For NAIDOC Week, we put the spotlight on Indigenous-led organisation, First Nations Foundation aiming to bring financial prosperity – not just literacy – to Indigenous Australians.
For the growing middle class of Indigenous Australians, handling newfound wealth and opportunity can be a foreign concept. Decades of marginalisation, trauma and exclusion from the workforce have meant that intergenerational wealth and prosperity have been difficult for First Nations people to achieve. For some young indigenous people, finding themselves the first in their families to study at a tertiary education level and be included in the job market, they often have no-one to turn to for advice.
One nonprofit looking to fill this gap is First Nations Foundation, an organisation dedicated to empowering Indigenous people with the knowledge, skills and awareness to be able to manage their own finances, and build on their wealth and prosper. Many nonprofits in this space focus on financial inclusion and literacy, but First Nations Foundation takes this one step further, educating Indigenous people on investing in the stock market, accessing super, building business acumen and saving for the fun things in life, like holidays and travel.
“The vision of the organisation is financial prosperity for Indigenous Australians. I like that word ‘prosperity’ because it focuses on more than just financial literacy. We’re building wealth and creating something that we can pass on through generations,” says CEO of First Nations Foundation, Phil Usher.
Phil found his passion for finance in a book gifted to him by his older sister when he was a teenager. Growing up in Tamworth on Kamilaroi Country in an Aboriginal housing commission area, Phil was never really interested in commerce or finance until this present broke down financial concepts such as interest into digestible, easy-to-understand pieces. He remembers feeling like an adult, equipped with this knowledge.
This spark led him to a cadetship with the Department of Human Services, working in an Indigenous Outreach team and in financial planning; setting up various entrepreneurial businesses and start-ups; and as a business advisor in Newcastle before he took up the role as CEO at First Nations Foundation.
Now he’s dedicated to equipping Indigenous Australians with his same knowledge and passion for finance.
Indigenous people have the lowest financial literacy in the nation (HILDA, 2018). In 2019, the Foundation’s Money Stories research report, conducted in partnership with the Centre for Social Impact and NAB, found that 48% of Indigenous Australians are living in financial stress.
My Money Dream is an online education training package, designed by Aboriginal people for Aboriginal people, covering topics like budgeting, the economy and saving. Students can choose electives such as superannuation, banking, or buying a house. The Foundation also sells annual licences to corporates who buy the training package for their employees, their customers or members, or the community.
“It’s a matter of ‘not knowing what you don’t know’. Part of the training that we have in My Money Dream talks about Aboriginal history: things like stolen wages, Aboriginal people not being able to work, having to get a medical certificate to say they were clean enough to work next to non-Aboriginal people. And this all happened not that long ago – in the 60s and 70s,” says Phil.
“A lot of my non-Aboriginal friends have a go-to person they can generally ask about [money]. If it’s not their parents, they might have an uncle or an auntie who’s good with money, has invested in shares, or knows about buying a house. For Aboriginal people, we don’t really have that go-to person because we haven’t had an extensive history being able to manage our own money, or had money that goes beyond meeting our general expenses,” says Phil.
This has been a side effect of the government’s Closing the Gap initiative to get more Aboriginal people into employment. Indigenous Australians have gone beyond entry-level roles to middle management and senior management roles, meaning it’s the first time that many have had excess money.
Another key focus area for the Foundation is superannuation. The Foundation’s work in this space, including dedicated online resources, has reconnected 1,600 Indigenous Australians with $24 million in superannuation in six years. Working with Centrelink, the Australian Taxation Office, superannuation funds and financial counsellors, First Nations Foundation hold Big Super Day Out events in Aboriginal communities connecting them with their super or lost super they didn’t know they had. Even though this year’s face-to-face events were cancelled, the Foundation is looking to start these again in 2021.
Earlier this year, the Foundation received a grant from the Office of Women to fund an Indigenous women’s financial literacy program. They’re set to roll it out in the first half of next year. The program targets Indigenous women who are generally more money-minded and have financial oversight. The program will include a budgeting and money-making webinar for communities of up to 15 women who are already familiar with each other.
“It’s an opportunity to share stories and share understanding around money management. And then there will be a webinar series that’s more broadly open, but more of a fireside chat with Indigenous women that are successful in their careers,” says Phil.
There are also plans to build a content hub for young Aboriginal people 18 to 30 years old, helping them to plan for first jobs, first pay cheques, but also the fun things in life like taking a gap year or going overseas.
Phil’s goals for the Foundation is to make it self–sustaining. They rely on revenue from licences and sponsorship for events like Super Day Out, with a small reliance on fundraising and philanthropy.
“I’ve seen a number of great indigenous organisations get government funding, but you have a change of government or a change of minister and funding dries up quickly. It’s still certainly going to be an aspect. We work with some great philanthropic partners and get donations throughout the year, but I only want this to be a minority of our revenue streams,” says Phil.
No matter what their funding model looks like, what will always be woven throughout First Nations Foundation is the importance of having Indigenous voices at the centre of program delivery. Programs are designed by Indigenous people, for Indigenous people to be delivered in Indigenous communities.
“It brings the perspective of lives experience. It gives the next level of insight. Most communities have the answer to indigenous issues. If we track successful programs, they’re indigenous led, but they don’t necessarily know how to get it off the ground or have the commercial acumen to make it viable. But they know the nuances of the communities.”