27 November 2023

The grassroots group that has been fighting for community service providers for three decades

| Keeli Royle
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women at cake-cutting ceremony for community group

Life members, board members and CEO Nicky Sloan cutting the 30th anniversary cake. Photos: Keeli Royle.

Formed from community providers’ fear of speaking out because of the risk of being defunded, the peak body that fights for improvements on behalf of some of the region’s most critical and vulnerable sectors is celebrating three decades of service around the Illawarra with continued commitment from a dedicated board and growing group of staff.

Community Industry Group started small as a band of people from the sector looking to form an independent body to represent the needs of local non-government community service organisations and advocate to key stakeholders.

Board member and treasurer Danna Nelse was there from the beginning.

“It was back when I was studying community services at Shellharbour TAFE, the Welfare Certificate, and I was on placement with Lynne Dooley,” Danna said. “She said, ‘I’ve got to go to this meeting, you can come along’.

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“I actually took the minutes of those first meetings and I just stayed involved ever since.”

She clearly remembers what was at stake for many providers.

“What was happening at that time, Virginia Chadwick was on the front-page newspaper article, and she was the Minister for Community Services in New South Wales and I’ll never forget it,” Danna said.

”Basically, it said if the News South Wales government funds you and you speak out against us, we will defund you.

“That’s when the group thought that we need that voice for the community so that individual services couldn’t be targeted.”

woman holding reports

Danna Nelse is the longest-serving board member and took the minutes at the first meetings.

Although the group’s purpose and drive have stayed the same, it has made many changes throughout the past 30 years, including the name, the number of staff, the area covered, improved technology and finding a permanent home.

“It’s expanded a lot, taken on a lot more activities. I love the way the board is really representative of its members,” Danna said.

”Way back then, it was the neighbourhood centres that drove the Community Industry Group, or Illawarra Forum back then.”

And for more than a decade, members have been led by CEO Nicky Sloan.

“For something that grew up out of the grassroots with no money and just sheer goodwill and hard work from community workers, for it still to be standing today and actually thriving I think is amazing,” Nicky said.

She was hesitant to take over the position and only applied due to a little push by the outgoing manager, who had been running the organisation for many years, but she has never looked back.

“I certainly didn’t feel worthy of the job when I got it and in many ways don’t feel worthy of it today but super proud to be able to stand up for the sector,” Nicky said.

”It’s always an honour to be able to stand up and represent the sector and represent the disadvantaged communities, and I’m so grateful for the members for the trust they put in me.”

community group documents

Community Industry Group has changed names and logos over the years but its mission has remained.

And she hasn’t been doing it all by herself, with many of the board members, who are all volunteers, dedicating years of their time outside of their jobs to the organisation.

“I don’t think we should be paid, I think that’s what we give back to the sector,” Danna said.

“I learn so much, it’s like professional development for me. You get information first-hand and make those networks and connections.”

Together they have kept a watchful eye on industries such as aged care, disability support, housing, homelessness and social services at a time when few regional peak bodies remain.

“I always say we’re like the meerkat,” Nicky said.

“There’s always one meerkat with their head up looking around and seeing what dangers are out there and what opportunities are coming.

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“Our sector are down there with their heads down working really hard and we’re out scouting for danger.”

And Nicky hopes they’re able to continue being that meerkat until there’s a day when they’re no longer required.

“I want to see our organisation go on and continue to advocate until hopefully one day there is no need to advocate anymore,” she said.

“The end goal would be that community sectors were funded well and respected and able to do their job and communities are thriving.

“Until that happens, I hope that this organisation is here to stand up for them.”

To find out more about Community Industry Group, visit its website.

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