Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal

Mark Muller is the Editor-in-Chief of R.M.Williams Publishing, which produces the much-loved OUTBACK magazine. Mark is a member of the R.M.Williams Leadership Team and takes a keen interest in the organisation’s philanthropic activities, which have always been a core part of R.M.Williams’ DNA.

Why are you personally passionate about supporting rural, regional and remote communities?

R.M.Williams was born in the bush and our business remains intimately engaged with country Australia. Part of the underlying agenda of OUTBACK magazine is to share positive stories that showcase the best of what happens in rural and remote Australia.

I grew up in Penola in South Australia and appreciate just how rare, beautiful and unique these smaller places are. There is an amazing culture in rural, regional and remote Australia, and I am delighted to be able to engage with that every day of my working life.

I also know how important it is that communities can get the help that they’ve identified they need. In a small community, you have to rely on yourselves, but you can seek assistance. Strong communities have lots of support. In fact, if it wasn’t for people volunteering, giving their time – whether for local sporting clubs, breed societies, community groups, garden clubs, local theatre, water catchment groups or whatever – many things just would not happen. It takes lots of volunteers to make places tick. And people also need money for these things.

What was it that drew R.M.Williams to partnering with FRRR?

R.M.Williams’ history is deeply entwined with rural, regional and remote Australia. We have a wide, strong network and connection with life in the bush through our retail stores and through the many stockists selling our boots and apparel. Seventy-five percent of the 350,000 readers of OUTBACK magazine are in rural Australia. We feel it’s important to continue to engage with and give back to this community.

Through the magazine, we have always promoted and had an interest in the important role that philanthropy plays in the bush. FRRR has always come up as an organisation that does good work in this space, so when the time came to formalise this aspect of our commitment to our heartland, FRRR was considered – and ultimately settled on – to be our main philanthropic partner. We have had a long editorial association with FRRR, going back to when Sylvia Admans was CEO, and have respected the work of the Myer family (founders of FRRR) for many years. In addition to FRRR’s national footprint, it is a grassroots-up organisation. People on the ground, who actually know what they need, approach FRRR for help, rather it being a body that ‘imposes’ help from above.

FRRR has the apparatus in place to ensure that money goes where it is needed. We simply don’t know all the places where that might be, even with our touchpoints. The structure and grassroots connections of FRRR give us confidence that money gets to where it’ll most help. We also like the fact it is well-managed, that proper protocols regarding charitable giving are in place; and the pedigree of the other organisations that are attracted to and donate to FRRR also gave us confidence that FRRR was right organisation.

Do you have any advice to other organisations / individuals when choosing a not-for-profit to partner with?

It is important that there is the appropriate governance in place to ensure effective distribution of funds, and without having overheads that disproportionately reduce the end-of-line of impact. We’ve all seen examples of money going to worthy causes but, all good intentions aside, they are unable to effectively use the funds. It is important to ensure that organisations in the philanthropic sector with whom corporates engage have the structure, protocols and experience to ensure that what the organisation can deliver aligns with what the donor wants.

It is vitally important that when organisations want to engage in the not-for-profit space, they can see proper governance, protocols, administration and a track record of money ending up where it is needed.

The first major contribution of R.M.Williams to FRRR has been allocated across the bushfire recovery and general streams of SRC, what drew you to this approach? 

Fires, floods, drought and economic challenges are part of rural life. It is important to acknowledge that any disaster has an immediate impact, but there are also long-term needs in the bush. We believe it is important to engage in medium-to-long-term recovery, which is vital to underpinning the strength of rural, regional and remote communities. In this instance, some of our support went toward disaster recovery – after the fires. In the Orara Valley on the NSW central coast, some of our funding helped to engage two locals to act as Community Recovery Officers to lead the establishment of community hubs in Glenreagh and Nana Glen. I spoke with Stephanie Luck from the Orara Valley Progress Association about this after the grant was made and she said that in that community, people weren’t comfortable in talking to outsiders to get the help they needed. They now have local people they know and trust who act as liaison between themselves and the various government and private resources that they can potentially tap in to. Stephanie told me it has really changed their lives.

To have the funding secured to ensure a local touchpoint for locals to get help is meaningful and functional, and an important and proper thing to do.

It’s equally important to have funding available outside ‘fast’ disasters like fires and floods. There are ongoing challenges such as drought that have been impacting people for a long time. That’s why we made the decision to split our support between immediate disaster recovery and ongoing support. It gives us confidence that our engagement is not a kneejerk to a specific event, and has longevity.

For example, with R.M.Williams funding, FRRR has also made grants that have: helped put solar panels on the Robertson Men’s Shed; obtain stackable chairs in the Collombatti public hall; and helped rebuild garden beds for the Belulah Historic Learning and Progress Association.  These are things we wouldn’t know about ourselves, but that play to the underlying warp and weft of what makes communities strong. To have that engagement, to have FRRR as a touchpoint into those communities, underpins value of the networks FRRR has.

How did your staff and customers respond to the launch of the partnership? What kind of feedback did you get?

We’ve had good feedback in response to this partnership, though we didn’t enter into it  recognition, or to pat ourselves on the back. We did it as it’s part of our cultural responsibility and for our community.

The bushfires became a focal point, ‘though we have always been engaged in rural and regional communities. To formalise this through the relationship with FRRR gives our colleagues comfort that we are doing the right thing. After all, we rely on the bush; our history was born in the bush and we use outback Australia as an underlying reference point and inspiration in our business. So, to be able to give back makes us all feel good. Similarly, for our customers and our readers, they want to support businesses that do the right thing, organisations for which proper corporate cultural engagement is not just something talked about, but is actually done. Having a relationship with FRRR gives us the peace-of-mind that the money is going where it’s needed.

We happily shared news of the partnership – not for praise, nor for any underlying commercial agenda ¬– but because we’re glad we’re able to help.  People get it – staff and customers. They see our business engaging in an appropriate way with the right sorts of organisations. This is meaningful. It is part of our cultural capital. To assign a dollar value to every engagement belies the fact that of course the dollar is not the only measure of value; there is much of worth that can be done that isn’t done for a commercial return, but for a cultural return – both to us within the business and to the broader base of R.M.Williams customers, and communities everywhere.