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Posted on in Cultural Health - Articles
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Working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Organisations.

I am often asked to speak, or write about advice for non-Aboriginal people who are going to be working with Aboriginal organisations, usually on a consultancy basis.

For the most part, when people ask me this, they are expecting a list. A series of “do’s” and “don’ts” they can carry with them as a reference to keep them out of trouble. 


There are some documents available that provide a general point of departure, (link here) and (here) however there is no definitive list.  This is because Aboriginal communities are different from one another, Aboriginal culture includes many different “mobs”, places and languages, and historical circumstances have differed for all these groups changing the ways that communication strategies and political protocols have evolved.

Nonetheless, through twenty-five years of working and living in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, I have established a number of prinicples for working that are effective, inclusive and lead to successful outcomes for both the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation and the funding or legislative body working with them, and for me.


These are the Principles


It is essential to actively establish mutual respect

It is essential to establish mutual respect between client and consultants in any context, however the need to be proactive in relation to this goal is essential when working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community controlled organisations often work on a set of values and principles that differ from those of mainstream organisations, particularly in relation to priorities, and these differences must be learned and respected at the local level.  This process of learning can take time and requires a steadfast commitment from the consulting group to invest the time necessary to listen carefully to the organisation’s own values and priorities rather than providing advice based on pre-determined frameworks that may not be appropriate in the local context.

Mutual respect results from this sharing of goals, values and priorities in an open and honest way.


  • Frameworks need to be developed collaboratively.

Once issues, priorities and values are understood, frameworks can be built co-operatively with the organisation that will sustain improved outcomes according to both community values and priorities and the requirements of accountability.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations are strongly committed to meeting legislative requirements, however they will aim to do so without compromising collectivist values and community principles. It is in negotiating this terrain that experienced consultants can be useful and effective.


  • Local protocols will be learned on an ongoing basis

While there are lists of protocols for working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations available (such as mentioned above) and these are useful as a point of departure, protocols are established locally and are embedded in relationships between individuals and the place they are living or working; kinship relationships and obligations; family alliances; personal histories in relation to knowledge and experience and multiple memberships across different organisations and Boards.

It is important to listen carefully throughout the course of a project and learn how individuals are placed within the community and within the organisations. Through careful listening and observation, the consultant becomes more effectively able to demonstrate appropriate manners, build trust and respect and therefore support and influence change.


The best advice that was ever given to me, was provided twenty-five years ago. That advice was this:

“Karen – shut up and listen”.  Not something “White people” are good at, but I have learned.


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