Reflections on working with Aboriginal organisations

Spark Strategy has had the privilege of working with a range of Aboriginal-focused organisations across Australia over the past few years. Due to the impact this has had on us as a business and the relevance to others working in the for-purpose space, we’re sharing some of our reflections and insights from these experiences.

Our clients have included a range of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal owned/controlled organisations.  An Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisation (ACCO) is an incorporated Aboriginal organisation, initiated, based in and governed by the local Aboriginal community to deliver holistic and culturally appropriate services to the Aboriginal community that it belongs to. An ACCO can easily be confused with an Aboriginal organisation that has greater than 50% Aboriginal ownership. The key difference is the link to a particular community. This is an important distinction in policy terms with many jurisdictions moving towards service delivery and decision making that is designed and led by the community at hand. Policy examples include the Commonwealth Governments Empowered Communities policy and Local Decision Making policies in NSW and the NT.

In all of our engagement with the Indigenous sector, we continue to witness genuine motivation for and commitment to improve social outcomes as well as great heart, passion, expertise and resilience. Another reason we have really enjoyed working with Indigenous organisations is because it provides learning opportunities, both for individual Sparkies and for our overall business. 

As an Anaiwan woman from Uralla NSW, and as a professional working with for-purpose organisations around the country, I have always had a preference for working in a way that encourages sharing, intuition in decision making, and genuine, no BS relationships. A recent experience working with an Aboriginal organisation in Daly River, Northern Territory has had a particular impression on me because it highlighted how important it is for those who work with Aboriginal focused organisations to be flexible and real in their approach.

In the following paragraphs I have included some of our key learnings and reflections from the time Sparkies, Richie and myself spent in Daly River, many of which are relevant to our experiences with other Aboriginal organisations.

About the Miriam Rose Foundation:

The Miriam Rose Foundation, is a community development foundation that was established in 2013 in response to a large number of youth suicides in the community. It looks to achieve its objectives primarily through education, culture, arts and horizon expanding opportunities. We had the great pleasure of facilitating a strategy workshop held in the community of Nauiyu (Daly River), three hours south of Darwin. Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr (AO) is an Aboriginal elder from Nauiyu, where she served for many years as the principal of the local Catholic primary school. She is a renowned artist, activist, writer and public speaker, who became the Territory’s first fully qualified Aboriginal teacher in 1975. The session involved local elders and young people from the community joining the Board to discuss and progress the work of the Foundation, which was a key factor in why the project was so very special for Richie and I. The Foundation is committed to engaging members of the community to determine the organisation’s direction, with the intention to establish a community-controlled Board in the near future. 

Some of the key learnings and reflections are:

  • Respect is key – We entered the community with great sensitivity for all that was happening at that time, including some sorry business which required particular respect and consideration. We were also acutely aware that the community, the staff and the Board own the organisation’s story and journey moving forward; we were just there to help bring their story to life.
  • Be curious, modest and flexible – Underpinning all of our engagement was an authentic will to learn and understand. In particular, we were keen to learn about the community, its challenges and the story behind the Foundation. As a result, we learnt a tremendous amount from this experience, both personally and professionally. Our focus on learning was accompanied by being adaptable and working in a way that met the needs and preferences of those involved. So, we didn’t walk in with a toolbox of strategic activities or present on the key elements of an effective strategy. Ultimately, we were all equals sitting around a table having a yarn.
  • Don’t expect any special treatment – We recognised that we were walking into their world and that we were the strangers in the room. It was critical to earn trust and to create a safe, comfortable environment so that important, and at times difficult, conversations could take place.
  • Remember the heart and the head – For the Nauiyu people, intuition is a strong guiding factor and therefore it has an important role to play in how the Foundation operates. As a result of this and other factors, the session was not a purely analytical exercise. It was about sharing experiences, taking time to reflect and looking to the future.
  • Listen, listen, listen – This is perhaps the most important thing anyone working with Aboriginal organisations can do. There are so many subtleties and sensitivities which require full attention, presence and active listening. For example, during the workshop, we heard about Dadirri – a Nauiyu word and concept that means quiet still awareness and deep inner listening. It is a practice which helps connect the Nauiyu people to the spirit within themselves and within the land. It is at the heart of their culture and at the heart of the Miriam Rose Foundation. To have it explained to us on country, through art and story, was an extraordinary experience and something I am very grateful for. For this and many other reasons, listening was our key activity of the session.

It was a huge compliment for us at the end of the day when Miriam said, “you guys can come back”. We sincerely hope to have the opportunity to work with the Foundation and with other Aboriginal-focused organisations in the future.

If you have any comments about this article or would like to share your experience working for or with an Indigenous business, please send us an email to info@sparkstrategy.com.au. We’d love to hear from you!


Note: This article uses the terms ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘Indigenous’ because Spark works across jurisdictions in Australia.
Note: The word, concept and spiritual practice that is? ?dadirri is from the Ngan’gikurunggurr and Ngen’giwumirri languages of the Aboriginal peoples of the Daly River region (Northern Territory, Australia). Permission for its use has been granted by Ngan’gikurunggurr Elder Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr. You can learn more about it here: http://miriamrosefoundation.org.au/about-dadirri

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