Forging the path of Indigenous philanthropy
13 July 2020 at 8:19 am
As the CEO of Koondee Woonga-gat Toor-rong, Australia’s first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-led philanthropic fund, John Harding is on a mission to bridge the gap between philanthropy and Indigenous Australians. He’s this week’s Changemaker.
Throughout his career, Harding has nearly always been the first Aboriginal person to set foot in an organisation, leading change in the way it engages with First Nations communities.
Now, as the CEO of Koondee Woonga-gat Toor-rong (KWT), which means “to give jointly, to share together” in Woiwurrung language, Harding, a Ku Ku Yimidir and Erub man, has the chance to change the status-quo by providing mainstream philanthropy with a more direct vehicle to invest or co-invest in projects that effect real change for Indigenous people and their communities.
For Harding, it’s a two-way street. His aim is for First Nations people to have a fair relationship with the philanthropic sector, and for the philanthropic sector to understand self-determination.
In this week’s Changemaker, he discusses his vision for KWT, why you should shake up the status quo, and how he handles challenges.
You’ve had quite a varied career before you got to where you are now, how did you end up at KWT?
In many ways, my work in Indigenous organisations, statutory authorities, education, and childcare, have all led me to this position where we can actually utilise a lot of that experience into this kind of job, where you’re trying to assist the First Nations community in Victoria, in all of those areas. As our statement of purpose says, we are just trying to benefit the welfare of First Nations people in Victoria. And that is reflected in the applications that we receive, the phone calls I make, the assistance I give. I’ve got a lot of experience in so many different areas that I know this position benefits from.
And what are you trying to achieve in your role?
First off, it’s about encouraging First Nations people to get involved in philanthropy. As you’re probably aware, a lot of philanthropic bodies across the country have trouble getting First Nations people to actually apply. And that’s because of the very disconnected relationship between philanthropy and First Nations communities that is historical and political, [and due to a] lack of communication and lack of information. So it’s my responsibility to First Nations people, but also to the philanthropic sector itself, to help them understand what those issues are as to why people aren’t applying. It’s a two way street. You can’t just sit in your office after 250 years of dispossession and expect that First Nations people are going to knock on your door just because you put an ad in a paper. You’ve got to do a little bit more than that when you steal someone’s country from them.
How do you manage the challenges in your career?
I guess I’ve been lucky – or maybe unlucky – that many of the jobs I’ve had over the years have involved me walking in as the first and only Aboriginal person in that organisation. And so I’ve had to lead change because I’m trying to connect that organisation with First Nations communities.
It can be quite scary, going into a public service department or a company, and your job as the first Aboriginal person that’s ever walked through their doors is to create training for Aboriginal people to come and work for them. You can imagine the issues you’d be confronted with, but it’s all about coming up against the system and changing things from the inside out.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to enter the sector?
If you as an individual want to make an impact, the only way you’re going to be able to do that is to improve in some way the current condition of the workplace you’ve walked into, and you can’t do that by asking people who support the status quo for advice. You have to be bold and you have to trust your gut instinct. Your gut instinct is based on your life experience, so it’s rarely wrong.
Where do you want to see the organisation 10 years from now?
I’m hoping that it has more than one staff member, and I’m hoping that it has its own premises, and that it is respected on a national level. I’m hoping that it has made enough impact that not only the philanthropic sector understands what we mean when we say self-determination and has acted upon it themselves by that stage, but also that we’ve enabled First Nations people to have a fair and proper access, response and relationship to the philanthropic sector.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Well, I’m a playwright and am the co-founder of the Ilbijerri Aboriginal Theatre Company, which is having its 30th anniversary next year. So one thing I’m looking at is remounting the play that started the company and doing an updated version of it. I’m also in discussions with VCA, for their students to put on the original production in 2021 as part of the company’s 30th anniversary. I also mentor young First Nations people that want to get involved in the arts, and help connect them with people that can help kick start their career in the industry.