Natalie Egleton stepped into the role as Chief Executive at the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal (FRRR) in November 2015.
Having been with the organisation for three and a half years, she comes to the role with a strong sense of purpose and a vision that is firmly rooted in experience.
The first glimpses of Egleton’s vision for the much loved organisation were unveiled at FRRR’s 15th anniversary celebration in December, attended by supporters and philanthropic luminaries such as Baillieu Myer AC (Patron), the Rt Hon Ian Sinclair AC (Chair) and Margaret Smith (AO).
During her speech, Egleton highlighted the importance of consolidating the inroads FRRR has made in connecting philanthropy, business and government as well as exploring new frontiers such as seeding economic development for remote, rural and regional communities.
Post-event, Natalie sat down with Generosity to elaborate.
NR: Where does your connection to rural, remote and regional communities come from?
NE: I was born in Melbourne but my family is from Gippsland. We had a farm in Maryborough in central Victoria when I was a kid so I spent most of my weekends there. It was during the drought and I ran along dry creek beds for whole summers. That’s my memory of growing up in the country—drought and fires.
We have a lot of friends and family in the country as well. My husband’s dad is still on a sheep property and his mum was a governess in Longreach when she was young. My husband and I always knew that when we got to the point of having kids, we’d get out of the city and we did, moving to rural Victoria.
I have two young girls and when I got the role as CEO my four year old said, ‘Mum, when I grow up I want to be a mum AND a boss.’ I’m glad to be a role model.
We live in a community where the mums are doctors, lawyers, teachers and business owners— women doing interesting and amazing things. So I like adding to that, now that we’ve got a CEO in the community so that the girls can aspire to many careers. It’s nice to have that diversity within a town and for girls to grow up and see these women who can have farms and jobs and raise kids.
What will be your early priorities as CEO?
The benefit of having worked closely with Alex [former CEO Alexandra Gartmann] for a few years is that I’ve had a chance to think about things.
One of the first areas I want to look at is the breadth of what we do. We have 23 grant programs and that’s great but it’s a lot. I see similar things popping up, so I’m keen to deep dive into what the actual impact areas are. For me it’s about identifying those impacts and structuring what we do around those, making us more efficient.
FRRR is a unique organisation—there’s no other organisation doing what we do. We funded 756 projects last year from more than 2,500 requests, and that number is growing. It’s really easy to try to do everything and be everything to everyone, and though it’s important to respond to the need and the demand—we also need to think about how we do it in a really impactful way.
So the next 6-12 months will involve consolidation, looking at where we can have the greatest impact and where we can be catalytic for communities.
Economic renewal is critical and that’s not something we’ve worked on deliberately to date, but if we were to deep dive into our grants we’d find a lot of economic benefits as we saw in the recent analysis for the SAGE Farmer’s Market.
It showed incredible economic benefits and that initiative came out of a very small grant but now the town can use the benefits to leverage for further investment. To me, that’s the sort of thing we can be really useful in and that makes a huge difference to a small town.
We talk a lot about social capital, and it is critical, but the economic development space is an area that no other organisation is really able to work in and that’s where I think we should invest more of our intellect and abilities.
We know that the one thing that hasn’t happened in the Victorian bushfire affected areas is economic recovery. It takes a long time and philanthropic funding doesn’t typically support that, as it’s usually outside the realms of what’s charitable.
For FRRR it’s within our remit and I think it’s a huge opportunity and if I think about my footprint and my legacy as CEO, that’s something I want to see us be more deeply engaged in and facilitating.
It’s a good example of the type of things we can facilitate that can be quite high impact. We’re not running a grants program for Social Change 101, but we are the conduit and we’re utilising what we can do to enable those regions to build social enterprises locally.
What do you foresee as the biggest challenges facing FRRR?
There are always challenges and you have to be creative in how you respond to them.
One of them is the fact that it’s a busy space. There’s so much going on, and the more sophisticated we get and the cleverer we get and the more interested we become in doing things better, the harder it gets and the busier it gets. Trying to cut out the noise is difficult.
We’re working directly with communities that really need the support for projects that they can’t get funding from elsewhere and we know what’s at stake if we don’t get it right. There’s quite a lot of pressure and the pace is full on, but that’s what it’s like for communities as well.
When we look at the groups we’re funding, they’re volunteers on the school committee or CFA, but they’re also people who run properties, work on farms, serve on the local council as well or own a business.
So the question is how can we as an organisation try to shift that dynamic a bit by deepening the focus and cutting out the noise to see what actually matters to communities?
There’s a lot of work in consolidation—a lot of conversations and reflecting and liaising with the donor partners and the communities and making sure there’s a balance. But I think it’s really critical for FRRR, as a connector and conduit and as a philanthropic representative, to be that circuit breaker and try to influence the way philanthropy can best support those communities.
FRRR had a record 90 donors in 2015. Do you think that reflects the increasing awareness and appreciation within the funding community for the importance of FRRR’s work? Is that something that’s trending upwards?
It’s definitely something that’s trending upwards. That was our biggest partnership number to date—back in 2012 we had around 50 donor partners. So it’s big growth and it has a lot to do with awareness and FRRR being out there—Alex was an amazing advocate.
That’s something we need to keep up because it’s the best way to build support and leverage the support we already have by getting out there and sharing the message.
The fact is rural, remote and regional communities in Australia are still missing out. We’ve been around for 15 years now, and the issues for communities aren’t ever going to go away, they’ll always be changing. So you’ll keep hearing me talk about it!
Speaking of your predecessor, Alex was a tireless advocate for the importance and power of small grants to make big change. Is that something you also subscribe to?
Absolutely. You just see it time and time again.
We hear all the time how small grants of $2,000 are total game changers.
Sometimes there are trends and flavours of the month but infrastructure is just not sexy. Air conditioners? Not sexy.
I remember looking at all the projects when I started at FRRR and thinking, ‘Really? Is this what we’re funding? Aren’t we doing any exciting stuff? Where’s the innovation?’ But now I’m completely converted because I see that if communities have these things, they can innovate. It’s about enabling.
We supported a project in Queensland where the community hall needed chairs and tables. Once they got them, wedding bookings for that venue sky rocketed and then they had another income stream. It was just chairs and tables, which on paper looks really uninspiring but what it enabled was quite amazing. It created jobs, it brought people into the town who’d never been there before—the flow-on benefits are where the impact lies.
We fund capacity and enabling which can be overlooked or difficult for the bigger funders to do sometimes at a small grants scale. We can be the conduit and if they want to have that kind of impact we can facilitate that. It might not look high impact on the face of it but the story afterwards is!
How would you describe your leadership style?
I’m pretty big picture and I’m fairly blue sky, but I’m pragmatic at the same time.
I’m deeply interested in collaboration. It’s a word that gets bandied around a lot but it’s actually incredibly hard to do well.
When we talk about true collaboration that’s actually about sharing your knowledge and resources and looking at common outcomes and a common impact that you want to achieve together and thinking about what you can each bring to that issue or problem and how you resolve it at a system level.
That’s where I’d like to take our partnerships.
What’s the most valuable lesson in funding/philanthropy you’ve learnt in your time thus far?
As a grant maker and as a granting organisation I think there’s a lot to be said for listening and not making assumptions.
It’s very easy to think that as you get more experience that you start to know more, but actually, I find the more I know the less I know. Being open to new learnings as a grant maker is really critical as is being aware that there’s a power dynamic in being a grant maker and that you don’t know what’s best for a community. Philanthropy could be far more inclusive of community.
I also think it’s important to trust your instincts. Often you can have all the numbers in front of you and it looks fabulous or it doesn’t look fabulous—we’ve had projects that look terrible on paper but then you get on the phone and it’s amazing. You can’t make assumptions about things on face value which is a big challenge for grant makers and one that can really only be overcome by having more community-centred and adaptive approaches.
Natalie Egleton is CEO of the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal (FRRR). FRRR can receive funds from a range of entities and distribute these to rural regional and remote charitable projects. These projects and organisations do not need any particular tax status, enabling philanthropy to reach into ALL parts of Australia. To find out more about FRRR, visit www.frrr.org.au.