It's made a million-dollar difference to people in need in our region - and on Monday it celebrates its 20th anniversary. Alan Clarke has a look inside the Fifeshire Foundation, and finds plenty of heart.
It's 1993. Bill Clinton has just picked up the keys to the White House. A bomb in a van parked below the North Tower of the World Trade Centre in New York explodes, killing six and injuring more than 1000 people.
In this country, MMP is voted in, forever changing the face of New Zealand politics.
And, in Nelson - before philanthropy became a buzzword and "charity" a business - three blokes with diverse backgrounds but common intent sat down in a radio station boardroom and decided something had to be done for the hard-up in our region.
The result? The Fifeshire Foundation, established 20 years ago on this Monday by a politician (Sir Wallace Rowling), a businessmen (Bruce Hancox) and an entrepreneur and salesman (Digby Lawley).
Sadly, the radio station and two of the foundation's founders are no longer with us, and Mr Hancox left for Sydney in 2005 (though he has retained some Nelson links). But like the rock at the entrance to Port Nelson, the foundation keeps the Fifeshire name alive.
Those three names appear on the front of the original trust deed: Hancox, once chief executive and chairman of Brierley Investments and big investor in a range of Nelson businesses, including one-time owner of Fifeshire FM; Lawley, a sales representative long associated with the radio station; Rowling, former prime minister and well-known local Labour politician.
The deed, signed on August 19, 1993, records that the Fifeshire FM Foundation was set up with initial funds of $10. The intention? To operate as a charitable trust "for the relief of hardship and-or domestic crises for those people in need in the region".
In two decades, the trust has distributed 2314 grants to a total value of $1,074,780, up till March this year.
Tellingly, at a time when charitable fundraising has come under scrutiny - often with very good reason - every dollar raised goes back into the Nelson region.
A couple of minutes' stroll from Fifeshire House where it all began, administrator Susannah Roddick speaks passionately about the trust's work. A bowl chockful of kiwifruit sits on the large office "desk". She looks right at home. In fact, she is. If charity begins at home, then that's where this Nelson version is organised from.
So, no rent to be paid from trust funds. No wages, either. While Ms Roddick is paid for 15 hours' work a week (as is so often the case with this type of position, she puts in much more time than shows on the paysheet), it is completely funded by two local businesses.
NZ King Salmon and Nelson Building Society currently pick up the tab between them. NBS boss Ken Beams puts it this way: "As a bank we feel some responsibility to do what we can for our community. As far as we're concerned, there is probably no greater cause we could be involved with than the Fifeshire Foundation."
He says they have helped fund the administrator's wages for a dozen years or more "and we'll continue to do so".
NZ King Salmon is equally adamant that the foundation is the right cause.
Says chief executive Grant Rosewarne: "As a significant employer within the Nelson-Tasman region, I believe New Zealand King Salmon has a responsibility to give something back to the local community.
"To this end we support the Fifeshire Foundation by contributing to part of its administration costs. This allows all of the funds received by the foundation to go directly to people in need in Nelson and Tasman."
He says his company is "proud to support the work of such a dedicated and effective organisation".
The trustees - currently numbering 10 - meet monthly to rule on all applications for grants. They do so voluntarily.
In its first year, the foundation granted $6600 to 10 social relief organisations. Last year, it distributed just under $105,000, split among 313 applicants.
Such growth is, of course, double-edged. Yes, it stands out as a wonderfully successful example of a community identifying a need, offering empathy rather than sitting in judgment, and co-operating widely and generously to meet it.
Equally, it stands as a telling portrait of a country with a fast-growing equity gap and social policies that seem hell-bent on increasing it. Good that Nelson is looking out for its own and that empathy is still a feature of our community; not good that the needs seem greater than ever, given the social issues that inevitably accompany inequity.
Consider also the timing of the foundation's establishment in the early 90s. Successive governments had launched a series of economic reforms along free-market lines. People were supposed to benefit from the trickle-down effect.
Brierley Investments was being widely derided as a trans-Tasman corporate raider, asset-stripper and the darling of the Business Roundtable. Interesting then, that Mr Hancox was instrumental in establishing a longstanding, successful, community-based social top-up programme.
"I could see there was definitely the need for something like this," he said this week, reflecting on the foundation's establishment.
"It was great to combine business interests with a charitable cause and use my financial and management skills. It felt good and you had a great sense of what you were achieving.
"I also made sure that the governance board had a wide-
cross-section of people, and so that no-one could criticise us for not being representative of the community. We had to debate the definition of charity and make sure that everything was carefully vetted. It had to succeed on its own."
The first board was something of a who's who in Nelson movers and, well, shapers: a trend that's continued since. As well as the three founders, other inaugural trustees included the Bishop of Nelson at the time, Peter Sutton, former Nelson College for Girls principal Alison McAlpine, former councillors Tui France (Nelson) and Elaine Henry (Tasman), Mary Lafrentz (still a trustee), John Mitchell, Justin Hills and Gabrielle Hervey (also trust secretary).
Says Mr Hancox: "Back then, Fifeshire was a community station and I wanted the station to be right in the ‘community space'. "I knew we could use it [the station], and there would be no conflict in promoting a charitable organisation.
"At the start we didn't advertise it hugely as the last thing we wanted was to have to turn down nine out of 10 applications. We could have spent unlimited money.
"I'm delighted it's still going, and that the model has worked."
In preparing to celebrate the foundation's first 20 years, Ms Roddick has recently gone through all of the Fifeshire Foundation files, including the minutes of every meeting since October 1993. She is impressed that, despite turnover in trustees, chairpeople and sponsors, the key principles have endured:
The foundation is entirely local. All funds are raised locally, and only local residents and organisations can apply for help.
All applications are vetted, must provide evidence of hardship or crisis and be supported by two credible referees. If an application is unclear, or more information is required then it's held over till to the next meeting.
The foundation continues to rely on good working relationships with more than 50 social agencies, such as Te Korowai Trust, Family Works, Budget Advice services, Motueka Family Service Centre, Nelson Women's Support, mental health workers and schools.
The relationship with the radio station at Fifeshire House has continued. It's now called MediaWorks and run by general manager Christine Hatton, who has had a connection with the foundation since it began 20 years ago. The MediaWorks team provides advertising and support for foundation events and fundraisers.
The aim is to provide help when no government funding is available. Applications must confirm no Work and Income support or special needs grants are available.
The trustees receive all applications a week before the meeting so they can think about the requests, do their own research into purchase options, and identify where further information is needed.
At the monthly meeting, every application is scrutinised for evidence of crisis. A flag goes up if someone has applied before. This does not necessarily rule out the application, as everyone accepts that people's situations can change. But the trustees factor in any previous grant.
Every application has to provide background information. How many family members do they support? What is the income and-or benefit level? What about other critical factors such as health, housing, mental health?
At the monthly meetings, the applications often prompt tough and philosophical debates, says Ms Roddick.
"Is the situation the responsibility of an individual, a family, a publicly provided service or a private business? How can a grant provide short-term relief? What might help to pre-empt a poor outcome?
Chairwoman Kim Proctor-Western puts it this way: "The situations are often complex and messy and long in the making so there is no easy answer. In the end, the trustees know that money on its own won't "fix" anything, and we try to allocate grants to things that will provide support and help people to be able to help themselves. It may sound like a cliche, but we try to provide a hand up, not a handout."
The trust tries to be practical, "nimble" and able to respond to a wide range of requests. Much is spent on basics such as food, firewood, power, car seats, washing machines, fridges, clothes, doctor's bills. But it can also respond to all kinds of requests that are a priority to help people get on with their lives.
It does not give cash grants, but will pay a bill or make a purchase on someone's behalf. Nearly all the funds stay in the region, as they are spent with local businesses or services - power bills being one notable exception.
The administrator and trustees work hard to ensure they get a good price, and will try to advocate on a person's behalf. "Every dollar we save is money we don't have to fundraise," Ms Roddick says.
They often shop secondhand. They will pay for a bus trip over a plane ticket, if travel is funded. Trustee Richard Adams is a keen watcher of Trade Me and auctions and has an eye for a bargain on furniture, beds or bicycles, which he then delivers to the families.
Over the year, the trustees make a "Christmas list" of people in particularly challenging situations. Then at Christmas, two trustees hand-deliver $50 grocery-only vouchers to these people.
For trustee Mary Lafrentz, this is one of her favourite jobs. "I get hugs, tears, or the kids are ushered out to be introduced. I just love it. It's great to be able to help at Christmas. And it's a $50 grocery voucher and, for me, the job is priceless."
Ms Roddick has seen a steady and alarming increase in applications for help with dental work.
"The foundation receives applications from people who are so self-conscious about their teeth; they are too embarrassed to drop their children at school.
"As one mother said, ‘I can do secondhand everything - but I can't do secondhand teeth'."
At each meeting trustees must try to weigh how best to allocate limited funds: dental work for $2000 has to be considered against food, power or clothes for, say, five families.
There has also been a steady increase in the number of applications from older residents, often older men or women living alone, or grandmothers who have taken on the care of one or more grandchildren.
"Such applications make distressing reading, with a common refrain that they are have never had to ask for help in all their lives," she says.
The high level of power bill arrears has also been a growing concern. "People survive by changing companies . . . by setting up a new account in the name of a child . . . by turning the power on and off so no-one in the house can use it."
Ten years ago there were two applications for help with power bills. In the year to this March, there were 33, illustrating the growing concern this sector is causing to those who are struggling to make ends meet.
The foundation is raising about $100,000 each year, a quarter of that at its main Annual Charity Golf Tournament and auction. Again local businesses - Nelson Building Society and Nelson Packaging Supplies - are the sponsors, so the foundation can maximise its fundraising.
Hilary Johnstone, trust deputy chairperson, said of the golf tournament: "This is a huge fundraiser because so many other businesses and individuals donate goods, services and time for free. It's very humbling when people are so generous, as we know that they are asked for contributions all the time."
Alongside other smaller fundraisers, the rest of the income is donated from Lone Star Farms, Tasman District and Nelson City councils, George Brown Trust, Rockgas, school fundraisers, mufti days, Masked Parade barbecue, and some families or individuals.
"Local businesses are incredibly generous as they give significant in-kind support, or often reduce their costs when we're paying a bill on someone's behalf," Ms Roddick says
"This week netMaestro has done our new website for free, and Hothouse has re-done our pamphlet, which Printhouse printed all for free. Designart Signs made our new banner for free. We know businesses are approached all the time for things for free - so we're extremely grateful. It means we can continue to state that all our administration costs are covered."
'A huge difference to me and my children'
Nadia Packer says talking to the media - let alone fronting up to a camera - is way outside her comfort zone. But she's happy to do so to give credit where it is due, and help raise awareness of what the foundation is about. Her point: a simple nudge can be life-changing for people who are struggling.
"The Fifeshire Foundation has made a huge difference to me and my children. They've helped when no-one else would".
The mum of five first sought assistance when she had a baby 11 years ago. "It was just about simple things - I needed something warm for my child," she says.
"One of the women on the panel then and there wrote out a cheque for a specific type of jumpsuit from Kathmandu, and they also provided blankets and some warm clothing. That was all secondhand, but it was great - made all the difference."
She's received two more grants in the past couple of years.
She was given two car seats and a second hand booster seat because the gear she was using was past its use-by date. "I had bought two of the cars seats brand new only a few years prior. The store had sold me old stock. Laws on carseats were tightening up, so potential fines were inevitable and I could not afford any fines."
Last year she received support to have driving tuition driving lessons so she could legally drive her children around.
In her circumstances, there is nothing extra for such things.
"The pressure is relentless - never-ending. It would never have stopped without the Fifeshire Foundation."
She says she is speaking out in support of the trust because she knows many other families who need help. "It's a pride thing. They don't want people to know they are struggling. They need to know that it's OK to ask for help, and that the foundation may help when others won't."
Some other case studies from the foundation's files:
A woman, who had a stroke at a very young age, became separated, then had to start again with no support.
A mother who split up from a violent ex-partner but was left to look after her children without a fridge or washing machine.
A two-parent family, both with part-time jobs and only just surviving. Without a grant, their child will miss school camp. Again.
A young man with chronic anxiety who lived independently but experienced a burglary and assault. At the suggestion of a support worker, Fifeshire Foundation paid for an alarm system, which an electrician installed at no cost, and the man could then live with confidence.
A single parent with three children. The oldest child was contemplating university, which would be a significant opportunity for him. He was funded $250 to attend an orientation trip to university, giving him the confidence and impetus to go on to tertiary study. A family living in a caravan lost their possessions when it was damaged by fire. They got $200 to buy new clothes and shoes.
A boy in a large family, who was struggling to be socially accepted at school. The children's father was in prison and the mother worked part-time. With no money for extras, he'd never had anything that was "just for him". Identified by the school social worker as at-risk, he was granted $120 for guitar lessons and guitar hire for a year. He has received a huge boost in his happiness and his confidence, and feels good about going to school.
A teenager who'd had to move out of home by 14 and been struggling to find a job without any school qualifications. Fifeshire Foundation gave her $180 to do a short polytechnic course and she achieved her first-ever certificate. After taking her CV and certificate around businesses, she found a job, and is now aiming for her next study goal.
GET STUCK IN The Fifeshire Foundation is running a fundraising appeal from now until October, seeking donations from families and businesses. The trust sees it as a big push for this year, and a means of building its profile and donor base. The launch will be on Monday, August 19, the foundation's 20th anniversary. Check it out at fifeshirefoundation.co.nz. -