Ngala turns 130 years old this month, making it one of WA’s oldest not-for-profit groups.
Ngala may have evolved its service offering over the years, but the family- and community-focused not-for-profit has maintained its core role of helping those in need.
Celebrating 130 years of operation in 2020, Ngala started out providing assistance to unmarried mothers who had been shunned by the community.
For many years it was known for its work training mothercraft nurses, while in the past 20 years it has been a driving force for early childhood intervention.
Originally called the House of Mercy, the group is one of the oldest not for profits in Western Australia, only behind St Vincent de Paul Society, which opened a branch in WA in 1865.
It was originally set up by concerned Perth women to provide shelter for women and girls of ‘fallen virtue’, and to reform their behaviour.
“Way back in 1890 when we started, it was particularly for unmarried mothers, because back then in society, unmarried mothers were hidden away,” Ngala chief executive Fiona Beermier told Business News.
“If you look at that, to where we are today … you would never even consider that’s a disgrace or something to be ashamed of.”
Parenting had also changed, she said.
“It used to be considered that you could spoil your child by being too affectionate,” Ms Beermier said.
“If we still operated like we did in 1890, around unmarried mothers, well, we just would not exist.”
She said the organisation had continually adapted to the changing cultural norms.
“I guess it’s about adapting to societal changes without losing your focus on your mission, that’s really important,” Ms Beermier said.
However, reflecting the culture of the time meant Ngala had partaken in actions considered acceptable (and lawful) at the time, but since condemned.
From the 1940s to the 1980, Ngala was a reception centre for forced adoptions, including those from the Stolen Generation, which officially ended in 1969.
“We don’t try to hide from that; that is part of our history and we have learned through that and today we reflect on it,” Ms Beermier said.
According to Ms Beermier, 7 per cent of Ngala’s staff members are indigenous and the organisation has dedicated programs for Aboriginal families delivered by Aboriginal staff.
Social change has required the organisation to adjust its business model over time. Until an organisational review was completed in the 1980s, Ngala was a training hospital for mothercraft nurses.
“Mothercraft nurses were nurses who were trained specifically around the care of babies and the mothers,” Ms Beermier said.
“Whereas today we would have registered nurses who are child health nurses.”
The state’s universities took over responsibility for mothercraft nurse training in the late 1980s, and Ngala lost funding for providing the service.
Ms Beermier said there were always peaks and troughs in funding for not-for-profits, so it was necessary to work with the government and meet new demand.
“One thing we believe to be safe is that children will always be a government priority,” she said.
“It’s just a matter of what the focus is on that.”
In addition to housing its own research team, Ngala, which is ranked as the 24th largest charity on Business News’ Data & Insights by revenue, runs childcare centres, a parenting line, and programs to help connect parents and their children.
These services are organised into three separate entities: community services, children’s services, and family services, which had combined revenue of $24.2 million in the 2019 financial year, according to Ngala’s annual report.
Mothercraft graduates in 1963.
The final class of mothercraft graduates in 1989.
Ms Beermier said a move towards evidence-based care and a focus on early intervention became apparent about two decades ago.
“That’s probably when it [evidence] became, in a sense, non-negotiable for the organisation,” she said.
“Everything we do has to demonstrate an impact, it has to be consistent across the organisation and it really needs to be backed up by evidence and data, and we really need to be sustainable.”
Ms Beermier quoted recent research from Telethon Kids Institute’s Stephen Zubrick, which found 54 per cent of children born every year had some form of developmental delay, which would affect their life trajectory.
Ms Beermier said statistics like this demonstrated the need for funding and philanthropic support for early intervention initiatives.
“We would want to see government continue to have the early years as their focus because we know that $15.2 billion across Australia is spent year on year to address some of the developmental challenges of children downstream,” she said.
“We would want to see more emphasis and funding dedicated to the early years.”
Having been gifted a vacant block of Crown land from the state government in 2018, Ngala has plans to build a community hub next to its Kensington headquarters.
The hub will include intensive early-parenting services, facilities to provide digital parenting support, early learning and development programs, and a research platform.
Deloitte was commissioned to undertake the discovery phase of the project last year, and Nous Group and Deloitte recently started the design phase.
Ms Beermier said the centre’s goal was to decrease the prevalence of developmental delay in the state.
“The whole purpose of that site that we are going to develop there is to change the 54 per cent some way,” she said.