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September 30, 2022

A principled approach to working with First Nations peoples

As a non-Indigenous organisation, SVA has leaned on existing First Nations led and developed guides to improve our service delivery, designing a set of First Nations Practice Principles striving to create positive impact for First Nations organisations and communities.

SVA has a vision of a reconciled Australia, in which substantive rights and opportunities are guaranteed for all Australians. We are fortunate to have been a trusted partner to First Nations organisations and communities throughout SVA’s 20 years, working towards achieving that vision.

However, Australia has a long history of failed policy and practice in ensuring those rights and opportunities are shared with our First Nations peoples, and SVA is not immune to those failures. SVA has not been successful in recruiting and retaining First Nations staff to reflect the work we do in the First Nations space and we are very aware of the need for First Nations people to be leading any work which affects First Nations people. This is not good enough and we will continue to do better. As a non-Indigenous organisation, therefore, it is our responsibility to hold ourselves to the highest level of accountability. We need to ensure our work is doing no harm while creating a positive impact and strengthening the cultural safety for our First Nations staff and peoples we work with.

…we hope too that they may influence other organisations, specifically non-Indigenous organisations, seeking to build effective partnerships with First Nations peoples.

With this in mind, we have defined what we mean by ‘better practice’ when engaging with First Nations peoples. In this article, we share our First Nations Practice Principles (‘the Principles’), why and how they were developed, and through case studies show how the Principles have been applied. Importantly, we are committed to sharing our learning journey as we gain experience in applying the Principles.

Illustration of the 5 principles: Self determination, Recognise diversity, Respectful relationships, Real partnership, and Trauma aware.

The purpose of the Principles

The intent of the Principles is to enable SVA to act as a genuine ally, and work alongside First Nations partners towards better outcomes for First Nations people and communities. There are three key purposes that have driven SVA to develop and adopt the Principles:​

  1. To provide SVA staff with a conceptual basis as well as practical, actionable guidance in how to appropriately engage with First Nations communities and organisations
  2. To embed a high standard of practice into the work that SVA does with First Nations people, to hold ourselves responsible and accountable to that practice and push our non-Indigenous clients and partners to do more impactful work
  3. To create a tool to help communicate our approach and values to clients and partners, in particular First Nations and government clients.

In sharing these Principles, we hope too that they may influence other organisations, specifically non-Indigenous organisations, seeking to build effective partnerships with First Nations peoples.

“We owe it to our First Nations staff, partners, clients and stakeholders to be guided by better practice in this space.”

“This is an important tool to provide guidance to an organisation like ours. SVA is not a First Nations-led organisation and this tool helps guide us to be responsible and respectful allies,” says Suzie Riddell, CEO SVA. “We work in partnership with others to help support better outcomes for First Nations people and communities. We owe it to our First Nations staff, partners, clients and stakeholders to be guided by better practice in this space.”

How the Principles were developed

There are many frameworks that have been developed by and with First Nations peoples that provide standards of best practice. The Principles were developed with reference to these frameworks, advice from partners and further research. Importantly, the Principles incorporate lessons from SVA’s own experience, including that of our Aboriginal team members. We have drawn from  over 300 engagements with First Nations beneficiaries over 20 years of SVA’s work, and from the First Nations partners and organisations with which we work.

Key points of reference for the Principles included:

  • The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)
  • The Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) Code of Ethics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research
  • The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Ethical conduct in research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and communities (2018)
  • Other widely used, and respected guidelines for research, evaluation and community engagement.1

The work was synthesised into a set of principles, presented below. But the Principles are not a static document. Rather, they are a dynamic representation of current First Nations practice standards that our team, leadership and Board are accountable to. As such they are maintained on our website, where they will be updated as we learn and develop as an ally.

Not only was it important to be guided by First Nations people in the development of the Principles but also in how they were visually communicated. SVA engaged Saltwater People to apply First Nations’ cultural lens and knowledge into the framework through visual and graphic design. Utilising a storytelling approach, each of the Principles communicates a feeling of Country.

SVA’s First Nations Practice Principles

In our work with First Nations peoples, communities and organisations, and work that affects them, SVA aspires to uphold these five Principles as a positive step towards better practices

Principle 1: Self-determination

Feeling from Country: Desert

Illustrates people coming together and making decisions for themselves. This is about all First Nations people, working together towards self-determination.

SVA recognises and supports First Nations peoples’ right to control over their own lives, consistent with UNDRIP. Embedding self-determination through our work means centring First Nations peoples’ voices in project design, planning and governance; supporting the free pursuit of social, cultural and economic development; supporting their autonomy over intellectual property and affairs; and developing individual and organisational capabilities.

Principle 2: Recognise diversity

Feeling from Country: Stone Country

Represents the diverse nations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It reflects the formations found on stone Country, echoing the different language groups and cultures of First Nations peoples.

SVA respects and deeply values the cultures of First Nations peoples, acknowledges their unique cultures and histories, and ensures our work is informed and framed by them by respectfully incorporating these elements into our work. We acknowledge that First Nations peoples are experts in their own lives, and that no work should be conducted about them, without them.

Principle 3 - Rainforest motifPrinciple 3: Respectful relationships

Feeling from Country: Rainforest

Rainforests are dependent on the reciprocal relationships that exist within the ecosystem. Everything works together, respectfully.

As a non-Indigenous organisation working in the First Nations space, SVA is deeply committed to ensuring we are respectful and authentic when engaging with First Nations peoples. We meaningfully engage with First Nations peoples to ensure their priorities, values, perspectives and voices inform the work. We are sure to obtain free, prior and informed consent for our work, ensuring sufficient time for engagement whilst being respectful of local cultural protocols.

Saltwater motif: Principle 4Principle 4: Real partnership

Feeling from Country: Freshwater

Represents how freshwater moves, pushing towards a larger body of water. This movement reflects how currents work in an ensemble to bring powerful consequences, both good and bad.

Real partnerships should mean reciprocal benefit, value and learning for First Nations peoples and being accountable for the impact that our work has on First Nations peoples. It’s important to be upfront about potential benefits and unintended consequences, acknowledging and addressing community needs, seeking to embed capacity building opportunities, and ensuring the benefits are proportionate to expectations of participation.

Water motif - Principle 5Principle 5: Trauma aware

Feeling from Country: Saltwater

Saltwater Country is recognised by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people for its healing qualities. This theme references the experience of being near saltwater, and the cultural significance of its healing properties for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.

SVA recognises the trauma experienced by First Nations peoples, often as a result of the ongoing impacts of colonisation and use appropriate trauma informed practices. This means we look to minimise the risk of re-traumatisation to First Nations peoples through our work. We embed cultural safety by providing positive and emotionally safe experiences, and implement culturally-specific practices.

How are the Principles applied in practice?

Originally, the Principles were developed to meet a need in our Consulting team. On average, around 30% of consulting projects are in the First Nations space; working directly with First Nations clients or where the primary or secondary beneficiary are First Nations people. We are on a journey of embedding the Principles across all of SVA, adapting them to our diverse business but this is ongoing and will take time. Here we provide some case studies of how the Principles have been applied by our Consulting team, organised with reference to the project cycle from proposal to project close.

Deciding whether to bid for work

The Principles are useful in deciding whether we participate in any given project.

SVA determined that the objectives and scope could not support respectful engagement with Aboriginal people.

SVA was invited to submit a proposal to participate in developing an Aboriginal economic development strategy connected to an on-shore gas project. Applying the Principles as a screening tool, according to Principle 1: Self-Determination and Principle 3: Respectful relationships, we established there was a clear missing component to effectively guide the project. There was no genuine consultation proposed with local Aboriginal people in the area affected.

SVA determined that the objectives and scope could not support respectful engagement with Aboriginal people. We made a decision not to submit and provided feedback on the proposed scope indicating where we felt the scope was lacking. The feedback included:

“We believe an Aboriginal Economic Development Strategy for [the region] needs to be grounded in the aspirations and priorities of Traditional Owners and Aboriginal people living there. Without a respectful and authentic engagement process with Aboriginal people, a supplier would be presupposing local support for [the project].”

Therefore, we used the Principles as a tool not only to determine whether we proceed with work, but also to respectfully have open conversations with potential clients, with the hope of influencing their scope.

Deciding whether to partner

The Principles are also helpful in informing when it is appropriate for SVA to form partnerships with First Nations businesses and community services when considering work in the First Nations space, and what form those partnerships take (i.e. who will be the project lead and where are the opportunities for an exchange of knowledge).  

In 2018, the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA), a state-wide Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisation (ACCO) supporting children, young people, families, and community members, approached SVA about a possible partnership. The opportunity was to develop a new family centred model to better support Aboriginal families with complex needs engaged, or at risk of engaging, in the justice system.

VACCA identified that they had certain consulting-related skills gaps in meeting the project requirements. Through the partnership, SVA could bring these skills and compliment VACCA’s existing skillset to deliver a family centred model. When considering the partnership, through applying Principle 1: Self-determination, it was clear that VACCA would be a good agency to conduct the work. Applying Principle 4: Real partnerships, informed the nature of the partnership, ensuring there was a clear understanding of roles, strengths and opportunities to grow for both parties.

Once the project was underway, acting in a supporting role to VACCA’s team, we were able to build their internal capability by sharing our approach to project management, problem solving and service design, and to develop tools that can be embedded in their work well after the project concluded. The Principles reinforced the importance of investing in long term relationship building.

SVA recognised we had no legitimacy to conduct the work without an appropriate First Nations partner.

Separately, in 2019, the Children’s Court of Victoria commissioned an independent evaluation to assess the performance of the Marram-Ngala Ganbu program – a Koori Hearing Day at the Children’s Court in Broadmeadows, Victoria – against its stated aims, and build the evidence base to support the future expansion of the program.

SVA recognised we had no legitimacy to conduct the work without an appropriate First Nations partner. So, we approached Professor Kerry Arabena, a proud Meriam woman, with deep relevant expertise who could provide First Nations strategic direction (Principle 4: Real partnerships).

Applying the Principles in the project planning

The court setting at the Marram-Ngala Ganbu program features multiple physical and verbal acknowledgements of culture such as this possum-skin cloak and coolamon, all of which were identified as critical to cultural safety by participants interviewed for the evaluation.

Reviewing a pilot program such as Marram-Ngala Ganbu with the potential for such significant change for First Nations people and their experiences in family court, we needed to apply self-determining principles. Therefore, in the project planning we prioritised the voice of Koori families, and the perspectives of the Koori team in how we described its purpose and functions (Principle 1: Self-determination, Principle 2: Recognise diversity and Principle 3: Respectful relationships).

Due to the sensitivities of the work, we also applied a trauma-informed approach to conducting interviews, ensuring they were led by First Nations interviewers with trauma awareness and training as well as ethics approval (Principle 5: Trauma aware).

Applying the Principles in project delivery

Over the past six years SVA has led a number of related projects on the lands of the Anindilyakwa people, in the Groote Archipelago, located around 630 kilometres east of Darwin in the Northern Territory. The GEMCO manganese mine has been operating on Groote since 1965, but the mine is now due to close within the decade.

It is important for Traditional Owners to plan for a future after mining. Our work on Groote has focused on understanding and documenting Traditional Owners’ vision and priorities and supporting the structures that can secure a leadership role for Traditional Owners in planning and preparation for closure. We have also supported various initiatives, such as the establishment of a Community Justice Group, that have been intended to secure other social, cultural and economic outcomes in parallel with the mine closure process.

Over six consecutive years working on Groote Eylandt, we have developed strong knowledge of Anindilyakwa land, history and culture…

In our most recent project working with Traditional Owners on their vision for the future of Groote after mine closure, the work was purely focused on supporting self-determination (Principle 1: Self-determination) through understanding the needs and priorities of Traditional Owners. We wanted to hear what Traditional Owners want life and the economy to be like on Groote Eylandt when the mine is closed and land is handed back.

Establishment of a Community Justice Group is intended to secure other social, cultural and economic outcomes in parallel with the mine closure process.

Over six consecutive years working on Groote Eylandt, we have developed strong knowledge of Anindilyakwa land, history and culture (Principle 2: Recognise diversity) that has been very valuable in contextualising mine closure for people

The relationships that we have built allowed us to drive our engagement at many different levels (Principle 3: Respectful relationships), through organisations’ boards, but also in community, with individuals and families. We worked hard to share back what we heard from people and find ways to enable Anindilyakwa to own their story, creating value in the process for them (Principle 4: Real partnership). This included in how we presented back the information and the commitment of regular visits reinforcing messages we heard and testing them back with stakeholders of Groote Eylandt, specifically their Traditional Owners.

“Our collaboration is a great example of the role of non-Indigenous businesses, enterprises and not-for-profits in genuinely supporting the self-determination of our people…”

We delivered this project in partnership with Guumali, a First Nations consultancy business based in the NT, which played a vital role in project delivery and ensured fidelity to our Practice Principles.

Entrepreneur Sorrell Ashby, Guumali’s Founder and Managing Director, says she is super proud of the work we did together on Groote Eylandt.

“I am humbled by the team’s willingness to listen, learn and value the expertise and experience that Guumali brought to the table equally as their experience and expertise in mining closure. I am hopeful that whilst it is still early we have the foundations there – a shared vision and shared principles to guide us.

“Our collaboration is a great example of the role of non-Indigenous businesses, enterprises and not-for-profits in genuinely supporting the self-determination of our people, entrepreneurs and communities and the growth of the Indigenous business sector.”

Applying the Principles in the project review

We reviewed the Marram-Ngala Ganbu project once it was completed. Some of our key takeaways were that we only had such insightful material to use from families because the interviews were led by First Nations people with the appropriate skills and experiences. Also, we understood that the project planning and ethics approval process, although time intensive, were critical to the project’s success.

The evaluation found the program is providing a more effective, culturally appropriate and just response for Koori families through an adapted court process, that enables greater participation by family members and more culturally-informed decision-making. (See also A step towards First Nations justice in child protection)

How have we used the Principles to guide our other work?

The Principles were first applied within the consulting business with a commitment to expand across other business areas in the organisation. Although it’s early days, some examples of where we are applying the Principles are developing a screening tool to ensure impact investment opportunities provide positive outcomes for First Nations peoples. We are also applying them in looking at how we can bridge a relationship gap between philanthropy and First Nations, allowing the opportunity for First Nations organisations, businesses, community services and maybe even government to take a new approach to funding.

Our Marketing team has used the Principles to guide working relationships, not only with myself as the First Nations Practice Lead, but importantly with external First Nations experts in graphic and digital design. The design of our Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) was led by First Nations creative agency, Saltwater People. Purchasing the artwork for the RAP was a considered journey undertaken with the artist, Cyril Whoulter and his art centre, Martumili Artists. This ensured we used the work appropriately through a suitable licencing agreement, complied with the Indigenous Art Code, and were able to confidently promote the work and tell their story.

The Principles have also guided SVA in responding to two public submissions to the Australian Government. The Indigenous Evaluation Strategy (IES) provides a whole-of-government framework for Australian Government agencies to use when selecting, planning, conducting and using evaluations of policies and programs affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The voice to Parliament for the Uluru Statement from the Heart was another opportunity to participate and be guided by our Principles.

… it was important to take instruction from First Nations academics in how we frame our responses supporting self-determination…

In 2021, the Australian Government at the time provided an opportunity for public submissions responding to an ‘Indigenous Voice – Discussion Paper’. SVA participated in this opportunity and employed instructions by the Uluru Dialogue team, recognising and supporting First Nations peoples right to self-determination.

In both cases, almost all aspects of the Principles were applied, for example with the Indigenous Voice – Discussion Paper it was important to take instruction from First Nations academics in how we frame our responses supporting self-determination; we recognised the diversity in listening to the majority of First Nations groups who designed the Uluru statement; we respected the relationship between our organisation as a non-Indigenous organisation and the Uluru Dialogue team; we formed an ongoing partnership with the Uluru Dialogue team through committing to advocate for the voice to Parliament; and we are committed to do it all in a way that does not create further trauma for First Nations people. If the Principles hadn’t been developed, SVA would not be in the position to provide advice, to support the needs of First Nations people and advocate as an ally.

Ongoing learnings about applying the Principles

Developing and implementing a set of Practice Principles is the way to achieve best practice working in this space. While the content and context for each of the Principles are from a First Nations lens they are implemented in a non-Indigenous organisation, so in practice the delivery can be tricky.  There would be more natural culturally safety and respectful delivery if there were more First Nations employees, however – at the time of writing this article – SVA only had two employees who identify as First Nations. Therefore, there will continue to be moments where the application of the Principles are difficult.

They will require appropriate training to even scratch the surface of being able to deliver the work when this Principle is needed.

An example of this is applying Principle 5: Trauma aware, where SVA is required to recognise the trauma experienced by First Nations people and apply relevant trauma frameworks to guide our work. The large majority of SVA people would have no understanding of how to approach this. They will require appropriate training to even scratch the surface of being able to deliver the work when this Principle is needed.

Another example is applying Principle 2: Recognise diversity by valuing the cultures of First Nations people, acknowledging their unique histories, and ensuring our work is framed by them. To do this properly, we need to invest more time and resources into planning projects, service delivery and changing the structure of how we do business and enforce this on to First Nations people.

As we continue to apply the Principles when considering work, and in the project planning and delivery, it is also important to apply them when we review the work. For example, project close surveys should be developed to consistently elicit feedback with a cultural lens.

More broadly, we could be making better progress in implementing the Principles in other service delivery areas outside of our consultancy business as well as internal facing parts of the organisation.

In conclusion

There are many complexities in navigating the right approach as a non-Indigenous organisation providing a service which affects First Nations people and their communities. In implementing the Principles, we have been able to achieve better practice. They do not give us the authority to do the work, but provide direction for how to work with First Nations people. The Principles guide us as an ally while protecting the rights of First Nations peoples.

There is an enormous strength and empowerment that is immediate when First Nations people are provided with what is their right, the opportunity to lead change for them by them.

Across all sectors – business, social sector or government – any work that interacts with First Nations peoples has the opportunity to create positive impact, or risk perpetuating the injustices of the past. Being intentional about our engagement has been transformational; we encourage other organisations to develop their own approaches, building off the lessons of the past and guidance of First Nations peoples.

There is an enormous strength and empowerment that is immediate when First Nations people are provided with what is their right, the opportunity to lead change for them by them.

I write this article as a proud Gurindji and Ngalakan Aboriginal man, my title as First Nations Practice Lead with SVA will always be a secondary identity to me and my communities. Developing and implementing First Nations Practice Principles is just one positive step towards allowing me to walk and work between two worlds in a culturally safe and respectful way and lead positive outcomes for my mob. My hope is to see more organisations, corporations, businesses take the step to allow all First Nations people to do the same.

For more information contact

Saltwater People

Saltwater People is an Indigenous-owned, full-service creative agency that delivers strategic design communications and cross-cultural engagement. They provide expertise in remote project delivery, Indigenous storytelling and visual communication.

Sorrell Ashby, Guumali

Entrepeneur Sorrell Ashby is Founder and Managing Director of Guumali, a social enterprise working to support Indigenous self-determination. Based in Darwin and working with clients across Australia the business provides a unique blend of cultural competence, strategic capability, extensive networks, and project management.

Cyril Whoulter  and Martumili Artists

Cyril Whyoulter’s mother’s and Father’s country is Jartuti. He is the grandson of senior artists Bugai Whyoulter and Pinyirr (dec.). Cyril grew up in Parnngurr and Punmu communities. He now lives with his wife and children between Perth and Newman.

Martumili Artists was established by Martu people living in the communities of Parnpajinya (Newman), Jigalong, Parnngurr, Punmu, Kunawarritji, Irrungadji and Warralong, and it draws on strong influences of aboriginal art history. The artists and their families are the traditional custodians of vast stretches of the Great Sandy, Little Sandy and Gibson Deserts as well as the Karlamilyi (Rudall River) area.

Uluru Dialogue

The Uluru Dialogue is a group of First Nations and non-Indigenous community leaders, law scholars and advocates based at the UNSW Indigenous Law Centre, that run education programs and projects to advance the work of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Professor Megan Davis is a co-chair for the Uluru Dialogue.


1. Other points of reference include: Lowitja Institute’s Evaluation Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health (Kelaher et al, 2018); Kaupapa Māori’s evaluation principles (Cram, 2009);’s Ethical Framework for Indigenous Evaluation (2019); American Indian Higher Education Consortium’s Indigenous Evaluation Framework (LaFrance et al, 2018); PM&C’s Indigenous Advancement Strategy Evaluation Framework (2018); The Mental Health Coordinating Council​’s Working Collaboratively with Australia’s First Nations People (Henderson et al, 2020); and Working Together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Wellbeing Principles and Practice (Dudgeon et al, 2014)

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