09/02/2021 - 08:00

Remodelling White Ribbon

09/02/2021 - 08:00

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Major charitable group Communicare is recalibrating the White Ribbon Australia brand.

Remodelling White Ribbon
Melissa Perry says White Ribbon can add most value in workplaces, schools and local communities. Photo: Madeleine Stephens

Six months after it relaunched White Ribbon Australia, community services organisation Communicare Inc is in the process of reviving the domestic violence charity’s image and changing its programs.

Launched in Canada three decades ago (1991) and in Australia the following year, the White Ribbon campaign sought to involve men in conversations about domestic violence.

The White Ribbon Foundation was established in 2007 to raise money and awareness for the cause. Andrew O’Keefe, who was recently charged with domestic violence offences, was one of the founding members and became chair of the board.

The foundation created a school program to promote respectful relationships and prevent violence in 2009, and a workplace accreditation program was developed in 2012.

More recently, however, the Sydney-based organisation was operating at a substantial loss, had several chief executives in a short space of time, and at times found itself at odds with stakeholders.

As criticism mounted and its financial situation worsened, White Ribbon went into liquidation in October 2019.

In November 2019, Perth-based Communicare was named by liquidators Worrells Solvency and Forensic Accountants ahead of 70 other applicants to receive White Ribbon’s intellectual property.

Communicare, ranked as the 23rd largest charitable organisation on Business News’s Data & Insights, already worked on the frontline in the family and domestic violence space, offering men’s and women’s support services.

White Ribbon and Communicare chief executive Melissa Perry said Communicare’s board was saddened at the news of White Ribbon’s closure and wanted the movement to continue.

“There are over 60 White Ribbon movements around the globe and we just couldn’t imagine not having one,” Ms Perry told Business News.

“We very boldly thought, ‘Let’s find out what you need to do to acquire this’.

“Given domestic violence and service provision was so deeply embedded in what we do, we felt like we had a level of expertise we thought would be incredibly useful.”

Ms Perry said the board was aware of the criticisms levelled at the original charity and was committed to consulting the community to understand people’s issues with how the organisation was run.

“We were aware of that and we just really came from a place of being incredibly curious and wanting to consult with as many people as we possibly could,” she said.

“We consulted hundreds of people around the country, around their thoughts and their previous experience and how they saw the future, which has really influenced the new strategic framework.

“One of the biggest and loudest things we heard was a real desire to return to being a much more grassroots movement … so we worked really hard in the first six months to really think and re-engage people differently.”

Changes

White Ribbon is now run by Ms Perry and White Ribbon executive director Brad Chilcott, an activist who was once a critic of the organisation.

Former Labor politician Jim McGinity is chair and WA Treasurer Ben Wyatt is a patron.

One of the first moves the new leaders made was to scrap the ambassador program.

In its previous iteration, the program was criticised as being tokenistic and able to be (mis) used by people to improve their image.

The program’s requirements for admission have been changed and it has been renamed ‘community partners’, removing any gender bias.

“It’s not just about wearing a ribbon or taking a pledge, it’s more around action,” Ms Perry said.

“The White Ribbon committees around the country are now called action groups rather than committees, so they are expected and encouraged to think about what action they can take rather than just raising awareness.

“It’s a change to partnering and collaboration with grassroots community groups, moving from raising awareness to action and really hearing what people think are the solutions for their individual communities, and supporting them to enact activities and interventions and thinking around what that might look like for each individual community.”

The workplace accreditation program has also been streamlined in response to criticism that the process was clunky.

Ms Perry said the South Australian government was halfway through its accreditation process, the Queensland government had signed up and several private businesses, including Fortescue Metals Group, had recently been accredited.

“Working in workplaces and schools and local communities is where we think we can add the most value,” she said.

Money matters

At the time of liquidation, media reports suggested the charity was operating at a loss of more than $840,000. Its financial integrity was also questioned.

“We do know part of the criticism in the previous iteration was a lack of financial visibility, so we are really, really clear that we need to be incredibly transparent,” Ms Perry said.

“[This is] not only around our financials but also around our performance and what we say we are going to do, and we need to be held accountable to what we say we are going to do.”

She said the Communicare board had invested in restarting the charity, and fundraising would not be a focus for White Ribbon for at least another six months.

“There are still people and organisations and corporate bodies that do want to fundraise for this movement,” Ms Perry said.

“And we are incredibly grateful for that, but we will be very transparent about what we receive and where those funds are going so people can see that transparency is really important.

“It hasn’t been a key focus for us, the fundraising, more around really listening and engaging people at a grassroots level to ensure that we are moving in the right direction in terms of primary prevention, community engagement, sector engagement, acknowledging the work of the women’s sector, stakeholder engagement and developing that trust, which may have been a little bit dented because of the previous history.”

Programs, activities, training and merchandise would also be used to fund the organisation’s work in the future, Ms Perry said.

Worthy cause

Despite the issues faced by the previous iteration of White Ribbon, Ms Perry said the organisation had a vital role to play.

“We really do think that getting men and boys to actually talk to other men and boys is incredibly powerful,” she said.

“If we are going to change people’s thinking and people’s behaviour around how women are treated generally, we need to start with young boys and get our men to be really incredible role models to see a generational change.

“Not just a change for today, but a generational change, particularly given that family violence continues to increase; so we need to keep thinking about how we can impact and how we can keep women and children safe.”

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