Q&A Series #29: Interview with Sylvia Bhatia

QCoal Foundation Social Venture approach - GRT Q&A with Sylvia Bhatia

About the guest

Sylvia has applied her extensive for-profit business experience to develop the QCoal Foundation’s social venture approach to philanthropy. This approach is based on identifying community needs, using multi-year philanthropic partnerships to support the development and trial of innovative solutions, and then using a data-based approach to measure the effectiveness of the solution and track real community improvements over time. Building networks, listening, collaborating, and developing long-term partnerships is at the heart of the social venture approach. As the reach of the QCoal Foundation has grown, Sylvia’s commitment to bringing pragmatic philanthropic best practice to the mission of the QCoal Foundation has resulted in increased engagement with philanthropic peers and industry bodies both within Australia and beyond. This engagement has reinforced the importance of using data driven approaches to close the gap between intentions and outcomes and the role of philanthropy as the catalytic wedge to drive systemic change to address some of the most challenging issues for regional and remote communities. 

The topic of discussion: The QCoal Foundation Social Venture approach

The QCoal Foundation applies a social venture approach to achieving its mission to build resilient regional and remote Queensland communities by developing innovative, community-led programs in health, liveability & education.

Their social venture approach is based on identifying community needs, supporting the development and trial of innovative solutions, and capturing data during the trial phase to measure the effectiveness of the solution and track real community improvements over time.

The trial results are then used as the basis to achieve a sustainable operating model to ensure the solution continues to deliver improvements over the long term.

QCoal Foundation initiatives include: 

  • The Retain Program 
  • QCoal Foundation Scholarship
  • RFDS Dental Service 
  • Community Grant Program 

Global Road Technology had the privilege to get insights on the QCoal Foundation Social Venture approach from Sylvia Bhatia, their Chief Executive Officer based in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. 

1. A warm welcome to you Sylvia. It’s great to have you as our GRT Q&A Series guest. Can you tell us more about the QCoal Foundation and what your role as CEO entails? 

Thank you, Keith, it’s wonderful to have an opportunity to share more about the QCoal Foundation.  

The QCoal Foundation is a philanthropic foundation with a focus on enhancing resilience in regional and remote Queensland. The focus of my role is to work with our Board and team to facilitate our programs including our social venture partnerships, our grant program and the QCoal Foundation Scholarship. We do that by really listening to regional communities and identifying the issues that are critical to them, as well as working with existing, past, and potential partners to address those issues.

2. Who are the brains behind QCoal Foundation? What happened in 2011 that led to the establishment of QCoal Foundation and why is there the letter Q and the word Coal combined?

The QCoal Foundation was established in 2011 with the mission to build resilient regional and remote communities by developing innovative, community-led programs that drive sustainable improvements in the areas of health, liveability, and education over the long term.  

The QCoal Group, a privately owned Queensland mining company, is the founding donor of the QCoal Foundation and was integral in its establishment. The desire to support rural and regional communities was driven by QCoal Managing Director Christopher Wallin’s experience living and working in these communities over many years.  

3. In the past decade, what contributions have the QCoal Foundation made towards building resilient regional and remote Queensland communities? Can you please take us through the different components of your social venture model to philanthropy? 

Since 2011 we have contributed to Queensland communities through our social venture partnerships, our scholarship program that supports students from regional communities to attend university, and through our community grant program that has funded over 100 grass-roots community organisations that build resilience in their local communities every day. 

We apply our social venture approach to philanthropy to our major partnerships.  This approach is based on recognising community need, identifying innovative solutions in partnership with community and other not-for-profit groups, supporting those solutions during the trial stage, measuring their effectiveness by gathering data to monitor performance against defined targets and finally achieved sustainable funding outcomes using data from the trial stage to ensure improvements are made over the long term.

The best example of our social venture approach is the RFDS Dental Service.  The RFDS Dental Service was developed as a partnership between QCoal Foundation and the Royal Flying Doctor Service in Queensland with the goal of addressing the chronic lack of oral healthcare in regional and remote communities.  Together we trialled a mobile solution that brought dental care and world-class technology to communities across Queensland.  When we started the service the mobile OPG on board allowed the dental team to take full mouth x-rays and was the only mobile OPG for civilian uses in the southern hemisphere.  Fast forward to today, results from our trial were used to prove the effectiveness of the service and the RFDS Dental Service is now funded by the Australian government and has treated over 15,000 patients in 24 communities.  

Last year, BDO undertook an analysis of the service and showed that not only did individual patients have improved oral health but that for every $1 contributed to the RFDS Dental Service, $1.80 of economic and social benefit was returned to the community.   It’s a great example of the power of the social venture approach and we are very proud of the service and the amazing team from the RFDS.

4. Health, liveability and education are the focus areas of QCoal Foundation. How has a data-driven approach allowed you to iterate your innovative community-led programs? 

QCoal Foundation develops programs in conjunction with communities across Queensland to deliver sustainable improvements over time. We’ve been operating our grant program for over a decade and, while some may feel small grants don’t make big changes, for us the community grant program provides us with hundreds of conversations and a way of engaging with communities across Queensland.  We track this data and build it into our programs to shape our future focus.  

Health, liveability, and education are recurring challenges when we speak with communities, and we know there is a direct link between addressing these challenges and increasing community resilience. Strengthening resilience is about getting the basics right but we know that it’s often necessary to innovate to make a real difference.  We rely on a data-driven approach, especially with our large social venture partnerships, to ensure we are really making long term changes.

5. What are some of the challenges you have faced during this pandemic? How have you remained steadfast and resilient during the very difficult times across the world

The QCoal Foundation has remained consistently committed to our overall approach during the pandemic but we have shifted our focus to supporting our grant partners to adapt and respond, and to taking the opportunity to review several of our social venture partnerships. Our daily operations, while hampered by travel restrictions which have made on-ground engagement much more challenging, have shifted to virtual platforms and our engagement with donors to online updates.

For the first year or two of the pandemic, many of our community partners noted increased need in some areas such as mental health support, domestic violence and homelessness. However many parts of Queensland were fortunately less impacted that other areas of Australia and the world so we have focussed on sustaining our grant partners and responding to their local needs.

6. How important are collaborations and philanthropic partnerships in ensuring measurable and sustainable programs that benefit the regional and remote Queensland communities you work in? 

Collaboration and partnership are central to all that we do. The challenges in regional and remote Queensland need a collaborative approach and that’s why we do considerable due diligence before commencing a new program or initiative. We always want to work with others, avoid duplication and align to community priorities. Our partners are based all over Queensland and we rely on their local expertise and contacts and those of our stakeholders to do our work.

7. The QCoal Foundation Scholarship, Community Grant Program and RFDS Dental Service are some of your ways of giving back to the communities in Queensland. What future do you envisage for regional and remote Queensland? 

The nature of work and life in regional and remote Queensland is changing as is the case all over the world. People are looking for different lifestyles, adjusting the way they work and adopting new technologies. Our vision is to address the imbalance of service delivery and availability between the South East corner of Queensland and the rest of the State and we will continue to contribute to that vision in an evolving society.

Find out more about the QCoal Foundation: https://qcoalfoundation.org/

Keith Nare

Technical Head of Communications for GRT, Keith leads GRT's content strategy across various platforms, whilst coordinating internally to build the voice and opinions of the GRT team. Keith is a product of Nelson Mandela University and his PhD work focuses on Polymer and Physical Chemistry. He was a Research Associate at SANRAL in South Africa and later spent time as a Visiting Research Associate to NTEC at the University of Nottingham in the UK. He is a former Director of Communications for CALROBO in the USA.

Keith is passionate and enthusiastic about health and safety, sustainability, networking and finding synergy through conversations.