In a year where Townsville’s Cowboys footy team have roared to the top of the rugby league ladder and are now in the running to win the national Premiership, the team’s charity arm is also kicking major goals for the 104 young Indigenous people in it’s care at its unique boarding school facility.

    This is a special landmark year for NRL Cowboys House, a Townsville facility for students who call some of Australia’s most geographically disadvantaged communities home. Set up in 2017, it started with 25 students and has grown fast to notch up five years. This will be the first year where students will graduate after completing their whole five years of high school education at the campus.

    “This is our first year that we will have boys and girls graduating who started in year seven with us and are now finishing year 12,” says Fiona Pelling, a director on the board of the Cowboys Community Foundation, which manages Cowboys House. “So that’s really super cool,” she adds with visible pride and emotion. Pelling is Chief Community and Government Relations Officer for the North Queensland Toyota Cowboys.

    “We have seven students who have done the full program out of 16 due to graduate this year. Our students are getting great educational outcomes, and our on-site learning centres are amazing.”

    The facility partners with 12 Townsville high schools to support students through their high school years. Cowboys House recently expanded their program to continue to support graduates through Year 13, as many students continue to live away from home to pursue further education and employment. The extended program ensures they still feel connected and helps them work on getting drivers licences and navigating that first year of independent living. A number of past graduates have gone on to work as apprentices or are studying for university or at TAFE.

    One student who will graduate Year 12 soon, Kody Rogers, from Mornington Island 850km away, started in year seven at Cowboys House. After first attending trade school TEQ NQ and chasing a trade qualification, he has now set his sights on a tertiary education pathway.

    “My new goals are to study Indigenous studies and physiotherapy at university,” he says. “I’m not afraid to try new things and I know if I work hard I can achieve good things.”

    Philanthropy strategy at the board level

    Cowboys House is a joint initiative between the National Rugby League, North Queensland Cowboys, the Queensland Government and the Australian Government.

    The project cost $22 million to build, with two adjoining campuses. The Cowboys Community Foundation needs to fundraise $1 million a year to cover the gap between what Abstudy pays as a student entitlement and the true cost of supporting Indigenous students from remote and geographically disadvantaged communities who have limited senior schooling options at home.

    “Townsville is comparable to New York for many of our young people,” says Pelling. “For a young person who comes from somewhere like Doomadgee or Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, it’s a massively different environment to adjust to and coming here is a really brave thing to do.” (Doomadgee on Cape York is a former Aboriginal mission now with a population of around 1,400.)

    “Our kids often come from schools of 100 or less and then transition into a school of 2,200. Here in Townsville, they feel they look different and speak differently, and often English is a second or third language. All of this when you are away from home and family at sometimes as young as 11 years of age.”

    The yearly $1 million in fundraising is mostly generated by philanthropic partnerships and grants, general fundraising with assistance from the North Queensland Cowboys, corporate partnerships and government grants.

    Philanthropy has been a major priority for the board recently and a specialist fulltime head of philanthropic and corporate partnerships, Catherine Spencer  joined the foundation one year ago. She has a background working with different charities and universities. The foundation recently announced its first philanthropic partner to Cowboys House  – the Newcastle-based Ian and Shirley Norman Foundation. The Morris Family Foundation and The Guy Sebastian Foundation are also new partners.

    “Catherine is amazing and has really led that philanthropic strategy for us,”  adds Pelling. “Her first task was to write a strategy that applied to us, asking, ‘What does the first six months look like? Then what does 12 months what look like’?

    “The philanthropic world is completely different,” she observes. “Philanthropists are working around a genuine community need that aligns with their own vision, and they want to make a difference. They are looking for a social return.”.”

    Traditional sponsorships can be more transactional. “They are about us providing something in return for their investment and that might be a deliverable under their Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP), or it might be brand awareness, recognition or cause marketing. Or solely under their corporate social responsibility strategy. It's very different relationship and is usually not a direct tax-deductible investment.”

    “We have a strong understanding of corporate sponsorship, because that's what we do as a club,” says Pelling. “So we have a lot of expertise on the board around that model of fundraising.  However, philanthropists and individuals with private wealth, general fundraising, charitable status and tax deductibility is an area of expertise in itself.”

    Powerful brand, strong community trust

    The North Queensland Cowboys are known as a brand that attracts significant backing through partnerships with many long-term sponsors. Toyota is  principal sponsor.

    “Rugby league is part of the DNA of North Queensland,” says Pelling. “It really has a great reach, and great influence and impact and quite frankly, I think it's really trusted, and enjoyed by so many people.”

    The Cowboys brand also leverages off the powerful personal brands of star players past and present such as former captain Johnathan Thurston. “We have developed quite a good reputation in that space. We have a number of  high-profile Indigenous players. Really good men who are really good players who have an influential, independent personal brand as well as the collective brand of the Cowboys.”

    That club trust benefits Cowboys House, so that Indigenous parents are willing to send their children to board so far away from home in a strange environment.” It's a massive privilege for us to be trusted,” says Pelling. It's a massive responsibility that we take very seriously.

    “We have made a commitment to support our young people on this journey. And therefore, it's our responsibility to not only ensure we have a culturally safe environment, but that we are doing what we say we're going to do.”

    As the Cowboys Community Foundation board approaches the end of its first five-year strategic plan, she says the next plan will be adopted next year. “At the end of the day, my long-term vision is that eventually there is no disparity in access to educational choice and we don't need a specialised service like Cowboys House, so there are no gaps or disadvantage and that our kids can transition into any local high school or mainstream boarding school and survive, thrive and succeed.”

    While the financial forecast looks good and the foundation may make a profit next year, a priority is to make sure that Cowboys House is not too dependent on any single form of funding, either from the government or corporate sponsorship or philanthropy. “We need to support a model for long-term sustainability,” says Pelling.

    At Cowboys House, there have been many learnings along the way. Eighty per cent of the boarding workforce are First Nations workers, which benefits the students through shared cultural understanding and backgrounds. All staff need to have a shared focus of empowerment and also skills to work with the complexities that come with teenagers who are living away from home in a group setting. Many of the students have a lot to adjust to both socially, emotionally and academically. 

    “Getting the right staff mix was initially really hard,” says Pelling, who has worked for the Cowboys for 14 years. “Our focus is attracting the best of the best, staff who share our passion for our students and can model being good people.

    “But what we figured out really quickly, is that we need staff who genuinely love kids.”

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