The Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal (FRRR) has reviewed more than 26,000 grant applications over 17 years to see how its support has translated into action across the country.
The foundation recently presented the findings to Federal Minister for Regional Development, Territories and Local Government, John McVeigh, and most other federal departments.
FRRR chief executive Natalie Egleton also revealed the report to keen groups of grantmakers in Sydney and Melbourne, where Grants Management Intelligence was in the audience.
The landmark study has culminated in the 34-page Impact Report, which traces $65 million in grants between 2000 and 2016, comprising 324 grant rounds, 26,411 applications and 8234 successful grants.
And the foundation has granted a further $10 million in assistance since then.
FRRR’s focus on rural groups, small grants
FRRR continues to focus on the renewal of rural, regional and remote communities in Australia through partnerships with the private sector, philanthropy and governments.
Its money comes from 600 donors and partners – including a string of community, family, industry and other foundations, and about 400 individual donors included in that number.
Support also comes from an eminent board headed by former National Party leader Ian Sinclair, with patron Sir Peter Cosgrove also representing its interests.
For most of its life, FRRR has distributed funds through small grants, offering a median $4031, mostly to regional and rural communities of fewer than 2000 people. This strategy is deliberate, and since 2012 the foundation has handed just 8% of its grants to communities larger than 10,000 people.
The FRRR also favours small non-DGR-status groups, which otherwise would struggle to attract funds.
Those organisations are often characterised by being very localised, having limited staff and relying on volunteers, and include childcare and education providers, scouts groups, service clubs, neighbourhood houses and vocational groups.
“These organisations are crucial to the fabric of small communities and towns,” Ms Egleton says.
A growing portion of cash (about 20% of grants) goes to helping communities after fires, floods, droughts and any other natural disasters, often through distributing government money.
Money is channelled via donations, and FRRR uses its own DGR status to assist others.
Grants a catalyst for communities
Ms Egleton says FRRR itself benefited from a grant from the Sidney Myer Fund to bankroll its root-and-branch review of grants.
She says FRRR believes this is “not an impact report in the traditional sense”, partly because FRRR often jointly funds projects, making it hard to directly attribute outcomes to its funds alone.
In addition, the study examines overall changes achieved, not just direct impacts.
The report confirmed the “catalytic role” of FRRR’s small grants program. Focus groups asked to comment on the report confirmed 80% of projects wouldn’t have proceeded without FRRR grants.
Boyup Brook, a small farming town about 270km south-east of Perth, is among the case studies highlighted in the report.
The town has won nearly $49,000 in 13 separate grants over 10 years, with money going to five programs and eight organisations, most of them very small.
Money went to bush poetry events, a theatrette, craft clubs, fitness groups, teen help and the local country music festival.
“When the community receives funding through grants, it really does give them something to celebrate because it adds more value to the town, it adds more value to the existing programs, being able to create new programs,” says Jodi Nield from the local community resource centre.
Ms Egleton also cites FRRR’s support for the giant wombat project in Thallon, Queensland, where the local community’s push to revitalise the area centres on tourism (and an oversized wombat) in what they are hoping will become a drawcard for passers-by and local kids.
Figures point to the fundamentals
The study reinforced the need for a continued focus on fundamentals, such as community assets and infrastructure, for rural and regional communities.
Ms Egleton said the figures “reinforced what we already knew anecdotally” but enabled FRRR to quantify that knowledge.
“For a lot of rural and regional communities – particularly remote and isolated ones – it's hard for them to resource themselves, to be able to support the fundamentals. We found the two cornerstones were investing in education and lifelong learning; and investing in community resilience, around leadership capacity, and supporting the local organisations and their volunteers.”
“With those two together you've got strong foundations. If those are not there, it's hard for communities to be viable, to be sustainable, and to innovate and address the challenges that they are facing.”
The data from the study also helped FRRR create a fresh way of seeing the organisation’s operational rationale, or theory of change.
“We started by looking at the 26,000 applications we have received, and … tried to understand what that might tell us. We then spoke to our granting partners and communities, and workshopped that around what it might have been telling us and how it might be categorised, in a way that was cohesive and told a story that was relevant to them. The theory of change fell out of all that process.”
Disaster funding combined in data
Somewhat surprisingly to some, FRRR decided to count its crucial disaster-related funding within other grants categories spelt out in its theory of change.
“We realised the activities and what the grants fund are not different, it’s the context that’s different,” Ms Egleton says.
She notes that FRRR still tracks whether grants were made as part of disaster preparedness or recovery; or for other disaster responses outside emergencies.
That analysis shows, for instance, that nearly 20% of the foundation’s spending was for emergency or disaster preparedness (3%) and post-emergency or disaster recovery (17%).
“The foundation has intentionally done this, as there is often a gap in the longer-term provision of funding and support, making this an area where philanthropy can play a significant and strategic role,” the report says.
No hiding from data: FRRR’s tough questions
The study also revealed surprises and challenges for the foundation and its partners.
These included the unexpectedly high amount being spent on services and activities compared to infrastructure, and the high levels of unmet need related to “organisational resilience and capacity”.
It highlighted the difficulty of retrospectively categorising grants as “innovative”, and it also prompted the foundation to review the way it tags projects as “environmental”.
Ms Egleton says having the data gives FRRR a powerful new tool to measure its effectiveness.
“We’ve now got a tool that can drill into data and inform philanthropy for the bush in quite a tailored and nuanced way.”
Addressing unmet need is a case in point, particularly in relation to the foundation’s work in supporting organisational resilience.
“For us that was an interesting line of questioning, around why we weren’t [sufficiently] supporting organisational capability, when we’re so invested in rural communities and their organisations,” Ms Egleton told grantmakers in Melbourne.
“It’s a strategic question that we’ve been mulling over.”
In part, the issue is tied up with how FRRR balances the interests, capabilities and aims of its partners with the needs of the communities it works with.
FRRR often finds itself sandwiched between those partners and the communities, working to “match them up”, Ms Egleton says.
“That issue is not easily answered, but at least we have the data to be able to have the conversations to shift that.”
Similarly, the new framework will allow FRRR to measure innovation, which has been hard to categorise.
That plays well into its aim to shift communities “from surviving to thriving” by using data to examine communities over time, “to understand at what stage they’re in a position to be able to innovate, and to do something a bit bigger”.
“That’s something that we can now work at quite strategically and quite deliberately,” Ms Egleton says.
The grants data will frame the foundation’s future grantmaking, she says, and the classification and review process has set a “baseline” from which it can develop.
New technology aids flexibility
FRRR has adopted a new grants management system, Blackbaud’s Gifts Online, but it has been “highly customised” to enable FRRR to get applicants to nominate how their projects align with FRRR’s categories and expected outcomes, as well as demographic information, rather than relying on FRRR to nominate what the community hopes to achieve.
That has been a challenge, and as Ms Egleton says, “We nearly broke the system.”
Responding to questions from the audience in Melbourne, Ms Egleton foreshadowed likely further changes to FRRR’s grants program.
While its small grants program remained a core funding mechanism, she left open the possibility of larger and multi-year grants, now it had a more flexible system.
“I anticipate that we will have a more nuanced granting structure (but) we don’t know what it will look like yet.”
Data tells a story for supporters, creates opportunities
Ms Egleton says the FRRR study has produced a string of benefits, and at its core will give the organisation a more sophisticated structure and capacity.
“FRRR undertook a review of all our grantmaking activity for a number of reasons. We wanted to understand the nature of the outcomes, and the value and benefits those grants have made in the communities that we've supported.”
“We also wanted to demonstrate the value to all the partners that have come alongside us in our 17 years. We've partnered with many trusts and foundations – particularly government, which provided a $10 million investment when FRRR started – as well as a number of businesses and individuals.
“We wanted to … let them know that it's been an investment well made.”
FRRR also hopes to use its grants study to help boost its income, and it plans a fee-for-service stream to use those insights to help others.
“The opportunity now is for us to think about how FRRR is best placed to respond with communities and with our partners – as a conduit, and a backbone organisation – to respond to some of the big challenges for rural Australia.
“We know we can play a role, if we think about the nature of the grants that we're making, the role that they can play, the change levers we're pulling, and ap