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Deborah Tarrant
Business Journalist

Deborah Tarrant is a Sydney-based business writer who specialises in the nexus where people meet business

Deborah Tarrant
Business Journalist

Deborah Tarrant is a Sydney-based business writer who specialises in the nexus where people meet business

As these case studies prove, when small businesses engage in charitable activities, the rewards can be far-reaching.

Small businesses may be taking the lead when it comes to being purpose-driven as well as looking beyond profits to help benefit the wider community.

Image shows the hands of business people in a meeting coming together in the middle of a table.
Charitable efforts from small businesses can pay big dividends.

Small businesses are more nimble and closer to their customers, which some founders believe provides an easier run at identifying ways to give back. For three Telstra awards finalists, finding the right fit for the business was important when choosing where and how to apply their efforts and expertise for charitable and philanthropic pursuits.

A beautiful solution: April Jorgensen, Niche Education Group

After almost a decade running and growing a pioneering college for cosmetic medical and dermal therapy training in Perth, Western Australia, April Jorgensen recognised the time was right to realise her ambition to use her business smarts to give back.

“It’s something I had always wanted to do,” says Jorgensen.

The expansion of the college in 2012, leading to a wider range of courses from shorter certificates in make-up and retail to two-year advanced diplomas in beauty therapy, allowed Jorgensen to seize the moment.

In 2013, with the help of the Centre for Asylum Seekers, Refugees and Detainees (CARAD), Jorgensen and the Niche Education Group team set up a refugee and asylum seeker scholarship program. It started slowly, but grew once she and her colleagues understood more about the applicants and their needs.

“It’s not only about giving them an education and a career opportunity, it’s about giving them friendships as well … and it’s making them confident and introducing them to Australian culture,” enthuses Jorgensen as she reflects on the past three years.

There are 12 scholarship recipients in Niche’s next graduation cohort, a sign of the success and high demand for the program, which boasts applicants who hail from all over the world. All have extraordinary stories and a strong desire to make a new start. And they’re not the only ones benefiting from the program. Jorgensen often gets a spontaneous hug from a grateful recipient in the hallway. “It makes my day,” she says, and it brings a new dimension to the college.

Now she’s on a roll. After visiting Uganda on an Immersion and Leadership Program with the Business Chicks network to see the work of The Hunger Project in 2014, Jorgensen signed Niche on for a further commitment. First up: to support Malawi’s Ligowe Epicentre.

Epicentres take a holistic approach to making local communities self-reliant by providing education, healthcare, childcare, demonstration crops, nutrition and micro-loans.

“Our support is through the Australian College of Beauty Therapies student clinic, where a small fee is charged when students practice their hands-on skills; 100 per cent of that fee goes to The Hunger Project,” says Jorgensen, who recently returned from Ligowe’s self-reliance celebrations.

What she likes about this philanthropic endeavour is its broadening impact on students, staff and others.

“Within the clinic we have large posters of individual stories of the women assisted through the epicentres so it gives students exposure to people in need and how we can heal. [It helps] our students, who are predominantly young women, to understand that life is not just about them. They come out more grounded,” Jorgensen says. “Being able to integrate that into their training is important to me.”

Teach others to innovate: Abarna Raj, Palmera

A post-university trip to Sri Lanka to rediscover her family’s origins was a watershed experience for Abarna Raj. The 2004 journey coincided with the notorious Indian Ocean tsunami and Raj saw first-hand as the devastation consumed the Sri Lankan coast and beyond.

On returning to Australia, Raj pursued a career in finance and law consulting in the corporate sector, and ran a series of fundraising activities to help the relief effort in Sri Lanka.

These events marked the birth of Palmera.

Founded by Raj, the not-for-profit organisation took off in earnest a decade later when Raj quit her full time job with Social Ventures Australia.

Boosted by a three-year research grant from a private philanthropist and a larger non-government organisation, along with invaluable insights from working closely with Sri Lankan communities through the fundraising years, Raj saw an untapped opportunity in the entrepreneurship capacity of the rural women.

In the wake of the tsunami and the long-standing civil war in Sri Lanka, many of the agencies operating in the country had continued to give handouts rather than a hand up to entrepreneurs and farmers so they could sustain themselves.

As a social start-up or a “for purpose” organisation, Palmera stood out compared to the big development agencies for being “agile, and both subject-matter and country focussed”, explains Raj.

Palmera set about collaborating with entrepreneurs and farmers to create a bundle of services that addressed areas such as finance, innovation and access to markets. Teaching better agricultural practices, for example, is just one way to help lift them out of poverty.

Starting with 200 people in its pilot program, Palmera now has some 3000 beneficiaries. It’s also one of the few small not-for-profits accredited by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to access to the Australian Government’s Foreign Aid funds.

Many of its success stories involve farmers improving the quality and quantity of yields by switching from traditional to modern practices, and turning their lives around in the process. “Suddenly they can send their children to school and women, who had been socially isolated, are being sought out as experts in their local communities,” explains Raj.

Palmera was set up to give back, and Raj is open about the challenges of operating a not-for-profit, such as the dilemma of finding affordable office space in Sydney. Right now, a core team of three works from shared office space The Hub, in Sydney’s Darlinghurst, while there are around 20 staff on the ground in Sri Lanka. Raj also nominates the inability to pay top dollar for talent and a reliance on volunteers as challenges.

Palmera also crowdfunds and is supported by private philanthropists, but the push for cash remains tough.  

“In a not-for-profit, people [are] always asking where their money is going and there’s a lot of concern about funds going to admin,” Raj points out.

“You have to demonstrate a lot of transparency before people will part with funds. And there’s a lot of competition out there.”

That said, Raj suggests the Palmera team has been blessed due to its unerring focus on impact growth, rather than building the organisation itself.

“We’ve been able to stay focussed on what’s important,” she says.

“We believe we have greater impact by sharing our intellectual property, our models and lessons with other organisations and by training.”

The power and the passion: Christine Swanson, Prominent Financial Services

“I actually consider myself quite lucky to have had some major setbacks early in my career,” says Adelaide-based financial advisor Christine Swanson.

At 26, Swanson, then a recent recruit to the insurance industry, was diagnosed with cancer.  She was told the basal cell carcinoma on her neck was life-threatening and, not long after, she was diagnosed with an inflammatory disease, sarcoidosis.

While successfully treated for both, Swanson says she was seriously under-confident at the time.

“I’d left school at 14 … so I didn’t lean in to conversations,” she recalls.

“I was afraid of saying something [that] would make me look stupid.”

She was also going through a divorce. Those experiences, however, have turned Swanson into a powerhouse in terms of giving back. “Everything I do in life comes from a deep passion or empathy for people going through similar experiences to mine,” she says.

Swanson’s energies go in two clear directions. Dedicated to ensuring women are financially educated so they can manage “anything life throws at them”, she mentors and runs workshops and discussion groups to encourage women to seek a career in financial planning and to boost their self-esteem. “Women are better than men at empathy, sensing others’ feelings and responding accordingly,” she insists.

She also has a long history of fundraising for cancer causes.

Most recently her business, Prominent Financial Services, swung into the action when she set up a new service to help people affected with serious illness and injury to get their finances in order.

Prominent Pro Bono takes on around six cases a month, offering free services as well as services for a small fee or half fee, depending on the case and the need.

Swanson says when giving back it’s important to keep your business head. “There’s a limit to what we can do without impinging on the business. We have to be profitable otherwise we’ll go out of business. We have to be flexible to allow us to donate our time to the people who need it,” says Swanson, who works with a team of eight. The pro bono arm has worked with dozens of clients.

One example is the 53-year-old woman with terminal cancer who was worried she couldn’t leave her mortgaged house to her children. With her colleagues, Swanson found a lost super fund that not only helped pay the debt, but came with an insurance policy that nixed it. “We also helped her plan her funeral, right down to the champagne and sandwiches, and draft her eulogy. She was even able to leave her children a little money,” recalls Swanson. “It was comforting for her and gratifying for us to be able to provide her with dignity and peace of mind.”

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