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Through Fire and Flood: Q&A with Natalie Egleton, FRRR CEO

Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal's (FRRR) work around Australia has earned it plenty of respect, with its presence in - and support for - communities affected by natural disasters well known.

The AIGM recently chatted with FRRR CEO Natalie Egleton about disaster recovery grantmaking, helping communities affected by the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, and what the organisation has learned through working in communities hit by natural disaster.


AIGM: After a natural disaster, as a funder, how do you get the point across that "rebuilding" people and community is as important as rebuilding structures on the ground?

Natalie Egleton: The National Strategy for Disaster Resilience has a significant focus on rebuilding people and recognising the need for capacity building within communities to support their recovery.

And there's increasing recognition amongst service providers and governments of the need for the ongoing rebuilding of people.

We know that an awful lot of resourcing goes into the psychological and emotional wellbeing of people in the first 12 or so months after a disaster.

About the VBAF and FRRR

The Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund (VBAF) was established by the Victorian Government - in partnership with other bodies - following the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires.

The fund raised nearly $380 million to support individuals and communities in towns and suburbs affected by the 2009 Victorian bushfires.

FRRR has partnered with VBAF to distribute grants to affected communities and support their recovery.

FRRR's grants programs funded through VBAF focus on long-term community recovery, resilience and capacity building:

The Grant for Resilience & Wellness Program focuses on psychosocial recovery - it makes small, localised grants for community-led initiatives aimed at improving mental health and wellbeing. Examples include arts programs, community gardens, workshops on posttraumatic stress disorder, mindfulness practice, and supporting men's sheds and community houses.

The Community Group Futures Program focuses on capacity building, recognising that after the fires a lot of local not-for-profit organisations took on roles outside their usual remit. It builds skills and capacities in groups to help them work effectively in post-bushfire communities.

The School and Beyond Program is about youth engagement- particularly education engagement, participation and pathways into work.

Many of these grants programs are set to continue for several more years to provide long term support for affected communities.

FRRR also works closely with four community foundations established to distribute grants in bushfire-affected communities.

However, after that a lot of those services do tend to be pulled away. And that's where philanthropy has a really critical role in stepping in.

FRRR is talking with commonwealth and state governments about that transition - about how the government can "exit" but also assure communities there's other support coming, and how other service providers can continue their funding in partnership with other philanthropists.

This is where we see FRRR having an important role, and that's why most of our disaster recovery grant programs don't kick off until about 12 months after a disaster.

In the case of the Victorian Bushfires, we were there very early on but we didn't really start granting until about 12 months later. We haven't really stopped providing support since early 2010.

We've been there for that whole period, and we'll stay there for the next seven or eight years at least.

AIGM: How do you ensure small, shorter-term projects that apply for grants fit into the long term recovery remit?

Natalie Egleton: When we talk about longer term, we mean the timeframe for recovery is over a long time, rather than the projects themselves having a long lifespan.

We're looking to support things the community identify as useful in their ongoing recovery, preparedness for future events and developing their resilience.

The length of the project doesn't really play a part. It is more about understanding the project's aspirations, as well as the values and benefits it will bring to that community.

Sometimes there will be short term or immediate benefits, but there will always be some longer term view.

If we receive an application for a mindfulness stress reduction program, we will see that a dozen people can benefit immediately.

But we expect that they will develop skills they'll take with them and hopefully have a longer term impact.

So there's an immediate benefit to those people in knowing they've got a peer support group - and that they are not alone. And the longer term benefits would hopefully be improvements to their mental health and wellbeing, reduced visits to the GP, and reduced dependence on medications.

AIGM: In a post-natural disaster setting, is there some allowance if a successful funding application states "We are aiming to help X number of people", but ultimately falls a touch short?

Natalie Egleton: In a post-disaster setting, we take the view we need to be flexible and adaptable to the needs of communities. They're often in unknown territory.

We also trust that the groups on the ground know what they need, and we work with them to develop a realistic project in the first place.

If we've got queries and want to reality test what they're thinking, we will get on the phone and say: "We've seen things like this before and these numbers might be ambitious. What's your thinking behind those figures?"

We'll really try to offset any issues early in the grant assessment process. But if there are changes when it is time for them to report back or give us an update, we realise that the best laid plans are just that - they're plans, things change and there's always something to learn and some benefit in providing space to explore what changed and why.

AIGM: In that way the whole idea of funder and fundee - it's a partnership isn't it?

Natalie Egleton: Yes.

There can be a natural power imbalance between grantees and grantmakers, and we need to be conscious of that.

And when you're dealing with communities that have experienced a trauma, you need to be mindful they are getting a lot of outside input coming into their towns through emergency services, agencies and NGOs, as well as through donors wanting to give a lot of money and help.

They can be quite overwhelmed by all of that.

So it's really important for us at FRRR to be a neutral and safe partner; someone they can talk to about what they need. (From there) we can consider how we can get those funds into useful and helpful projects, and at the time they need them.

The Healesville Community Labyrinth in Victoria, built in the wake of the 2009 Black Saturday Bushfires and funded by a number of organisations, including FRRR.

AIGM: What practical steps do you take to reduce the funder-fundee power imbalance, especially given the vulnerability of communities affected by natural disaster?

Natalie Egleton: A really practical way is to get into communities and meet people in person.

We recently spent a few days in Tasmania meeting with communities affected by the 2013 fires in the south of the state. We've provided grants to those groups, but meeting them in person broke down a range of barriers.

They saw we were genuinely interested in how their community was going and the things that they need. They saw our criteria were flexible; we can adapt and try to be broad enough to capture their needs.

Being on the phone and available to them is really important as well. But when we get to go and physically meet with people, it helps them understand that we're there for them and we're there with them.

We've been around for 16 years now so we've got fairly good networks. And because we've been supporting disaster-affected communities since 2006, we've got a pretty solid reputation, as well as having a really strong lens on community-led recovery.

We have multiple networks - for example through local government and through the local Neighbourhood Houses who may have dealt with us on other programs outside of disaster recovery.

Often there'll be a state government-led recovery team in the early days, and we have really good relationships with state governments.

(With the) VBAF funding, a big part of what gave FRRR credibility is that in the immediate aftermath of the fires, there was a person employed pretty much full time to work specifically with those communities.

That built up the level of understanding we had of those communities, and that built trust. Whilst that person's no longer with FRRR, that knowledge has stayed within the organisation.

AIGM: In the wake of the 2009 fires, four community foundations were formed to support affected communities. How has FRRR worked with them?

Natalie Egleton: Relatively soon after the fires there were discussions about what would be done with the funding allocated to the fire-affected communities.

One option discussed was that of having a community foundation that could be a local philanthropic vehicle to carry some of the funds forward to support the community's longer term recovery.

Four communities - Mitchell Shire, Kinglake Ranges, Marysville and the Alpine Region - opted to go with that.

Each was allocated around $1 million and a 10-year remit to spend that money through localised community grants and other supports.

Part of our role is to support those foundations to develop their capacity and capabilities. We have contributed some funding towards developing these groups.

That notion of local people driving the recovery is really important, but there are also challenges in having local residents governing such initiatives. There's a lot of complexity in managing philanthropic entities like these, and they require quite a bit of development and expertise.

So providing funds to those foundations supports their viability and capacity. This helps them consider what their role beyond the funds might be - they might not exist outside of VBAF, so they need to think now about how they can attract future funds.

AIGM: What are the strengths - and challenges - of having local people involved in these types of disaster recovery efforts?

Natalie Egleton: I think there are more strengths than challenges. Their ability to understand community is an important one.

But there are inherent challenges in being a member of a community and at the same time managing funds that were directed for community recovery - and having the responsibility to make decisions about the community. There's a lot of complexity in there.

The foundations are all doing very well and doing great things in their communities, but it's a complex space. This complexity happens in any community foundation and any organisation where you are responsible for that kind of funding going into your community.

But in a disaster context you've got the added aspect of trauma, and also the people who are on the boards were affected by the fires and are also going through their own recovery.

This is where having solid governance practices is really critical.

AIGM: What role does FRRR play to support the foundations and people in that context? Can you be a sounding board? An "honest broker"?

Natalie Egleton: We're both of those. We have a program manager dedicated to VBAF's programs - she's available and there are regular meetings between her and the four foundations.

She's there to be a sounding board, to relay other things going on in the sector and to provide feedback on some of their thinking and strategies.

The Ravenshoe Community Garden, constructed on a derelict basketball court in Ravenshoe, Qld, after Cyclone Yasi in 2011. FRRR funded it through its Repair-Restore-Renew Program.

We also support some capacity building too. We're providing grants to them for strategic planning, developing policies and procedures, looking at their community engagement practices and strategies and supporting professional development.

AIGM: What are the keys to building community resilience post-disaster? And what role does building preparedness play?

Natalie Egleton: I might get to the second part first because I think the disaster recovery experience is a cycle - it's not linear - and preparedness goes hand-in-hand with recovery and resilience.

What we found in the 2009 (bushfire) affected communities is those that already had strong social capital tended to move forward more strongly, and have had fewer challenges around their resilience.

They've been able to plan their recovery, identify projects together as a community and bring people along for the journey. Areas with less developed social capital tended to have a bit more conflict and a little less of that cohesiveness along the recovery journey.

There are always bumps, but communities with stronger social capital beforehand have managed to ride those peaks and troughs a bit better.

We are currently working to develop a program and framework that can help to support better resilience before a disaster. To build community preparedness in a recovery setting, a lot of our grant programs try to strengthen communities. In a post-disaster setting it's about trying to support community leaders to build their capacity.

We recognise leadership takes different forms and different people will step up at different times, so our grant programs try to enable that and support that diversity.

It's also about creating opportunities for communities to build their social capital, so [we support] events that bring people together, activities that strengthen connectivity.

Whenever we assess projects we look for connectedness, for partnerships, and the way the project is connecting lots of different people. The better that's done, the more likely we are to support a project.

AIGM: From a grantmaking perspective, what strengths do affected communities have?

Natalie Egleton: I think their strength lies in knowing themselves and knowing how they do things.

Agencies coming into a community affected by disaster often don't know these things, and it can take a bit of time to get the lay of the land.

Local communities know this. There are networks and they just know how things are.

The other strength is that, outside of a disaster, communities will have typically worked in a range of ways to get (funding or support for) projects.

They'll have usually developed community plans, they've usually got strategies for their community projects, they've usually got great relationships between council or the local organisations, there are usually great partnerships in place.

A frequent comment in the 2009 communities is: "Hang on, we were actually doing a lot of stuff before the fires happened, let's not forget who we were before and what we were able to do".

It can be easy to put this work aside and just look ahead. But often these communities had lots of great initiatives already underway, and had a bunch of skills and resources available and being accessed within the community beforehand.

And when you are talking about rural communities, there are a range of skills that exist within those communities around managing risk and managing change. They're incredibly adaptable people (who) know how to manage the economic complexities of change.


A number of FRRR disaster-recovery grants programs are currently open for applications, including the latest rounds of the Community Groups Futures, Grants for Resilience & Wellness and Repair-Restore-Renew programs. For more information, including key dates, visit FRRR's grants calendar.

In addition, FRRR welcomes donors and other partners to support the Disaster Resilient: Future Ready project.

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