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Accidental charity Sisters of the North ends after two years, $1.3m injected into outback towns

By Kemii Maguire, Friday June 11, 2021 - 03:35 EST
ABC image
A tired volunteer takes a nap at the Sisters of the North charity weekend in 2019. - ABC

After devastating floods ravaged north-west Queensland in February 2019, a group of Cloncurry women created an online fundraiser for a local barbecue. 

Unexpectedly, the group raised over $1 million, and in a matter of weeks were thrown into the responsibility of charity work, disaster relief and eventually, scrutiny. 

The Sisters of the North (SOTN) charity officially disbanded this week after two years, with more than $1.3 million donated to north-west Queensland communities and councils.  

Reflecting on the experience, co-founder Susan Dowling said she would do it all again, but had some warnings for others who might find themselves in the same boat during future disasters.

Unexpected beginnings

Ms Dowling, from Round Oak Station south of Cloncurry, remembered the build-up to the monsoonal event, with north-west Queensland enduring scorching heat and drought. 

"We had a 43-day record of over 40 degree heat," Ms Dowling said. 

"Looking back on it, when it did start raining, it was a massive moment of jubilation.

"Then, around day four or five, reality started to set in."

Within 12 days, half-a-million cattle died from drowning or exposure, which led to income losses for surrounding cattle stations and communities. 

"This was their livelihoods, it set them back in some cases two years' worth of income," she said. 

Ms Dowling said Sisters of the North was never supposed to be a charity. 

"We were at a wedding, and a few of the girls thought it would be a good idea to hold a fundraising event for the drought," she said.

"We had called that event Sisters of the North, but when the floods came, we made a GoFundMe page for that instead." 

The page raised $100,000 in four days, then $250,000 within 10 days. 

"We had to suddenly jump through hoops to get ourselves registered as a legal charity to distribute the money that was coming in," Ms Dowling said. 

In a matter of weeks, a board was made up of Susan and Peter Dowling, Hannah and Sos Hacon, Dr Leonie Fromberg, Kelly Shann, and Jane and Anthony McMillian. 

More than $1.3m given to community

In its two-year lifespan, SOTN distributed funds through a series of vouchers that could only be spent in north-west Queensland towns, and community events including balls and rodeos. 

Vouchers took up 70 per cent of the money, 10 per cent went to administration and the remaining 20 per cent to 63 community events.

The vouchers equated to more than $1 million spent, as of September last year.

"Local mine MMG had also donated funds for our operational costs, which gave us a lot of flexibility," Ms Dowling said. 

This month, the charity was left with $15,000, which will remain in the account in caretaker mode.

Although the SOTN charity has disbanded, Ms Dowling said the name was still registered as a campdraft sporting group. 

Advice for other disasters

The Cloncurry Shire consists of more than 2,000 people, and Ms Dowling said the board had felt a change in their social lives. 

"I had to walk down the footpath, and unfortunately I knew what people were saying about me," she said. 

When the charity reached the $1 million mark, there were consistent phone calls demanding where the money was. 

"Unfortunately, it wasn't Tom Cruise," she said. 

"I didn't wake up one morning and think I wanted to start a charity, it just went that way.

"I had to be mentored through some parts of it, go to training, and had to learn legal jargon I had never seen before."

Ms Dowling's advice to other people in the same situation was to get trained, find support, and expect a strain on your personal life.

"I'm not saying I did it all on my own ? the board and locals [who were] part of Sisters of the North are incredible," she said. 

"We just had our final event in Cloncurry, and I fell into bed and just thought 'it's done'.

"If I was asked to do it again, I would say yes in a heartbeat. My husband and kids would probably think otherwise."


© ABC 2021

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