples of how this multicultural region within Melbourne has given people opportunities to learn about other cultures and increase the richness of our modern lives.
We need to reflect and harness that diversity—in how we make decisions, in how we fund, in how we understand the challenges that people from different cultural backgrounds face in finding and securing work.
Recognising diversity means that we have integrity with our community.
It also positions us for the future, as prosperity comes from being able to connect to new opportunities. Using the diverse character of the inner north as an asset connects us to those opportunities.
Our relationship with an organisation like Scarf, which has been successful in our past two Pathways to Employment funding rounds reflects our approach to supporting and celebrating great local community groups.
As a place-based organisation it is important for the Foundation to support civil society in non-financial ways.
We use Scarf’s trainees at our events to give them work experience and employment, and so that our supporters and guests learn about Scarf and possibly employ them in the future.
Advocating for philanthropy at a community level in your local region is part of the Foundation’s stated goals. How do you go about doing this?
At a basic level, we democratise philanthropy by making it accessible to people. We de-mystify the idea that you need to be Bill Gates to make an impact.
The Canadian Community Foundation peak body uses the slogan that resonates with our work: My community made me, I make my community. The Foundation supports philanthropy in different ways.
First, we foster generosity and help people see an easy way to participate. We promote our model of philanthropy, which focuses on the interaction between donors and local community groups and less about fixing something broken. We are unlocking the potential of people in our region through employment and encourage local businesses, industry, community groups, and government to contribute to and support the vitality and prosperity of our region.
Second, we build partnerships with groups and act as a broker of knowledge of the local region. We are deepening both our understanding of local needs and what works to get the best results for local people from the investments in our region.
What’s been the most surprising thing you’ve learnt as EO at a community foundation?
Having spent most of my work life in direct service delivery, it has been eye-opening to move to this side of the funding ledger. I have really enjoyed seeing the excitement of the community foundation model, and listening to people who have been in the philanthropic sector for some time who speak so passionately about it. It is serious business supporting an organisation to maintain true stewardship of community funds.
There is a need to balance expectations between both grantees and donors, but it is super exciting too. Community foundations are well placed to tell positive stories about the importance of giving at a local level.
It has been surprising how nice grantees are to me. While the inherent power dynamic between grantees and funders has been challenging, I am conscious of the need to break down that power imbalance to achieve better community outcomes.
For me, relationships that are built on trust that respect the different roles that people play, strengthen and connect community.
What role do you think community foundations can play in effecting positive social change in Australia? What do you see as the biggest opportunities for philanthropy to make a lasting difference to your local community?
I’ve had less than six months in the hot seat, so my understanding of community foundations and the potential for their role is developing! It is exciting to collaborate with the other 35 community foundations across Australia to learn about this particular form of philanthropy.
When I think about lasting change, I think about the Northcote Free Library. Local people came together in 1907 to establish a free lending library, which was funded by the Carnegie Foundation.
While Northcote Library has changed venues and the cost for provision has shifted to local government, the ripples of that gift—local people coming together around an important local resource and that energy matched by philanthropic funds—meant that as a child growing up in Northcote, I had a place to borrow books. The lives of thousands of others were similarly impacted.
In terms of future need, I am interested in generosity, and how to support communities to be resilient and healthy. ‘Giving’ is the important message to send.
As communities change, there is a continued need for place-based interventions that connect people and build connections and trust. Community foundations can harness the goodwill of others to contribute, by understanding local context and using local assets to overcome challenges.
Given the original mandate for the Foundation provided for 10 years of support, and you’re now 8 years into that journey, have you begun the process of looking ahead? Are you scouting new horizons?
I would say three things about new horizons:
First, IntoWork was founded in a context of high youth unemployment in the inner north, as a way of responding to the 18 per cent of young people who experienced unemployment.
Currently in the inner north, there are pockets where that figure is over 30 per cent, plus unemployment of other particularly disadvantaged groups has grown.
The need remains, and while some of the details have now changed, we continue to share a common challenge with all our partners to keep building social and economic prosperity in the future.
Second, we were given a powerful endowment from IntoWork when the Foundation was established, and we will continue to work hard to keep that legacy relevant and growing. We have been leveraging our endowment by encouraging other donors to step up and invest in us.
Third, unemployment in our region and across Australia is the result of many factors outside our control. In this complex and changing environment, we need to maintain our role of being the ‘destination experts’, with the local knowledge of what is happening in our region, and how best social dollars can be invested.
Final question: What impact does the Foundation hope to achieve in both the short and long term?
I started at the Foundation in July 2015 and was struck by the amount of great work there was to build on. Over time, directors and staff have put structures in place that allow for strong stewardship of a community asset. There are lots of opportunities to continue the success of the Foundation.
In the short term, we are focused on continuing and strengthening our current work around breaking down barriers to employment.
In just eight years, the Inner North Community Foundation has invested more than $2.1 million in the municipal areas of Yarra, Darebin and Moreland with grants to 75 community organisations running innovative and creative employment-related programs for disadvantaged local people.
The Foundation has a strong reputation with other funding partners, and enjoys strong positive goodwill from local people.
In the longer term, we want to grow our local profile to grow our impact.
We are building on our knowledge and understanding of what works in providing pathways to employment. Unsurprisingly, it is the impact that people care about. It is what motivates our donors, our directors, staff and supporters. The exciting thing is we get to harness the strengths of the local community and contribute with other local actors to activities that fulfil people’s potential and grow mutual prosperity.
And this comes from a very selfish place – I grew up in the inner north, and am raising my family here. I want it to be great for us now and for my children!
What is a community foundation?
6 reasons to give through a community foundation
Common ground: Ian Bird, Community Foundations Canada