Respectful Relationships

Building enduring, respectful relationships with our Aboriginal partner organisations has been at the heart of Woor-Dungin’s work from the beginning. We know through experience that mutual trust and reciprocity benefit both parties and lead to better outcomes. We know also that our partners have sometimes encountered inflexibility and a lack of sensitive engagement on the part of philanthropy. So it made sense to establish a program that aims to share our insights with philanthropic organisations to help them to engage more effectively with Aboriginal community-controlled organisations – in short, to help philanthropy to build respectful relationships.


“Walk with us.
Not in front of us, not behind us, and definitely not over us.”

Robyne Latham (adapting Peter Aldenhoven’s words)


“Philanthropy has a vital role in creating [a] glad tomorrow for us Aboriginal peoples. We ask you, philanthropy, to listen to us deeply, to practice dadirri, and walk beside us as friends, partners and co-imaginers. We want philanthropy to understand, and even enter, our dreaming.”

Peter Aldenhoven



The philanthropic sector is increasingly aware of the need for grantmakers to build strong, respectful funding relationships with Aboriginal community-controlled organisations, and a number of exciting initiatives towards achieving this are underway. In our role as Philanthropy Australia’s National Moderator for Indigenous Issues, it is clear to us that a number of funders are demonstrating an interest in sharing advice and learnings.

While there are some great examples emerging, Woor-Dungin believes that the Australian philanthropic sector could do more. Philanthropic organisations and individuals continue to need advice and guidance in their dealings with Aboriginal community-controlled organisations to build better, stronger relationships. Indeed, a growing number of people we talk to support Woor-Dungin’s view that a fundamental change in approach is needed.

We continue to see instances of impersonal funding practices, onerous reporting requirements and frustrating application forms. This can be off-putting for some organisations, especially those that are small, with only a few staff, and can even lead to the abandonment of the process. Some funders continue to insist on tangible, easily measurable short-term outcomes only, instead of also considering programs whose outcomes cannot be easily or quickly delivered, such as advocacy, which are necessarily important to measure over a longer time frame to successfully address priority needs identified by communities.

On the other hand, where philanthropic foundations and trusts take a longer view, show greater willingness to be flexible about funding criteria and timelines, and work hard to establish the trust needed to build enduring, respectful relationships with Aboriginal community-controlled organisations, then the results for all parties are more effective and more satisfying. Most importantly, the outcomes are better for the Aboriginal communities the grants are allocated to assist.

The Respectful Relationships program aims to support philanthropy’s capacity to do this in partnership with Aboriginal community-controlled organisations. Woor-Dungin is excited to be involved in helping to guide this important change.


“Woor-Dungin is all about developing relationships – both deep and respectful relationships with our partners, and between those partner organisations and others who can provide pro bono or monetary support. I am committed to supporting the continual development of truly respectful two-way relationships, and I’m strongly encouraged by the amount of goodwill there is within the leadership of some of our key partner organisations – pro bono, philanthropic and Aboriginal organisations – to make that a reality.”

Paul O’Shea, lawyer and Woor-Dungin member


Towards respectful relationships: partnership with Philanthropy Australia

In 2015 Woor-Dungin began a fruitful relationship with Philanthropy Australia (PA), the peak body for philanthropic organisations and individuals in Australia, who invited Woor-Dungin to take up the new role of National Moderator for Indigenous Issues in PA’s Funder Central portal.

Funder Central provides papers, articles and other resources to PA members across a range of funding-interest areas, each with a moderator, in order to help build knowledge, share practice and cutting-edge thinking, and maximise philanthropy’s effectiveness and impact.

As National Moderator for Indigenous Issues, Woor-Dungin therefore plays an important role in supporting successful linkages between philanthropy and Aboriginal communities throughout Australia. To support the role we invited interested Aboriginal stakeholders to participate on an Advisory Committee, whose aim it is to find and recommend materials for submission to PA, which are then considered for inclusion in Funder Central. The submitted materials are also uploaded to the Resources section of our website.


‘Right Way, Wrong Way, Which Way?’ at Philanthropy Australia’s 2016 National Conference

2016 marks the beginning of a period of intense activity on our part around promoting respectful relationships. In September of that year we collaborated with the Fellowship for Indigenous Leadership (FIL) and PA on a workshop session at Philanthropy Australia’s 2016 National Conference in September called “Right Way, Wrong Way, Which Way?: Stories from the field, practical steps and tools to forge respectful relationships and invest in leadership of Aboriginal Australia.” The session provided an opportunity for Aboriginal community-controlled organisations and grantmakers to engage in open dialogue about what constitutes good practice in funding, what the challenges are for each party and what lessons can be learnt.

The session was moderated by Belinda Duarte, a Wotjobaluk woman and CEO of Culture is Life, and Genevieve Timmons, Philanthropic Executive at Portland House Foundation. Together with panelists Peter Aldenhoven, Tim Goodwin, Maree Davidson, Daphne Yarram and Peter Maher, they worked towards establishing a set of guiding principles for supporting and strengthening respectful relationships between Aboriginal community-controlled organisations and philanthropy.

Belinda Duarte spoke about the importance of nyernila (‘deep listening’). Daphne Yarram, a FIL Fellow, called on philanthropy to see grantmaking as a long-term investment in communities. Peter Aldenhoven, a descendant of the Nughi clan of the Quandamooka peoples of Moreton Bay, Queensland and president of Willum Warrain Aboriginal Association, exhorted philanthropy to “walk with us, not over us, and respect our autonomy.” He asked philanthropy to take into account Aboriginal communities’ collective decision-making processes.

Tim Goodwin, a member of the Yuin people of south-eastern New South Wales and a board member of the Roberta Sykes Indigenous Education Foundation, highlighted the importance of trust: “If you don’t establish trust you will never learn what’s really needed because we won’t disclose it to you.”

Tim provided further advice for philanthropy:

“It is hard. It should be hard. But get in for the long haul, take risks, fail, get burned but keep on trying because the benefits are immense.”

Two years earlier, Tim had spoken powerfully at Woor-Dungin’s 2014 AGM, laying out four key principles that should guide philanthropy’s approach to building respectful relationships with Aboriginal organisations. You can watch his speech here:



‘Right Way, Wrong Way, Which Way?’: the webinar

(L-R) Genevieve Timmons, Belinda Duarte and Peter Aldenhoven

(L-R) Genevieve Timmons, Belinda Duarte and Peter Aldenhoven. Photo courtesy Pro Bono Australia

In February 2017, following the success of ‘Right Way, Wrong Way, Which Way?’ at the Philanthropy Australia National Conference, the session became a webinar co-sponsored by Woor-Dungin and the Fellowship for Indigenous Leadership and produced by Philanthropy Australia and Pro Bono Australia.

Moderated by Genevieve Timmons, and presented by Belinda Duarte and Peter Aldenhoven, the webinar reiterated the findings of the conference session, with Peter and Belinda reinforcing the message that when it comes to funding Aboriginal community-controlled organisations and their communities effectively, it is all about relationships, genuine, trustful engagement, and allowing Aboriginal organisations to make decisions about their own futures.

The presenters stressed the importance of cultural awareness and the benefits of deep listening. They spoke of the need for some philanthropics to move beyond reactionary ways of thinking in response to the challenges sometimes encountered when working with Aboriginal communities.


‘How can philanthropy walk with us?’: a session at IFIP’s Pacific Regional Hui

Hui participants. Photo courtesy IFIP Pacific Regional Hui

Hui participants. Photo courtesy IFIP Pacific Regional Hui

On 9 May 2017 Woor-Dungin presented a session at the International Funders for Indigenous Peoples Pacific Regional Hui in Otaki, New Zealand, titled ‘How can philanthropy walk with us? A key to successful philanthropy with Aboriginal communities’.

The session further developed the themes explored in ‘Right Way, Wrong Way, Which Way’ and posed the question: What are the keys to building successful, enduring, respectful relationships between philanthropy and Aboriginal community-controlled organisations and the communities they represent? Woor-Dungin’s speakers, among them Robyne Latham, Peter Aldenhoven and Simone Spencer, began to build an answer.

Robyne Latham, from The Indigenous Program at the Bouverie Centre and a member of Woor-Dungin’s committee of management, noted the key role played by dadirri, or ‘deep listening’, akin to nyernila: “A reciprocity of deep listening, listening with all your senses, is integral to establishing respectful relationships.”

Peter Aldenhoven pointed to the importance of personal contact and dadirri, while Simone Spencer, from Mallee District Aboriginal Services, spoke of the importance of transparency and flexibility.

The takeaway for philanthropy was this, that successful, enduring, respectful relationships between Aboriginal community-controlled organisations and philanthropy can be achieved through:

  • Deep listening
  • Transparency
  • Flexibility
  • Reciprocity

Woor-Dungin’s participation at the Hui was made possible by generous donations from the Reichstein Foundation and a private donor.


Looking forward

We hope to build on the successes achieved so far but we know there is a long way to go. Our hope is that the Respectful Relationships initiative will create a shared vision, build on community strengths and ultimately transform relationships between philanthropy and Aboriginal community-controlled organisations.