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Johan Kortenhorst (Northern Rivers Community Foundation) on Natural Disasters and Response in Northern NSW

New South Wales
Johan Kortenhorst | January 25th 2022

The Northern Rivers Community Foundation (NRCF) has one of the largest footprints among Community Foundations in Australia. Traversing seven LGAs, we range from Grafton in the South, to Tweed in the North, from Byron on the coast, and Kyogle in the west. All in all, we have over 300,000 people living within our communities, and while the Northern Rivers is considered a paradise for most, it is not a paradise for all.

Our first steps began in 2001, in response to a diverse range of social and environmental issues that highlighted the need for a richer whole-of-community response to the problems we were facing.

With support from FRRR, we received funding to run a feasibility study on the Community Foundation model, and by 2002/03, further funding to properly establish the NRCF as a Community Foundation. In 2005, our first grants round focused on social isolation and disadvantage. Of 25 applications, we were able to fund ten organisations.

Fast forward to 2021, and over the past 17 years, we have worked together with local government, businesses, families, individuals and other foundations to fund projects worth just under $2.5 million. That’s 347 community projects and countless individual stories, memories, and experiences.

Natural Disasters and Response

When your community covers more than 20,000 square kilometres of rural land, natural and man-made disasters and emergencies are inevitable, and are quickly adopted into the way of life.

Over the last few years, we’ve experienced catastrophic floods – I remember needing to swim many of our cattle out of low-lying paddocks as the water went up to my chest; the 2019/2020 drought and bush fires that choked our towns as they raced across the state; the COVID-19 pandemic; and storms that have been washing away the beaches of Byron Bay, and flooding the Grafton and Yamba areas.

We’ve learnt that the only way through is to ensure our communities, people and environments are resilient and prepared. And so, we launched our Resilience and Regeneration Fund.

This began as a research project, where we had the team contacting our network of grant recipients, to find out how they were doing in light of COVID and following the bushfires. This research then allowed us to better understand the diverse range of issues affecting our local communities. We discovered the need to build capacity in our partner organisations to help them survive and thrive and to reserve and regenerate our forests, beaches and rural land so they are more resilient to drought, fires and floods.

We then asked for feedback from all of our partners – government, donors, NFPs, and other Foundations, to find out how we might best be able to respond together.

From there, NRCF stepped up to lead the community in raising funds. We engaged newspapers, asked local and state government for support, and had our most successful fundraiser to date. As a result, in December 2020 we were able to fund 35 organisations that were focusing on building resilience in our communities.

This included supporting organisations like Human Nature Adventure Therapy, who support at-risk youth between the ages of 14-19 by taking them on group adventures to blend physical activity with counselling. However, during the COVID lockdown, Human Nature had to get creative.

From individual Facetime, Zoom and Messenger check-ins to virtual launch events filled with activities, local celebrities, and fun hand delivered ‘porch packages’, the team at Human Nature continues to ensure young people feel a sense of connection, belonging and support.

Responding to the housing crisis

Somewhat ironically, it is precisely this sense of community belonging and connection that has led to one of the most significant crises in our region. As COVID continues to highlight the importance of connectivity, our cities are empting in search of the connectedness of our beautiful rural living.

In the past 12 months, wealth has flooded into the area with over $300 million worth of real-estate changing hands in the Byron Shire alone. However, this influx of people has displaced many locals, and we watch as families are forced into homelessness, with our elders sleeping in cars and our businesses crying for employees as our young people are forced to leave their communities to find more affordable living arrangements.

So how are Community Foundations best placed to respond to these new and ever-changing issues? Through the NRCF Recovery & Resilience initiative, we have learnt there are three priorities in responding to any community issue.

Firstly, we need to listen to the community to understand the issue and advocate positive impact and change. This means accessing data, reports, briefing papers and anecdotal evidence from community organisations, peak bodies, councils and community groups.

Secondly, we need to engage with the community on how best to address the issue and become part of the solution. We need to convene or support community forums, workshops, working groups and partnerships. One example of this is our ‘Aunty Project’, where we are currently partnering with a private philanthropist, a community housing provider, a pro-bono project manager, and an “at cost” builder, to develop an affordable housing project for women over 55 – the fastest growing homeless demographic in Australia.

Finally, we need to provide a vehicle for philanthropists to support and donate to these solutions. For NRCF, this includes our Housing & Homelessness Fund, which we are using to encourage philanthropists to support a variety of different housing solutions that address a cross-section of people in crisis.

The Fund offers two different giving options: Impact Now, which allows donors to support local community organisations and services who are seeing an increase in people in need NOW, or alternatively, support for long term housing projects, such as the Aunty Project, which allows for ongoing investment in our communities’ infrastructure for long term housing security.

Using the Community Foundation model, we are able to create a whole of community response to a wide range of social and environmental issues in a timely, effective and inclusive manner.

Community Foundations are like families…”

I would like to finish by sharing an anecdote from a celebration we held to say goodbye to NRCF’s outgoing chair, John Callanan.

John spoke on just how much we have achieved in the past few years. He spoke of the different community groups we have been able to support, and how they in turn have shaped his connection to the community. He spoke of the impact he has seen us achieve over the past 17 years. But most importantly, he spoke of our transformation into a family. A family that listens, cares for, and looks out for each other.

For that is what community foundations are – an extended family that works to listen to the issues affecting local people who are our friends, neighbours, work mates and indeed, family.  We advocate, engage, and find solutions for these needs – our needs. And we support and develop our community’s resilience, connectedness and collective strength.

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