In this episode, I’m talking with Natalie Egleton. She is the CEO of the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal (FRRR). Natalie and I have known each other for over 10 years and I am so excited to have her on the show as I have to say, the work the FRRR does, and the passion from its leadership team, was definitely part of my wanting to learn more, and do more, in the disaster space.
A little bit about Natalie...
Now, a little bit about Natalie, Natalie Egleton is passionate about facilitating effective responses to issues facing rural communities. She was appointed CEO of the FRRR in November 2015, after joining the organisation in 2012, and she’s responsible for shaping the FRRR’s strategy, designing new programs and developing and nurturing new funding partnerships.
I like to start with where we met...
When I worked at Australia Post and was leading the community response to disasters, I attended the FRRR’s annual conference. This is where Natalie and I first met. She has been a great supporter of me, and my corporate2community initiatives, for nearly a decade.
Natalie, thanks so much for chatting with me today.
Here are some questions I asked...
1. So, can I start by asking what is the FRRR? And what impact have you had on communities around rural regional and remote Australia?
Thanks Renae – it is excellent to be with you. So, the FRRR – Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal is a philanthropic foundation. We’re focused on connecting goodwill with good purpose, to strengthen the vitality of remote, rural and regional Australia. We do that primarily by providing grant funding. We also broker partnerships and resources between communities and funders. We develop and share insights and learning from communities to inform policymakers and funding bodies of the needs. And most importantly, the solutions that are available in response to a lot of challenges being experienced by remote, rural and regional communities.
We’ve been in operation for 21 years now. And in that time, we’ve distributed over $115 million to around 12,000 projects across the country. It’s growing. There’s just so much impact in all of those 12,000 initiatives over that period of time and they all tend to have ripple effects. They’re typically reasonably small amounts of money provided into initiatives that benefit multiple parts of the community and work to strengthen the resilience of those communities. So, they’re quite diverse, they’re all community-led, and they all share an underlying outcome about strengthening resilience. And, strengthening the capacity of communities to seed ideas and to adapt and evolve with change, and innovate many for their futures.
I’ve known FRRR for over a decade. I often say it’s the small things that make the biggest difference, and I have not been into a regional community that hasn’t had some connection with the FRRR or a grant program or change opportunities. So again, those small things, particularly in those regional and rural communities can make the biggest difference. It’s such a great initiative and program and outcomes that you deliver. So in your overview of the FRRR, you say that you’re focused on grantmaking, enabling and influencing.
2. So, why are each of those needed or important?
Yeah, it’s a great question. For FRRR our vision is for a vibrant, resilient and revitalised remote, rural and regional Australia. And we think achieving that vision requires a multifaceted and deeply collaborative approach. We’ve developed a model of philanthropy and a strategy that deploys resources against those three kinds of capabilities. So I can go into them each a little bit if you like?
So firstly, grants are a great tool for supporting the activation of community plans and ideas or filling gaps that exist in communities. Money is the tool that enables a lot of things to happen but the grant is an activator of sorts. We think about our role as offering those resources as being that activation tool. So, we know that in smaller and more remote communities, in particular, grassroots organisations and community groups that are typically volunteer-run , small and community-based, can experience barriers to accessing funding that’s suited to their needs on that scale. Our grants are about responding to that inequity of opportunities and access to funding, but also facilitating action and activation of initiatives from the ground up within communities. These build those broad outcomes that I mentioned before. So that’s the grant side.
The second part is around leveraging or enabling for FRRR. I always call this the boring but important part but essentially, FRRR has a special listing in the tax act of a DGR1 charity. That DGR listing enables FRRR to work across all of the charitable categories. So from health, wellbeing, education, environment, including economic development. But it also enables us specifically to broker partnerships between funders and communities, which is primarily done through community foundation partnerships, and other place-based not-for-profit organisations that don’t have DGR1 status. So FRRR can actually leverage funding, and broker funding, by using our DGR1 status and offer donors the tax deductibility. We provide a commitment to those donors that we will provide those funds to our partners within those community foundations or place-based organisations. So it’s about, really brokering more resourcing and more funding that would otherwise not be accessible by those organisations. It’s really an enabling role. And, one that we can play a strategic linkage piece in. It creates efficiencies, creates confidence for donors, gives more profile and awareness of those organisations that are otherwise reasonably invisible to the donor community. And obviously, it gets more money into their hands to do great work.
The third part of the model is the insights and learning which is really about recognising the projects that we’re supporting, and those partnerships and relationships that we broker, and facilitate. Now there’s absolute gold in that in terms of what it says about the solutions that exist within rural communities to some of our quite macro challenges if we think about climate change and climate solutions, or if we think about equitable access to services in remote areas, or we think about disaster resilience, and preparednes. We know that through all of those 12,000 projects have supported that there’s deep knowledge and wisdom that’s come from the ground-up in communities that comes from lived experience, that comes from testing, piloting, seeding, and expanding and scaling initiatives. We’ve got a role as a national organisation that straddles the sectors of philanthropy, government, business and community and not-for-profits, to harness the insights that come from all of that work and use that to share, back up the line to policymakers, or to those wanting to fund and invest in regional communities, and I guess, provide guidance on what works well, as well as what the challenges are and what some of the areas that need attention.
To me FRRR has always been that wel-rounded and real advocate and support for our regional and rural and remote communities. And I think even outside of the disaster space, you’ve got so many programs to strengthen and build social capital, etc.
3. So why is the FRRR different to other not-for-profits in the disaster space?
Yeah, it’s a really busy space, isn’t it? There’s a lot of organisations. Every time we have a major disaster, it seems to have that period of time where there is a significant amount of interest and energy, and then it kind of settles back down again. And I think we’re in that space at the moment where there is a heightened interest following the Black Summer Bushfires in particular and the floods in New South Wales. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but we need to understand how to do the work effectively and in a coordinated way. So to your question, I think the difference is that FRRR is structured and constituted to be a coordinating mechanism. And to reduce some of the complexity and some of the challenges for communities in accessing philanthropic funding. So essentially FRRR acts as a trusted partner with communities, and we’ve always got our ear to the ground. And importantly, we’re always there, regardless of whether there’s a disaster or not.
You just mentioned that we do a lot of other programs that are nothing to do with disasters. But it means that when something does happen, we’ve already got some engagement and relationships and activity that we’ve probably been doing. So that means there is confidence and continuity. We’ve got structures and processes that are easy to scale up or down. Our model is really strength-focused, on enabling funders to give with confidence, and know where their money is going and know that it’s going to the right places. We act as a bit of a backbone for those wanting to give during disasters in a different way to the likes of the Red Cross, or others who are playing a more direct role. Ours is about getting the money and the funding to local community groups and local community organisations and local community leaders so that they can be in charge of the recovery or, in charge of their preparedness efforts. To a greater degree, the focus of the work is about strengthening community-level resilience. And so from that perspective, we work through what we think of as a cycle of development, which includes periodic shocks, such as natural disasters. We approach our work from the perspective of communities – always going through cycles. In any given year, most rural communities will be either recovering from a natural disaster, or experiencing a disaster, like prolonged drought, or they will be getting ready for the next one. There’s always a cycle going on there. But there are other influences and shocks and stresses that are also playing a part in that community’s context, which we need to be tuned into as well and make sure that what we’re providing support for is relevant to their context and their place.
I’ve known the FRRR for a long time now. You mentioned before that you work from the ground up. And I think that is so important in the disaster space with community-led recovery and resilience, there needs to be a way to enable communities to do that. So the grants programs that you run are so great because it enables the small things to have big impacts and build that resilience, as well as recovery. You mentioned the fact that the FRRR is known in the communities.
4. So, why is the FRRR so important to those communities, from the community side?
I think rural communities need champions, and they need advocates, and their voices to be amplified to the audiences that matter. And it’s not that they can’t do it themselves, because they absolutely can. So it’s more about, walking alongside them and being that champion, and not speaking for them or on behalf of them, but hearing what they say and relaying that. The reality is that all rural, remote and regional communities are experiencing increased frequency and severity of natural disasters. We know that there are climate change impacts that are leading to really extreme weather events in greater frequency. And it’s also true, as I mentioned earlier, that there’s an inequity in the levels of funding that is directed to communities, and particularly when we think about funding and donations directly to communities impacted by disasters, there’s great inequity, there was very little funding to contribute after the New South Wales floods and the current experience of the storms in Victoria. There have been very little attention and very little funding, but the impacts are terrible. So they need organisations like FRRR who are going to be there no matter what, and work alongside them, regardless of how much public attention.
And again, the trust that the FRRR has in the communities – you’re there for the good times, and the bad times too. You can’t buy that and you can’t beat that. It’s such an important organisation for the communities who need it the most. Now, what’s the future for FRRR? You’ve just had a new branding or rebranding, which I love. It’s a great fresh looking approach because your old branding was there pretty much since the day I first connected with the organisation – it’s a beautiful, refreshed branding and approach. So, what kind of changes are the FRRR aiming to drive in the disaster and the resilience space moving forward?
5. Is there something that you’re evolving to do or achieve or deliver?
Yeah, thanks for noticing the branding. The original branding had been there since the organisation’s establishment so 20 years. We think the new look and feel is just fresh, forward-looking, contemporary and all things that rural Australia is. In terms of our future directions, we remain committed to all of the principles we’ve always worked on, which is community-led practices, working with serious authenticity and integrity, working at the pace that communities are interested in and willing to work at and bolstering their efforts in the best ways we can. When it comes to the disaster recovery and resilience space, we’re still really committed to the value of medium to long term recovery. And we think that is critical. We’ve been really pleased to see some shifts around the recognition of the true timescale of recovery, and the true appreciation of it being a lifelong experience – not just a 2-3 year rebuild and move on experience. So, we will continue to work in that space and continue to provide funding that is targeted to that medium to long-term recovery, which has an underlying principle about the longer-term change and evolution that happens through recovery as well.
But, on the other side, is an increased focus on preparedness, and trying to foster and build up the authorisation of community-led preparedness processes and linking those community-led processes into the formal emergency management systems, and really giving it authority and validation. We’ve been doing some really promising work in New South Wales over the last few years and we’re getting started on some in Victoria. We’ve been supporting the communities after the 2009 bushfires and there’s some really good evidence emerging from that work over that long period of time about the effectiveness of allowing those community-led processes to be formalised. And, what that means when a disaster does happen, in terms of the ability for that community to respond well and activate and mobilise the systems effectively.
The whole preparedness and resilience from a preparedness perspective is vital. The findings, no doubt, will be super interesting to see. I think that’s almost what has been missing in many ways. There are lots of documents and reports saying that $1 invested before saves $14 after, but I think it’s more than just the money. It’s the lives and livelihoods and environmental impacts, etc. I think the more evidence supporting preparedness can only be a good and beneficial thing. We’ve mentioned how you act as a bit of a conduit for philanthropic funders, etc. So you obviously work with corporates and the private sector as well.
6. How does FRRR work with the private sector?
Yeah, we have a range of different partnership approaches. We appreciate that the business sector is not homogenous. Everything from small businesses to SMEs, through to the major large corporates, all have different needs, different interests, different stakeholders, different employees and so on. It’s about trying to work out what’s right for them. If they’ve got an interest in providing funding, or volunteer support, or skilled support, or whatever it is, into regional communities, our approach starts with ‘Okay, so what would that look like for you? And what are the tangible things you’re looking for? And how does that link with your strategy? And then, what do we have in existence that might align well with that? I’m not sure if I’m allowed to drop names here but as an example – we had been speaking with the Kellogg’s Foundation for a while, and they had just refined their strategy. It wasn’t specifically around disasters, it was around food security, which we know is a big issue in disaster settings anyway. We had a few conversations where we got to know each other’s strategies and discovered that we’ve got a program that they could fund into, and that could leverage their funding quite substantially. So that was one mechanism. In other cases, we design bespoke programmes with corporates. So we’ve had a number over the years. The longest-running was with the ANZ Seeds of Renewal Program which has been going for 20 years. We’ve run that as a fully branded grant program that we administer, we do all of the community outreach and engagement. ANZ contribute the funding, but they also their branch network and get the word out there and enables a great connection for their staff within the communities they’re working in and gives opportunities for them to feel connected to the company, but also know that their giving is being done.
I’ve seen from the corporate side, having been at Australia Post and also consulting into corporates, there’s so much that corporates can do. It’s money, but more than money as well – there is a long way to go for corporates to evolve. So organisations like Kellogg’s, or ANZ, who recognise and want to collaborate to create an outcome that delivers is the way to go. And there’s a benefit for the corporate side of the fence, as well as the communities. Now we both started doing a bit of work under the Public Private Partnerships Network back then, just after the bushfires, we very quickly put together some working groups in Melbourne and Sydney and between, government, private and philanthropic which, had really great feedback.
7. Do you see that there’s an opportunity for more of this moving forward? And bringing the key stakeholder groups together to collaborate on shared outcomes?
Yeah, I think it was really great to work with you on getting that up and running so quickly. And it’s great to see that it has endured for this long. It’s important from a principles perspective, that those working to support communities in their recovery should be coordinated as much as they can be, to reduce the burden on those communities. And, ensure that what is being provided is done in a way that is as seamless as possible, as informed as possible, and as collaborative as possible. It’s easier said than done to actually get traction. When you’ve got so many jurisdictions and in such a chaotic space, in terms of the early relief and recovery, particularly the black Sunday bushfires, it’s complex. But, I think it’s better to at least try and stay at the table, than to not. I think in terms of the outcomes, the really important thing is to find the points in the system where coordination is possible. And I think that’s what we could do better going forward as we haven’t quite mastered it.
One of the challenges is all of the different organisations put together programs and initiatives, but haven’t consulted each other about how we could have done that more seamlessly. So you end up with communities being overwhelmed by multiple funding opportunities coming at them at once with deadlines that are very close, and not much resourcing to attend. That is something I would love to see being done better. We’re giving it a crack in the South Coast of New South Wales at an initial level with a group of funders. It’s probably easier done on a more localised level than it is on a national level, but it’s an opportunity for organisations like ours, and like this network, to pilot some ways of doing that. But the coordination piece is critical. Whether we can truly collaborate is potentially a different question. But certainly, if we’re thinking about the collaboration spectrum, coordination is where we can easily start and at least share information more effectively and make access to information easier for people and communities.
Yeah, correct. We’ve won some grants under the BCRRF funds in New South Wales and all we hear from that area at the moment is that it’s gone from grant writing fatigue, to program delivery fatigue. There seems to be too much money being given out for the ability to comprehend what it is and then find the project managers to deliver it. It’s kind of gone from one problem to the other, which hopefully will have wonderful outcomes. But, there’s a finite time for that all to be delivered. It’s grant upon grant, which is a bit of a challenge. So that’s a great initiative. We often say there are gaps in the process and consequences that might not necessarily have been considered in the process. It’s great to see that FRRR is filling the gaps to make the outcome as best as possible. Now, you might have just answered one of these, but I also finished up with the same question.
What 2 things would you like to be done differently in the disaster space?
Look, I think I did just answer some of it, the coordination piece. I know the new National Agency is very committed to this coordination piece but, it has to be heavily informed by the local level and the lived experience. So that’s one piece that I think we may never get 100% but, if there’s good intention around it, it will help. One of the other things is the continued challenge around the timing of funding. It’s linked to the challenge and the dynamic of pressure to get money out the door quickly and make things happen and the clear need for there to be support provided to communities. With the reality, and you’ve just described it in terms of that overwhelm and that overload, the reality of how long this stuff actually takes. We need to find ways to map this system so that we understand which bits should be put in early and which bits should be more long term. Not rushing communities to do projects within 12 months – if it’s going to take three years- let’s let it take three years. There is a big piece around that funding system that I would love to see change, and we’re certainly doing our bit to inform.
Yeah, I agree. And I think the timing is really interesting because again, every community is different. Every community goes at its own pace, and has had different impacts. It’s also having a different response in the recovery or even in the preparedness or resilience building as well. No two communities are the same. So to put them all in the same pot of money, if they don’t apply for it they miss out, but then if they do apply for it, they’re not necessarily ready to activate it. So it’s part of the bigger kind of process.
Natalie, thanks so much for your time. In this episode, I’ve been talking with Natalie Egleton, the CEO of the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal, or the FRRR, and we’ve been talking about strengthening rural, regional and remote communities. Natalie, thanks so much.
Thanks for having me.