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The Importance of Sharing Conversations

6 June 2016 at 10:27 am
Wendy Williams
Robert Gillies is determined to change negative attitudes towards homelessness through his charity clothing store “HoMie”. Gillies is this week’s Changemaker.

Wendy Williams | 6 June 2016 at 10:27 am


The Importance of Sharing Conversations
6 June 2016 at 10:27 am

Robert Gillies is determined to change negative attitudes towards homelessness through his charity clothing store “HoMie”. Gillies is this week’s Changemaker.

Robert Gillies

In December 2014, Australia’s first ever Street Store was held in Melbourne’s Federation Square. The Street Store was all about giving, and was promoted via the Homeless of Melbourne Facebook page. Following the success of the event, Robert Gillies, along with friends Nick Pearce and Marcus Crook got together and formed the charity “Homeless of Melbourne Incorporated” and shortly after, the initiative HoMie – Homeless of Melbourne Incorporated Enterprise – was born.

According to their website a HoMie is a person who looks out for others. Their goal is to make donating easy for the public, and to make receiving dignified for those in need. Gillies, who describes himself as a problem solver and a creative thinker, said it all started from a desire to share conversations with the city’s homeless.

In this week’s Changemaker, Gillies who was a National Finalist Young Australian of the Year 2016, talks about the importance of good friends, how much you can learn from Google, his new project Charity Tap and how he manages to keep so busy.

You are studying for a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery, a Masters’ in Public Health and a Diploma in Philosophy, you lead an orchestra, you are executive-director of Yarra Swim Co, pushing for a swimmable Yarra River and you co-founded Homeless of Melbourne – How do you find the time?

It’s a bit of a balancing act. I get asked this a lot and I guess the answer unfortunately is very cliche. It comes back to the fact that I think I just do things that I genuinely love and I am passionate about in my spare time. So I don’t spend a whole heap of time, you know, watching TV.

My relaxing activities, my social activities, tend to be work for my charities which I’ve started with groups of friends, playing in orchestras and playing for footy clubs, again around friends. I love learning and developing new skills. So, when I’m not studying I love just getting involved in charities and social enterprise. I hope that sorts of answers it!… I’ve always enjoyed studying as well and I am really fortunate to be studying with a really good group of friends and we all sort of help each other out. I guess it just comes down to good friends and a lot of support by your side really and loving everything you do.

What made you want to work in the Not for Profit sector?

After Year 12 I took a gap year and went and taught overseas in London at a primary school. I had a really good fun year, it was really a year for me and for no one else. A lot of travel and a lot of good times. When I came back, I started studying at university and as we all know university students have pretty long holidays and I found that during the summers I wanted to see different parts of the world, like combine my love of travelling with sort of my curiosity, and my curiosity took me to Southeast Asia and some remote Indigenous communities, where I took up some volunteer opportunities. And just seeing how other people live, who are much less fortunate than myself, made me quite passionate about helping other people. And being a bit of a problem solver and a creative thinker, while I was away in different communities I was always thinking about ways that I could support the community or empower people or do a little bit more than just volunteer with my free time, maybe sort of more strategic planning about how I could fundraise or help in other ways. That led me to wanting to start a few different charities with different ideas I had.

How did you get started?

I sort of just said to myself I would love to do it and I asked friends whether they would help me – legal friends, accounting friends –  and when I actually first started my first charity a lot of my friends came back to me and said no. Like, thanks but no thanks. Sounds like a great idea and I’d love to help but I don’t have time, or I don’t have the expertise, or I’m just not passionate about that, you know, it’s not my vision.

At first I sort of struggled to get people excited about my own ideas but that was in a way one of the best things that ever happened to me because it forced me to go out and actually learn how to do it myself. I don’t have a legal background but I just googled  how to start a charity. As I said, I enjoy reading and learning, and I enjoyed learning how to navigate all the legalities and all the financial requirements and just piece by piece built up a pretty strong knowledge base and just sort of went from there, pretty much just googling things to be honest.

The Homeless of Melbourne Facebook page now has 33,463 likes, did you expect that level of support when you started out?

No, we definitely did not. We never have had expectations of the page. We just always wanted to share conversations that we had had with people living on the street. When I say we, my friends Nick Pearce and Marcus Crook, actually started that page about two years ago and then I started helping them a few months into their journey. But no, we have never had expectations for the page, we really just wanted people to learn a little bit more about people living on the streets, like we had through our conversations, and we’ve been really blown away with the community support that we’ve received, just all the support it’s been incredible.

How did it evolve from a Facebook page to become HoMie – Homeless of Melbourne Incorporated Enterprise?

So because we were profiling people in acute need, we’ve always had a big outpouring of support from the community that has been centered around our page.  And we sort of felt obliged to use it or harness the support that people were offering. So when we would put up a story about John who is living on the streets people would say “oh my God, it’s so touching, I have got so much that I could give John, I’ve got clothes, I’ve got food, I’ve got blankets, how can I donate these items?”  

So what we decided to do early on was we ran a pop up event in Federation Square at the end of 2014 called the Street Store, and it was really just an event for people who had something to give to come and donate it to people who were in need, because we had sort of identified a bit of a disconnect between donors and receivers, so we wanted to make receiving dignified, that was the main objective of the event, to bridge a divide between two different communities in Melbourne. That went really well, but we weren’t convinced that we really succeeded in our objective to make receiving dignified on that day in 2014, because the clothes that were being donated were second hand, used, stained, dirty clothes, and we came out of that day thinking wouldn’t it be great if we had our own clothing store and we could provide brand new clothing to people who were homeless, but not only provide the clothing but let people have a dignified sort of shopping experience, in a real store in a shopping centre that was for the homeless community but also for the general public to purchase clothes at.

That idea blossomed into HoMie which stands for Homeless of Melbourne Incorporated Enterprise, because it is a social enterprise and at that point we started a charity, which is now called Conscious Creative, and through the charity we run the HoMie social enterprise which is in Melbourne Central and we are just about to open a store on Brunswick Street.

When people shop at HoMie do they understand the significance behind what you are doing or are they just looking for clothes?

I think it’s a bit of both. Sometimes people hear about us and they come and seek us out, and I’m sure those customers are educated about our mission. But we try to be a stand alone fashion sort of retailer in our own right, and I think that quite a lot of people when they walk through the doors don’t actually know that it’s charity, they just think that it is another boutique Melbourne clothing store and we are really flattered by that feedback. And at that point we have obviously got staff who communicate the message and hopefully no one walks out the door at HoMie without knowing how significant their purchase is, but certainly we do get shoppers who don’t know as they walk through the doors.

You mentioned, it was about sharing conversations, has there been any stories that have stuck in your mind?

Yeah, absolutely. To be honest all of the stories stay with you and are incredibly touching and emotional. When you are hearing the stories you can’t but help be moved and you can’t help but reaffirm your commitment to assisting people who are in need, like a lot of people living on the streets. One in particular that sort of stayed with me is Hayley’s story. Hayley is an employee of ours now and we have been training her as a retail manager in our HoMie store. And I’m not sure how much Hayley would be comfortable me divulging but she sort of had addiction issues for an number of years and had sort of been isolated from society and decided one day that she needed to get clean and she spent a bit of time in an addiction rehabilitation service, and that’s when we sort of got put in touch with Hayley. She’s been working at HoMie ever since, she is one of our best employees. She is an incredible, strong, amazing woman.

You also founded Charity Tap, how did that come about?

So once we had HoMie up and running we sort of, you know, put our feet up and said, “Hey this is ok, we’ve got this charity that is making money for itself.” I’ve been involved in a lot of charities previously and fundraising is always the most difficult part – not the most difficult part – but certainly a very time consuming part of your daily life is, “How are we going to get money?” So we thought, “Yeah social enterprise is really cool isn’t it? what else do we love to do?” We thought about you know you walk down Brunswick Street and you see a clothing shop and then you see a bar and then you see a hairdresser and then you see a cafe and then the cycle repeats.

We knew that STREAT already had a social enterprise cafe, there are a few great social enterprise cafes, and we had done the clothing and we thought that another way to generate money for charity could be a nice sort of charity bar. And then when we explored the idea of a charity bar we realised that it was going to be a bit too time intensive and it was probably beyond the capability of our team, so we thought to ourselves, well there are already all of these bars that exist in Melbourne why don’t we create a charity tap so that established businesses can raise money for charity, they don’t have to be a Not for Profit but they can still give back to their community really easily.

Then we started thinking about how we would sell the idea and what it would take to get it off the ground and we realised that there really had to be no barriers to participation for pubs. So we decided that what the concept would be is pubs would increase the price of a regular tap beer and then the customers would pay extra, because the customers were invested in supporting their community and were happy to pay a few cents. And then if we got lots of bars on board, even though it was just a bit of loose change that people were giving away, we could sort of turn it into real change and that is our slogan, “loose change to real change”.

What are your current priorities?

Now there is sort of a lot of focuses, we’ve got a lot of balls in the air. But definitely getting our new store on Brunswick Street off the ground, and you know, holding a launch event and running some VIP shopping days for the homeless community around sort of the Fitzroy/Brunswick area is a priority. We’re also looking to try to expand Charity Tap, because we consider our pilot phase complete and now we would like to sort of scale it. And we’ve just transitioned to a company structure as opposed to an incorporated association so previously we were a Victorian club like a sporting society perhaps. Now we are an Australian company, so it will be possible for us to now think about expanding the fundraising activities interstate and I think they’re probably our three main priorities at the moment, just consolidation and expansion of the social services and expansion of the fundraising activities.

What challenges are facing your organisation?

I think like any start up organisation the challenges are recruiting good volunteers who require minimal management but who can contribute a lot to the organisation. So recruitment and retainment of volunteers and getting professional volunteers to help the charity.

Of course always money. Funding, it’s not like we’re in a crisis or anything, but you always need to be thinking about how you’re going to pay your staff, and you need to be a business as well as a charity, if you are starting a clothing store. So we need to think about our marketing and we need to think about our customer segments, we need to think about training our sales people to maximise sales in store, we need to think about the designs of our clothing, and how our social media is going, how we are conveying our messages to the public. They are probably the big priorities at the moment. It’s consolidating the gains that we’ve made over this past year and increasing the internal capacity of the organisation in a cost effective way.

How do you keep motivated?

It probably comes back to the unfortunate cliche of we just absolutely love it. I couldn’t think of another way I would want to spend my time. My life has just been so much more enriched and fulfilling since I’ve started doing more and more charity work. I think, you couldn’t do it if you didn’t love it, and you couldn’t do it if you felt that it was a sacrifice because it has got to the point where it is sort of consuming our entire lives, myself and the other co-founders and the team around us who are working for significantly reduced wages, because they believe in the vision of the charity. And you couldn’t do it if you felt that that was a sacrifice so it’s not really a sacrifice. And motivation is just inherent in everything we do, I think.

Do you see yourself staying in the Not for Profit sector for the rest of your career?

I think at some point I am going to have to become a doctor, unfortunately. I should probably use it [my degree] because I will need to pay back my HECS debt. So there might be a slight reorientation of my focus over the next few years because it is important that I am trained properly and I am not a safety hazard to the public as a doctor, that I am competent. So I think I will have to become slightly more invested in my medical career over the next few years. And then after that I am looking forward to maybe not being a traditional career doctor who works 9 to 5 and weekends and on calls and things like that, but maybe being a locum doctor who can travel around and maybe go to rural communities and help out by covering shifts here and there, and make enough money to get by, and then I would look forward to volunteering a few days a week I think as well with the charities at that point.

Is there anything that frustrates you about the Not for Profit sector?

I think there are. I don’t want to criticise the sector because I think everyone is doing their best and for the most of it everyone’s heart and intentions are in the right place. A few little unique challenges, sort of territorialism amongst some Not for Profits. Some are absolutely amazing and would so readily collaborate with everyone whereas others sometimes you get shut doors and closed-minded approaches to charitable giving. But it doesn’t really frustrate me because we just don’t work with those charities. You might approach a group and they’re not interested and that is fine, you just close that door and a million others open. So it doesn’t frustrate me but there are certainly things that I think will change over the next few decades in the sort of modern age of social enterprise and charities needing to be businesses as well to get access to different revenue streams as government and philanthropic grants sort of reduce. So I think there are some really exciting changes on the horizon. Nothing really frustrates me but I think there is plenty of room for improvement.

You were a National Finalist Young Australian of the Year 2016, how does it feel to be recognised for the work you are doing?

It’s really nice. I think it nice for everyone, not just myself, it is nice for my family and friends who have supported me and enabled me to do what I do for so many years. It is great for the team as well you know beneath the co-founders to experience that recognition. And I think it is really nice for that sort of affirmation that other people that we really respect, also respect and appreciate the work that we do. Because it is quite a prestigious award, so we feel quite humbled you know being recognised by people who we also respect. So it is nice and encouraging to know that we are on the right rack.and that people believe in us. It is also really nice for the team and all of our supporters as well.

Do you consider yourself a role model for young Australians wanting to make a difference?

I suppose my story might encourage other people. I am proud. I don’t often take a lot of time to reflect and look back on it, which I should probably do more of. But I think I am really proud of what we have all achieved, myself and the team. I’d love it to encourage other people. If my story was able to encourage other people to take some risks, to start charities, to try and challenge the status quo and try and be innovative and creative. I’d be really pleased to hear that feedback. If it were able to change the path of other people’s lives… I think that as Australians we can probably give more than we really understand that we can and until you take that step and make that commitment to giving and volunteering and to using your skills for the betterment of society, until you do it, it can be hard to believe or hard to really appreciate how much of an impact you can have. So if I were able to encourage people to take a risk and put themselves out there then I’d be really happy.

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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