March this year, Cyclone Debbie saw rising flood levels, heavy winds and environmental degradation across Queensland. Amidst threats to its own business and staff wellbeing, Aurizon navigated its own path to disaster recovery and the local impact it could have when the chips were down.
The week that Cyclone Debbie hit, all four of our rail network systems were impacted, recalls Aurizon Brand and Sponsorships Manager, April Whittam.
“We knew our business was feeling it, as were our employees. And while there was uncertainty of actual damage caused it was certainly a significant natural disaster unfolding. It’s part of our job to think about the community as well when this happens.”
In the past, Aurizon has been known to contribute large sums to disaster relief in Queensland, from floods to fires.
“We traditionally donate funds to charities providing relief; the Premiers Fund or coordinated state wide efforts,” April says. “We were very aware that as we waited to assess the damage and as the Cyclone was still active there wasn’t any coordinated effort for us to support at the time.”
It seems a logical approach that spurred on Aurizon’s next decision.
“We had our Community Giving Fund already open for applications, so when we discussed what we could do, it was only natural to think about extending this existing program to fund relief efforts.
“The issues was that this was closing soon and we were concerned it wouldn’t offer enough time for people and community groups to assess the damage, let alone apply for funding.”
Within days, April and her team had devised a dedicated special round of their Community Giving Fund as a relief grant program to run across key areas impacted to fund small and diverse grassroots efforts to the value of $20,000. And most impressive yet, Aurizon opened this program to applicants in a week of Cyclone Debbie hitting Queensland’s shores.
But let’s be clear, starting a new grant program takes months to plan. There are discussions of scope, strategic objectives and measurement. Let alone the sheer logistics of promotion, recipient validation and regulatory compliance.
“Donna and the (Good2Give) team worked so fast to get this program up and running. We established a new online grant application platform that mirrored our Community Giving Fund platform. And while we won’t use this in our ongoing community biannual grant program, this replica platform allows Aurizon to respond quickly to disaster recovery in the future.”
“Community means a great deal at Aurizon. Although our head office is in Brisbane, most of our employees are based in regional and rural areas, and they’re very much a part of their community. It’s not surprising that what we support as a company usually comes directly from them.”
Seven years ago when Aurizon became a private company and we listed on the ASX, April and her team developed a giving strategy that was directly informed by staff and community interests.
“It looks humble in approach, but our focus areas are informed by what’s most needed and have taken a great deal of consultation to get there.” These community priorities are now deeply rooted into the organisation’s culture, and with it, have harnessed great corporate support.
“Our wider grant program has been in place for over six years now and works really well with our communities, and is very much respected, both internally and externally. It’s something that’s grown from the ground up and we are very proud of its impact and contributions.
“Getting this latest disaster response program up and running was definitely a challenge for us. But something I don’t think would have been possible without also the significant senior leadership support we gained.
When I ask the hard question of whether its where Aurizon’s funds are best placed for maximum community outcome, I’m quickly corrected by the incredible scope of Aurizon’s community work.
“Getting directly behind some of the large charities is incredibly important. We have ongoing partnerships with many leading Australian charities, we work with UN Women and support a number of innovative programs designed to increase Indigenous literacy and numeracy, community rail safety programs, diversity in leadership and healthy living.
“But sometimes, it’s also the small things that matter most. The community giving grant rounds that we offer twice a year provide support to many small charities and local programs that can be incredibly effective but often don’t get the support they need.
“In the case of Cyclone Debbie, we recognised that what was needed in Mackay which was hit by high winds was very different to the flood damage caused down south. The diversity of needs and responding to what community groups identify as most important is a contribution we can make, and one that we think will offer a great deal of value.
“It might be replacing football posts that were blown away, replanting river banks or repairing a men’s shed with broken windows.
“The great thing about this program is that we can really tailor our giving approach and measure the tangible difference our funds make. Which makes a great deal of difference to the organisation’s enthusiasm and ongoing commitment to our community engagement program.
“One of the campaign lines that really resonates with me is that we’re local helping local and we will continue that ethos going forward.”
Aurizon’s Disaster Response Giving Fund applications closed Friday 2 June 5pm AEST. For more information on future initiatives, visit www.aurizon.com.au/community