Community Spirit

Saturday, September 1, 2007 - 11:25

Australian organisations are discovering the benefits of engaging with communities. Tony Malkovic looks at the management of successful partnerships.

When Deslin Foster drove through hot and muggy conditions to a remote Aboriginal community in north Queensland to help local school children with a financial literacy program, it turned out to be a real eye-opener for her.

One of the biggest obstacles was simply getting there. What should have been a simple one-hour drive heading north from Cairns along the coast to the Wujal Wujal community turned into a four-hour journey due to rising waters and flooded roads.

“We got to town for the first meeting, but all the kids were being sent home early because the river in town had flooded,” recalls Foster. “And someone had taken the road we were going to take, and was trying to drive their car into town, and their car had been washed away in the water!”


Foster is an ANZ employee on an 18-month secondment as a project manager with Reconciliation Australia. She’s working in partnership with the financial services industry, government agencies and local communities to help indigenous people better manage their money.

“It’s a national program and we’re trying to come up with solutions to improve financial literacy, access to banking services and products for indigenous people everywhere,” explains Foster. “It’s important when you try to come up with solutions for remote areas that you understand the limited access people have to services like the internet or even to a car to get to town. “So just going there and experiencing those things makes you think about how practical the solutions are that you’re coming up with.”

During her secondment, Foster is usually based in Canberra. Her trip to the bush though was a million miles from what she normally does at the ANZ headquarters in Melbourne, where she was involved in share trading.

Foster was able to spend time with Reconciliation Australia because ANZ allows employees to work full-time on secondment with its community partners under its unique “Opportunity Bank” initiative, where positions are advertised internally and interested staff apply.

A growing trend

The ANZ says that it developed the program in response to community groups’ requests for more than just eight hours of paid volunteer leave a year for bank employees. The program also takes corporate volunteering to the next stage: capacity building involving local communities.

And it’s an example of the growing trend where corporate Australia is partnering on a wider scale with community organisations.
Gina Anderson, CEO Philanthropy Australia, has no doubt about one of the main reasons that companies both big and small are getting more involved with their communities.

“What’s really driving this more than anything and what’s making it sustainable is our younger generation saying to us and businesses: ‘Look, I want to work with a company that I feel proud of, takes its responsibilities to the community seriously, and allows and supports me in community activities such as volunteering’,” says Anderson.

Philanthropy Australia is the peak organisation for giving. It represents bodies such as family and corporate foundations and produces a Guide to giving on its website. But it’s well aware that companies these days want to do more than just dig into their pockets.

Anderson says there are many factors influencing the desire of firms to help out, including changes to tax laws, the rise of a generation of financially independent businesswomen, and a growing number of people on significant salaries who want to make a difference and see results.

In many cases, we’re talking involvement: the equivalent of a company rolling up its sleeves and organising people and staff to pitch in to help their communities in long-term partnerships.

“In corporate philanthropy it’s not good enough just to write a cheque – a good feeling’s not good enough anymore,” explains Anderson. “The real issue is that people want to make a difference. They want to actually solve the problems.”

Anderson has a couple of tips for private companies wanting to be good corporate citizens and best manage a community partnership. “The first thing I would say is engage your staff,” she advises.

“The second thing is to make it something that aligns with your business strategy. I’m a believer in enlightened self-interest for business, and if they enter into a community partnership with something that makes sense business-wise, it will be sustainable.

“There are lots of companies doing great things in a way that makes business sense and, therefore, sense to their employees and their customers.”

Power of partnerships

Elaine Henry, CEO of The Smith Family, and a member of the Prime Minister’s Community Business Partnership, knows how businesses operate – and the power of partnerships with the business community.

“We’ve got about 55 national partnerships, because we’re a national organisation, and we’ve also got about 500 regional partnerships,” she says. “While it’s important to do things nationally, it’s important to do things at the local level with the community where the business works, resides and plays.

“People are realising that organisations are communities of people embedded in society, and we all have a role in making that society a better place.

“It’s not just an issue of giving money and letting staff do something for a day; it’s really understanding the big issues in terms of societal concerns that we have, and saying, ‘We’ve got skills, we’ve got capacity, let’s get strategic about this’.”

Henry says firms can gain a lot from being involved, including better motivated and focused staff. “We’ve got a real problem in terms of talent in organisations today,” she says.

“So if you’re a savvy or enlightened business you will say, ‘I have to work within the community and get my staff something additional, that extra dimension to their lives, to make them feel that they are making a difference and doing something worthwhile’.

“In the community sector at a certain level, you have to have a broad sweep of what’s going on in business, government, or the community sector, and you’ve got to be juggling a number of things.

“So if you’re going to be a leader of tomorrow, you can go into a community organisation for a period of time and get a different perspective on life and a real skill in negotiation and developing the relationship.”

Henry says the key to successful community partnerships is to find out what staff are passionate about and want to be involved in. “I think what we need to understand is that the best way for a company to go into partnership is with a non-profit that really is embedded in the community that they’re interested in,” Henry explains.

“Then the trick of a good partnership is to have multiple ‘touch points’. By that I mean CEO to CEO, CFO to CFO, marketing manager to marketing manager, and so on. So you have multiple touch points within the organisations so it really becomes embedded.

“Start small, build that trust, get to understand the real buzz that it gives your staff. And, I have to say, if it doesn’t work, if the relationships aren’t gelling, go find another partner.”

ANZ’s Deslin Foster is in no doubt about the benefits of such partnerships. “It’s been a fantastic working experience for me,” she says of her time with Reconciliation Australia.

“I’ve been able to gain an understanding of the issues that affect indigenous people and working with government and community organisations. Hopefully, I’ll be able to use that experience in the bank when I go back.”

Getting hitched

Partnerships between businesses and community organisations need to focus on commitment and both sides pulling their weight. The checklist for a successful partnership includes:

  • Shared values and objectives
  • Providing a solution to a need in the community
  • Genuine commitment from each partner
  • Complementary business interests/fit
  • Realistic expectations of what the partnership can achieve
  • Integration of the community organisation into the business’s strategic plan
  • Openness to change – the partnership evolves over time
  • Collaboration in many forms: the business may provide in-kind support, financial assistance and technical expertise; the community organisation may provide training and mentoring as well as expanding networks for the business.

Why some partnerships fail:

  • Insufficient planning
  • Initial enthusiasm wanes – successful partnerships usually have long-term commitment
  • Reliance on one or two individuals – if they leave, the partnership struggles
  • No monitoring or evaluation to keep the partnership evolving
  • It is a commercial or contractual arrangement.

Source: fact sheet, Prime Minister’s Community Partnership website,