Indigenous organisations

In the backyard of a small house in Alice Springs, 11 directors assemble quarterly for a two-day board meeting. Some trek more than 1,000 kilometres to be there and represent remote communities across Australia’s Western Desert.

After a welcome in Pintupi language, the board gets through usual meeting compliance before discussing the strategy, performance and governance of Purple House, a dialysis provider and one of Australia’s most innovative Aboriginal Community Controlled organisations.

Later at the board lunch, Purple House chairman Bobby West Tjupurrula has been known to cook a feral cat on hot coals for his fellow directors. Barbecued kangaroo tails and damper are often on the menu. Tjupurrula is an award-winning painter from Kiwirrkurra, a remote community in Western Australia near the Northern Territory border. At Purple House’s Christmas party, some directors sing Pintupi gospel songs and a band plays. Staff, patients and Purple House supporters are encouraged to attend and bush medicine shampoo is the gift of choice.

On first impressions, Purple House is as different as it gets from the board of an ASX 200 company or large not-for-profit. Yet good governance is at the heart of Purple House’s success and a reason why more indigenous people in remote communities can access dialysis.

“Purple House is fortunate to have a board that has made clever and wise decisions over many years,” says CEO Sarah Brown. “Several of our directors require dialysis and understand the problem in their community. They put a lot of their time into the board to help their people.”

From humble beginnings in 2003, Purple House operates in 16 remote communities. It has provided kidney dialysis to more than 400 people, has a nurse in Perth, Kalgoorlie and Adelaide and a centre in Darwin. Then there’s the Purple Truck, a self-contained dialysis unit that gives patients with end-stage renal failure a chance to return home for family, cultural or Sorry Business (a period of cultural practices and protocols associated with death).

More indigenous communities are asking Purple House for help and other countries are studying its model to provide mobile dialysis. Purple House has introduced aged-care and school-nutrition services, mindful that it wants to stick to its kidney-dialysis focus.

A breakthrough came in November 2018 when Medicare included Purple House’s model of care as an approved healthcare item, giving the not-for-profit surety of funding for each service.

Purple House provides vital care. As with indigenous populations in other developed countries, chronic kidney disease is an increasingly common health problem in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, especially those in remote communities.

They are thought to be more than twice as likely as non-indigenous people to have indicators of chronic kidney disease. Obesity, diabetes, premature birth and infection are considered potential factors for higher rates of kidney failure, although there is no clearcut explanation.

Whatever the cause, an absence of dialysis treatment in remote communities in the Northern Territory and WA meant some sufferers had to travel for hours for treatment three times a week. They would move to Alice Springs, away from their community, loved ones, land and culture.

“This was having a huge impact on individuals, families and the long-term viability of remote communities,” says Brown. “Sick people were having to pack up and move to a different place. The communities were losing too many of their senior cultural leaders. Indigenous people were dying at inordinate rates from kidney failure and our communities had the worst survival rates for this disease in the country. Something had to be done to help our people”.

Unable to secure government funding at the start, Purple House raised $1 million in 2000 through the sale of Aboriginal art at an Art Gallery of New South Wales auction. Hetti Perkins, a former senior curator at the Art Gallery, curated the event. Comedy duo John Doyle and Greig Pickhaver (Roy & HG) compered the night and a collaborative piece sold for $340,000.

Brown has watched Purple House grow through the determination of its board, staff and remote indigenous communities. She became CEO in 2003 and recalls working from a corner in her lounge room. “We started with one dialysis machine in Alice Springs, quietly and carefully and in a risk-averse way because everyone was waiting for Purple House to fail.”

Purple House directors and staff made sacrifices to grow the organisation, although it is unlikely they would see it that way. Several directors have sold art over the years to raise funds for Purple House, as has Brown, an accomplished artist who exhibits in Australia and Asia.

“…the board’s strength is its connection to communities it represents and decision-making processes. “Day one of the board meeting will typically introduce any issues that need major decisions, and directors will talk about them over dinner and decide what to do on the next day. There’s a lot of discussion and thought before coming to a decision everyone agrees with.”

“Everybody has worked together to help indigenous communities who need dialysis, and not only for the Pintupi people,” says Brown. “Our communities have been willing to share the dialysis service with other indigenous people in need, even though their own community might need more dialysis support.”

She says the board’s strength is its connection to communities it represents and decision-making processes. “Day one of the board meeting will typically introduce any issues that need major decisions, and directors will talk about them over dinner and decide what to do on the next day. There’s a lot of discussion and thought before coming to a decision everyone agrees with.”

Brown says the Purple House board is a key reason she has stayed in the job for 16 years. “The board has been so brave and selfless over the years. Everything has been about getting more dialysis treatment for people in remote communities and doing a good job. And having a cultural footprint at the heart of what we do and guiding our decisions.”

As Brown drives her 1959 Morris Minor through the dusty streets of Alice Springs, with paint brushes and canvases in the back seat, she is energised by her work at Purple House and its potential. “Our challenge is to grow Purple House to help more communities, without losing our focus, energy and passion. We want to continue being the Purple House; not a beige house that is bogged down with compliance.”

Getting down to business for the Yawuru people

As Purple House works in Central Australia, the Yawuru Registered Native Title Holders Body Corporate (Yawuru PBC) holds and manages native title for the Yawuru people, who have occupied and managed the lands and seas around Broome in WA from time immemorial.

The Federal Court in 2006 recognised the Yawuru people as the native title holders of more than 530,000 hectares of traditional Yawuru country. The Yawuru community is estimated at up to 2,000 people and most live in Broome.

Yawuru PBC had the foresight to create separate entities to manage its business affairs and separate them from the core focus on land native-title issues.

Under its structure, Yawuru PBC holds and manages the native title; Murra Mala Yawuru is a holding company for a separate business arm of the corporate group; and Nyamba Buru Yawuru (NBY) is a not-for-profit enterprise responsible for generating income from Yawuru’s commercial, social and cultural capital. Yawuru PBC had almost $100 million in assets in 2018.

Cara Peek chairs NBY. A former lawyer who worked on Native Title Law, Peek is now an accomplished entrepreneur who co-founded Yum Yum and Delicious, its consulting arm Peek Consulting, and Saltwater Country, a grassroots not-for-profit that aims to improve the social, emotional and economic wellbeing of Aboriginal people in Broome and the Kimberley region.

Peek, a proud Yawuru/Bunuba woman, has a challenging governance role. NBY owns a cattle station on Yawuru lands (Roebuck Plains); has a new joint-venture construction company (Indent) that generates income and jobs for Yawuru people; and a tech start-up (NBY Tech). NBY is working on several large property-related projects and with Government agencies to expand health- related services in Broome.

“The NBY board considers an incredible range of issues,” says Peek. “It’s almost like we have a quadruple bottom line to consider in decision making: cultural, economic, social and environmental.”

Peek adds: “I love that the NBY is playing a key role in the proactive advancement of the Yawuru people, and that we do it in a way that deeply respects and draws on our culture and beliefs system.”

“The term ‘governance’ is a modern manifestation of what indigenous communities have been doing for thousands of years… We come together to understand each other’s perspective, talk about issues and make good long-term, sustainable decisions that reflect our culture, history, beliefs and our people.”

The NBY board meets every six-to-eight weeks and two of its directors are independent (not Yawuru people) and non-indigenous. There’s no requirement for the board’s independent directors to be non-indigenous; the current independents had the skills the NBY board needed.

Each director serves a two-year term, receives a small stipend and must be re-elected. NBY has four women on a six-member board and several of its directors chair NBY subsidiaries.

Having worked with indigenous communities in the United States and Canada, Peek is passionate about indigenous governance. “The term ‘governance’ is a modern manifestation of what indigenous communities have been doing for thousands of years,” she says. “We come together to understand each other’s perspective, talk about issues and make good long-term, sustainable decisions that reflect our culture, history, beliefs and our people.”

The 39-year-old Chair says there is not enough recognition of indigenous governance in Australia. “A lot of commentary about indigenous governance is low level or patronising. I don't think Indigenous boards get enough kudos for the complexity they govern through. They have to find a balance between cultural and corporate governance, often in difficult circumstances.”

Peek adds: “The indigenous directors I see work a lot harder than some of their peers in the corporate world because they have extra motivation to help their communities, and are accountable to them. They are usually volunteer directors who serve on a board to give back to the community and address disadvantage. Mainstream boards could learn a lot from indigenous boards and the training available should reflect that.”

Indigenous communities need comprehensive, cost-effective and tailored governance training, delivered by indigenous people, says Peek. “We need access to skills development that is specifically designed and delivered by and for indigenous boards, not boards in general. An indigenous lens on board management and governance generally is a value-add to the standard board experience. The training needs to be affordable; there’s only so many scholarships that can go around. Directorship education also needs to be accessible: it’s hard and costly for someone in a remote area to attend a training course in a capital city.”

Peek believes indigenous governance can drive social innovation. “If we want to better capitalise on the indigenous youth population, and create more leaders and social innovators, we need to expose many young indigenous people to opportunities realised through good governance. Not just to serve on boards, but to get them to drive change across the country.”