Spotlight on Lisa Cunningham

Lisa Cunningham is the CEO of the Wirrpanda Foundation, which aims to improve the quality of life for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. The Foundation places priority on employing local Aboriginal role models who are empowered to build capacity in their own communities. Prior to being CEO of the Wirrpanda Foundation, Lisa was State Manager for AFL Sportsready. Lisa is a Leadership WA Signature Program Alumni from 2009.

The Wirrpanda Foundation started in 2007 with 3 staff and one local program and has grown to

60 staff (87% Aboriginal) and a nation-wide focus (including a presence in the Pilbara, Goldfields, South West, Great Southern and the Wheatbelt). While some not-for-profits have struggled to maintain momentum, let alone grow, the Wirrpanda Foundation has soared. Lisa uncovers what she believes was her secret.

We believe, do the work and then success will follow. That’s how we established ourselves. We have grown organically, which is fundamental in this space.”

A key part of the Foundation’s strategy is to focus their efforts not only where they are needed in the community today but looking in to future needs.

“Closing the Gap targets have been used to shape the development of programs. An early established program was centred around employment, specifically with Bunnings. The program gave the opportunity for to source a job that could be a life changing opportunity, often creating a ripple effect through the community.”

But the success of the Foundation isn’t just down to targeted programs; a key component is the Foundation’s ability to be agile. At the time of this interview, the Foundation’s aim was to “improve the quality of live for indigenous people through education, employment, justice and sport”.

When mentioned to Lisa, she confirmed the agility of the Foundation with recent additions to the Foundation’s aim.

“We are enhancing the strategic direction of the Foundation by focusing on two specific areas: employment and education.”

Lisa believes by strengthening the specific focus of the Foundation, there is a greater ability to have a meaningful impact in the community.

“I think our challenge is to understand and concentrate on what our strengths are and enhance our offering, rather than attempting to be everything to everyone.”

In growing the Foundation, Lisa has concentrated not only on the Foundation’s purpose and aspirations, but the broader community. Not-for-profits are plentiful in the community and it is understood that there are areas for cohesion and areas for specialisation.

“Our overall mission is to improve the lives of First Australians. That’s the big picture, but then further down, we really are looking at getting kids to attend school, and maintain engagement through to our employment programs. For assistance outside of our scope such as; mental health or housing needs, we have partnered with organisations for their support and help.”

“We have recognised that there are specialists in providing housing assistance, that will be able to provide premium assistance outside of our capacity. We want to partner with organisations that have varied expertise to assist in achieving our overall goals. It is a matter of determining where the organisation’s strengths are and knowing that you are valuable and respected in that area, and can enhance the organisation’s offering by building relationships and partnerships with additional diverse organisations.”

The Foundation’s approach to agility didn’t come by accident. They engaged a consultant to take them through their Belbin profiles – a methodology that considers the strengths of different people in a team, acknowledging the importance of a diversity of skills and personality types.

As the needs of the community changes, we transform and change as well. We have established a team that is diverse and unique. We all worked together to construct the new vision and mission.”

Lisa has also focused on reviewing and modifying the structure of the organisation.

“We have progressed from the traditional hierarchical model, rather, creating circles with the participants centred in the middle. The participants are our main focus with the remainder of the circle formed by the resources required to provide the participant the best support and assistance.”

That leaves Lisa to focus on her role as a leader within the organisation.

“The biggest part of my role is empowering, enabling and training our team. We have had team members move on to incredible opportunities from the Foundation, it is important that we inspire and develop role models in the community that are working to the same goal.”

This focussed vision, innovative structure and culture of empowerment lets the staff do what they do best – improve the life quality of indigenous people. But many issues faced by the community require a holistic approach to problem solving. Many of the people who are helped by the Foundation find themselves in spiralling situations due to problems which can initially seem minor, but without support, can branch out into more complex problems which are harder to solve. For example, many people who rely on the Foundation do not have a driver’s license due to outstanding fines.

“We get to know all of our participants and understand their current situation, including whether they hold a valid driver’s licence. Often in today’s workforce holding a driver’s licence can greatly assist with finding employment.”

Lisa believes that most vital pathway to improving the lives of indigenous people is early education.

“Education is critical not only for personal development but also to ensure that there are chances for employment. We have seen examples of positions being replaced by technology, for example, the automation on mine sites. There is a need for science and technology in schools to educate students and provide them an understanding of potential career opportunities in the future.”

A vital component of what makes the Foundation a success is trust in the indigenous community.

“Trust and respect is very important to the Foundation, we value the continuing engagement from the community and the Indigenous people. Without trust the Foundation would find it challenging to succeed.”

“In the early days, we used a fly in fly out model, but with collaborative feedback from participants and staff we realised that we would not be successful with this model. We did not want to be seen telling people how to do things and later flying out. We now only employ local team member in our regional programs. This model guarantees local knowledge and understanding with respect from and connection to the community.”

“We understand that a Foundation could have endless resources, but if people don’t trust us or want to engage then it is felt we couldn’t truly make a difference.”

Lisa is a graduate of the Leadership WA Signature Program, which she completed in 2009. Lisa still feels connected to her Alumni, almost ten years later.

“It has been ten years next year, and I could pick up the phone to any of them and ask them something and they would assist me.”

Lisa credits the Program with helping her better understand the complex social fabric of Western Australia. She says there were things she learnt on the Program that are were vital to understanding Western Australia, that they should be taught in schools.

“We went to see the incredible rock art in the Burrup Peninsula, which many people do not know exists. We deal with teachers that are anxious to talk about Indigenous culture, in case they make a mistake. As a result, many may not talk about it at all.”

“Wouldn’t it be great if an elder from the region came into the primary or high schools to speak with kids and share their incredible stories?”

After 11 years of growth, we asked Lisa whether she foresaw the Foundation growing even further over the next ten years.

“I think we will grow. I envisage significant growth and the expansion of offerings through partnerships and collaborations.”

“The future of the Foundation is emergent, we’re on the same page and striving for the same thing. It will be important that growth does not become unsustainable as the quality of impact within the community is the most important thing.”

As a final question, we asked Lisa what the biggest challenge would be for the Wirrpanda Foundation going forward.

“Our biggest challenge is measuring our impact. I think that’s a challenge of all not-for-profits.”

“That’s what we’re working towards. If you keep engaged with somebody through their education, continuing right through to their employment, then you can measure an impact.”

Applications are now open for Leadership WA’s Signature and Rising Leadership Programs.