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  • Nicole Richards

Philanthropy and Indigenous peoples

Recognising that philanthropy needs to do more learning (and unlearning) while addressing the inherited power dynamics and prevailing inequity that occurs when funding to Indigenous Peoples were key lessons from the recent Global Indigenous Funders conference. Peter Alenhoven from Aboriginal community-led philanthropic fund Kondee Woonga-gat Toor-rong, Simone Spencer from Woor-Dungin and Gemma Salteri and Rachel Kerry from CAGES Foundation share their insights and personal reflections from the conference.

Peter Aldenhoven, Executive Officer of Aboriginal community-led philanthropic fund, Koondee Woonga-gat Toor-rong, says there are three things philanthropy in Australia needs to do if it wants to support self-determination and participatory grant making: Engage in self-reflection, interrogate power dynamicsm, and consciously foster Indigenous leadership and community control.

Aldenhoven, who attended the International Funders for Indigenous Peoples (IFIP) Global Indigenous Funders conference, held last month in Santa Fe, New Mexico, along with representatives from Woor-Dungin and CAGES Foundation, says the conference highlighted the fact that Indigenous peoples around the world face many of the same complex challenges.

“I was inspired by the solidarity and spirit of Indigenous peoples from around the world,” Aldenhoven says. “Many challenges are shared: loss of language, land and culture, though particularities varied.”

With Koondee Woong-gat Toor-rong set to launch this month after a transition several years in the planning by Australian Communities Foundation sub-fund, Towards a Just Society, Aldenhoven was humbled and inspired by the examples of Indigenous-led funds showcased at the conference.

“Some of the Indigenous-led funds in operation globally have been running for 25 years,” he says. “Koondee Woonga-gat Toor-rong is just on the brink of commencing and it is a daunting prospect to be the EO of the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community-led fund in Victoria walking down this path, but also affirming of the importance of this initiative.”

Fellow conference delegate, Simone Spencer, who co-chairs Woor-Dungin, a coalition of Aboriginal community-controlled organisations and philanthropic funders and recipients of this year's Indigenous Philanthropy Award at the Australian Philanthropy Awards, said she too felt a “sense of connectedness throughout the conference.”

“As an Indigenous person, it was comforting to know that Indigenous issues are similar worldwide,” Spencer says.

Conversations at the Global Indigenous Funders conference, which was attended by both funders and Indigenous Peoples, centred on the learning and unlearning of philanthropic funding experiences that support the rights and self-determination of Indigenous Peoples.

As a funder, Gemma Salteri, Executive Director of CAGES Foundation, says the conference was characterised by a true generosity of spirit, with attendees listening and sharing their stories with respect.

“People also seemed able to sit with the discomfort required to stretch their thinking,” Salteri says. 

“It was the first philanthropic conference that I have been to where I felt a genuine lack of a power imbalance between the funding group and the recipient group. If anything, the power structure was reversed with a deep appreciation of the knowledge that community possesses.”

“There was a clear message from First Nations people to funders to ensure that the organisations they work for are not re-enforcing the colonial structures that have caused many of the challenges that First Nations people are now facing,” Salteri says. 

“Language is critical, we need to move away from deficit language when we are talking about Indigenous issues and instead focus on the wealth of knowledge that exists within the world’s oldest living culture.”

For Rachel Kerry, CAGES Foundation Executive Officer, the conference was both a sobering and uplifting experience.

“One of the biggest learnings I took from the conference was realising how colonisation has devastated Indigenous people globally and, sadly, Aboriginal Australians most of all,” Kerry says.  “I couldn’t believe that the same injustices could be carried out over and over again, in so many different places.”

“The resilience of First Nations people to survive and thrive globally was inspirational,” she continues, “and there was a real sense of optimism that Indigenous people’s resilience and connection to their lands and culture would be the solutions to some of the world’s most intractable problems, from climate change through to inequity – if given the chance and investment.”

“As grantmakers, we need to find ways to be accountable around our own processes,” Kerry says. “Grant-makers expect so much accountability from those they give to but don’t hold themselves to the same standard. You need to know if your rhetoric around what you do actually matches what you do from the community’s perspective.”

The Australian quartet’s collaborative presentation, ‘Pathways to Indigenous Self Determination’ at the Global Indigenous Funders conference was grounded in honest story telling about innovative approaches, lived experiences, relationships and lessons learned.

The opportunity to travel and attend the conference together and share different perspectives was a rewarding experience that deepened relationships. Gemma Salteri says genuine friendships were formed and Simone Spencer from Woor-Dungin says the experience “helped us have deeper conversations and develop a better relationship to work from back in Australia.” 

The CAGES Foundation has, for several years, followed a funding approach that is dedicated to building trust within communities and allowing Indigenous voices to be heard throughout the grantmaking process. Gemma Salteri says the IFIP conference has left her compelled to do even more to “formalise and articulate how we can do this better.”

“The conference also provided some good tools to start thinking about how we can bring an Indigenous voice into the boardroom in a way that is respectful and not tokenistic,” Salteri says, adding that these conversations have already begun at board level.

Advice for grant makers who support Indigenous solutions and partnerships:

"Recognise the need to cede power, believe in Indigenous agency and listen." Peter Aldenhoven – Executive Officer, Koondee Woonga-gat Toor-rong

"Get to know us on a deeper level – preferably on our Country, and you will fall in love with us and will want to support us! (By ‘us’ I mean Aboriginal people, our culture, stories, communities etc.)" Simone Spencer – Co-Chair, Woor Dungin

"To constantly challenge yourself to be honest about the role you should be playing in a community and to do less talking and more listening." Gemma – Executive Director, CAGES Foundation

"Be prepared to feel uncomfortable, have a long-term view and don’t assume you know what success looks like for communities. Be respectful – ask and LISTEN!" Rachel Kerry – Executive Officer, CAGES Foundation

This story first appeared on the Philanthropy Australia website.


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