Susan Dowling, co-founder of the million-dollar flood response charity, has recently been nominated for Woman of the Year in the Queensland Rural Regional and Remote Women’s Network’s Strong Women in Leadership awards. Here, she reflects on how Sisters of The North came to be.
“A connected community is a resilient community”, has always been the ethos at the heart of Sisters of the North (SOTN), even before it became a registered flood-response charity.
It was at a wedding that the seed was first planted. A group of women were sharing survival stories after suffering through up to seven years of drought, and decided it was time to take some action to lift local spirits. Susan Dowling – co-founder of the organisation – remembers it well.
“We thought, we just need to do something to get … we were planning a ladies-only camp-drafting event where we could all get together, have a pampering and a bit of a luncheon.” They landed on the name ‘Sisters of The North’ without any idea how significant it would soon become to the Cloncurry region.
“Then along came that 43 days of heat (a record-breaking stint of 40+ degree weather), which was just perfect cocktail, it was leading into something and of course, it exploded into the floods,” says Susan (pictured above). In February of 2019, the catastrophic weather event struck North-West Queensland, killing an estimated 600,000 cattle and submerging about 25,000 square kilometres of land.
As the disaster was unfolding, Susan’s husband Peter (now the president of SOTN) was approached at an annual horse sale in Tamworth by a woman named Kelly Shann (a current board member) who was determined to help.
“So, through it all, Kelly and my husband and another lady ended up in this room with an IT expert … I think in 10 minutes, this GoFundMe page was set up,” Susan explains. When the campaign needed a name, Sisters of The North came to Peter’s mind after the event Susan had been planning.
Within 10 days, over $100,000 had been donated and it continued to snowball. “We had to then just get ahead of the momentum and work hard to get ourselves fully registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission to be able to touch the money that had been raised,” Susan says.
Life’s full of curve balls, be it a natural disaster, a death in the family or loss of a job. Whatever it may be, we’ve got to come out of it stronger, we’ve got to be able to learn from our experiences.
Hard work and mountains of paperwork ensued. Peter, who is self-employed, helped to sort out a lot of the legal processes, while Susan the newly-formed board worked to devise a plan to distribute the money to those in need. “We knew we wanted to keep that money locally, just to help stimulate the economy as well … but we had to work out how to pay for the set-up costs, how to distribute the money, and how to get the names and details of the right people, so that’s all on our laps,” says Susan. After applications for funding were assessed, a custom voucher program was created using the mobile numbers of those successful. “We called it the Ping of Hope system,” she explains. “We allocated an amount of money to the recipients and as they came into town they got their first SMS message of confirmation, then they were able to take their mobile phone number into a participating local business that registered with the LiveVoucher program and spend it how they like.” Each week, SOTN would receive a spend report and release the payments to businesses.
To this day, SOTN has raised $1.3 million dollars, with of much those funds being injected straight back into the local economy. The charity has also backed local events such as school camps (in order to keep things normal for kids within the flood impacted communities), barbwire sculpting and creative workshops (as therapy through creativity) and more.
All the while, Susan was still raising her two children and working for the Western Queensland Primary Health Network. “One of the strategies of the Primary Health Network is around mental health, and resilience and wellbeing,” she explains. “So, my CEO saw that, and enabled me to continue working the charity as well as incorporate it into my day job.”
“It’s amazing, when I look back on it and think what we had to do, from scratch, to be even to be able to touch that money. We had to get ourselves set up and then to distribute it safely and it’s pretty wild,” Susan recalls. “For 18 months after the floods all I did was eat, sleep, breathed Sisters of the North, the charity and the flood response and PHN involvement. It was just my key focus, friends but now I feel as if I’ve come out the other side a lot stronger.”
It should come as no surprise then, after her months of tireless work getting the charity of the ground while simultaneously supporting her region through her work with the Primary Health network, that Susan has been nominated for the QRRRN Strong Women in Leadership Woman of the Year award. “You don’t do it for the awards but it’s nice to be recognized,” she says, ever so modestly. “I’m just one person in this story though, I’ve been backed by an amazing board.”