Interview – Geoff Scott – Combining the traditional and the modern

Geoff ScottMuch discussion of indigenous philanthropy centres on building on the traditions of indigenous peoples. As Geoff Scott, Chief Executive of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council (ALC), sees it, it is the dynamism of the Aboriginal people of Australia that has allowed them to survive and to maintain their traditions.

Now the ALC is helping to turn that dynamism to the longer-term purpose of promoting a better life for Aboriginal communities and their successor generations. This involves developing new structures and new ways of making decisions, which combine elements of the traditional with those of – for want of a better term – the modern. Alliance asked him about how this is happening and how it is being received.


Legislation in 1983 established the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, comprising 13 regional land councils and 121 local land councils.  Its focus was on developing an asset base for Aboriginal people. The local councils elect the nine members of the ALC board. People choose whether they want to become formal members of the system and actually vote and participate in the decision-making – Scott estimates that about 25,000 members out of 150,000 people in the ALC are members. After 25 years, ALC has a financial investment fund of about $700 million – ‘we don’t get any appropriations from government any more. In addition we have about three and a half billion dollars worth of land assets.’ In December 2007, they set up an education fund, also currently managed by the ALC board, which they hope to convert into a trust.

What’s the importance of land to Aboriginal people?

As with most indigenous communities around the world, land is the very essence of what people are. Without their attachment to land people are lost. We’re trying to develop ways to release land. We take the view that we are here to provide benefit structures and schemes not just for this generation but for succeeding ones and that means providing a sustainable asset base and benefit regime for the long term.

Does the structure of the ALC differ much from traditional arrangements?

I think the legislation initially established fairly loose governance structures, with the members taking decisions on all matters – as in the traditional decision-making processes. But in New South Wales, many people don’t live on their own land so it’s got to be a hybrid system of decision-making. What we’ve done very recently is moved straight to the more mainstream governance regime with a board of directors, with members making some of the decisions.

Has there been resistance to the idea of moving away from a more traditional decision-making approach?

Yes, there has been a high degree of resistance. Change always brings anxiety and uncertainty, but I think a lot of land councils have recognized the advantages of more modern governance systems, especially when a lot of them have significant asset bases and have engaged in fairly complex business arrangements.

And the driver for all this is to create a sustainable better way of life?

Yes. We always say we only borrow the land from our children, which gives you a good perspective. So the real issue is to create a sustainable economic base to provide a benefit regime for our own people, particularly our children.

You launched an education fund in December 2007. What are its aims?

We want to add value where we can make the most significant impact. This is why education was chosen for our first tranche of initiatives. There will always be a need for education and until Aboriginal people have the right skill set we won’t start seeing a difference.

How are you going to ensure that you are adding value and not just letting the government off the hook?

At the moment the school system is not serving our people very well. We’re about 30 per cent of the norm in terms of attendance and completion rates. In certain areas, we need to have homework centres, or more tutors – many schools have taken their own initiatives in this regard. We can use the money as seed funding or a catalyst. Also, the labour markets are very poor where the mass of our people are located. Traditionally, our people were very much involved in rural and labour-intensive industries. Now we need to identify where the emerging labour market areas are and provide incentives for people to go into them. We’re using the fund for that too.

You’re mainly going to be supporting tertiary education?

In the long term, yes. The board actually wants to grow this fund significantly. We contributed $30 million in the initial round and we hope to keep contributing to it and building it but also attracting other sponsors and partners. But the long-term focus will be on tertiary education. It’s expensive and people have to move to the larger centres to take advantage of it, which is another deterrent because many of our people are located in more remote areas.

We want to keep pressure on the government to do what they should be doing in terms of primary and secondary education and then focusing on picking people up and giving them additional support to get them into the labour markets that will benefit them most.

Who else do you hope will contribute to the fund?

There are many private people who want to contribute. That’s why we want a really structured and rigorous fund that will attract tax deductibility status so contributors can be assured that the money’s being used for the purpose for which they provided it. Our initial targets, though, will be government and the private sector, because that’s where the bulk of the money is.

What about other philanthropic organizations?

Most of them are looking at projects in one to three year timeframes rather than helping to provide a capital base. They want to see benefits hit the ground very quickly. We understand that. But we’re trying to get people to take a long-term view. Picking up a people who have been oppressed in a very poor socioeconomic environment is not going to be an easy and quick process and people have to be there for the long haul. We may be able to form partnerships with foundations in the future, but that’s still an evolving process.

Most governments around the world have a short-term focus as well, as most social policy is very much focused on electoral timeframes.

Do you hope to be able to tie in government funding in a more sustained and systematic way?

We’re trying to convince government that putting resources into this sort of fund is an investment not a straight expenditure, and that investment will have a benefit over the long term. It’s only when you can demonstrate that something works that governments come in. That’s why the land council has put up its own money first.

Is there a genuine will on the part of government to improve the lives of Aboriginal people?

I think there is. In Australia there’s been a long period of refocusing government policy, but not really knowing what the answer is. We’re trying to contribute and demonstrate what we see as the answers, and how to provide sustainable benefit regimes that allow decisions to be made by Aboriginal people but within the constraints that the government sets out.

Have you started spending the fund?

We’ve begun by making some scholarship allocations, about two-thirds to primary schools and one-third to secondary, but at this stage it’s really about showing people that the money’s here, assisting where we can, and tightening up policy as we go. Charities Aid Foundation is helping us here, providing administrative support and expertise in the mechanics of rolling out a scholarship fund and a benefit scheme – seeking applications, doing assessments, carrying out monitoring, learning from experience and evolving our policy. We’re also trying to develop in such a way as to be able to take advantage of opportunities when they emerge and shift money to the areas where we can make the most impact.

Is the trust formally set up yet?

Not yet. We have constraints on where we can invest, and under current legislation setting up a formal trust will move the money out of the land council system. We hope that the government will loosen their controls, but in a responsible way.

Will there be resistance among your community to the idea of these funds not being part of the land council’s assets any more?

We’re asking the government to change the legislation so we can still count it as our land. But I think what people really want is to know what the rules are, that they can apply to the fund and it won’t be subject to political whim. Like everyone else, Aboriginal people want a better life for their children and want to know that there are benefit regimes that are available to them. And that’s what the trust will provide.

And your challenge is to develop a sort of hybrid system between traditional ways and new ways in order to achieve that better life?

Very much so. I think the Aboriginal community and culture is dynamic. The fact that Aboriginal people still exist in Australia is a tribute to their resilience. I think this dynamism is what helps people retain their identity and retain their respect for the elders and for the structures that kept them strong and sustainable. With the great majority living below the poverty line, we’ve had to attract what resources and get what benefits we could. Now we’re trying to achieve some rigour and some constancy. If people want to see their kids get education and get a better life, they know there will be somebody there to help them.

For more information
Contact Geoff Scott at or visit

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