Case study: Building regenerative communities through the Now-Future-How model

How we’re enabling communities to lead their own disaster response systems and development through the Now-Future-How model.

The background

In the wake of increasing bushfires, floods and other disaster events, it’s critical for community members to reimagine their communities.

For over a decade, we’ve supported communities to determine their own futures and strengthen their resilience in the face of big challenges like mental health and disaster.

Recently, we’ve been working in Clarence Valley in NSW, one of the many communities in Australia devastated by the 2019-2020 bushfire season, to better understand how we can help communities build holistic resilience. 

Together with Monash University, the Paul Ramsay Foundation (PRF) and Boston Consulting Group (BCG), and a small group of community change-makers, we explored new ways of self-organising around strengths and mobilising towards desired futures.

Our approach

In our work, communities told us that First Nations voices were not listened to, and that the community itself did not have a voice. They were frustrated with grants funding, and a lack of community inclusion. There was a call from the disaster response sector to better understand the ‘how’ of working with disaster-affected communities.

From conversations with people who had experienced the 2019/20 bushfires firsthand, we understood that only a very particular kind of support would be genuinely helpful. 

In response, we developed and tested the Now-Future-How model over 24 weeks in Clarence Valley in partnership with Monash University and the Fire to Flourish program, funded by PRF and Metal Manufacturers Limited (MM). 

The aim of the model is to highlight how Australia could choose to respond to the compounding disasters communities face by surfacing First Nations wisdom, self-determination, place-based change and regenerative futures.

As part of the model, we developed a combination of principles: 

  • Foregrounding Aboriginal Wisdom

  • Community-led

  • Healing

  • Holistic

  • Imagination and hope


The model also consists of a number of interacting elements that wrap around a small group of community members to catalyse the conditions for them to lead their own change. These include:

  • Cultural safety practices

  • Circle of co-designers and convening's

  • Storywork and yarning with a purpose

  • Capability building

  • Network learning

  • Holistic resilience planning

  • Participatory granting

What is Now-Future-How?


This first stage asks, “What was?” and “What is? 

In the Now phase, we used storywork (Archibald et al, 2019) and yarning with a purpose (Charles, 2019) to help co-designers make sense of their past, strengths, challenges and the opportunities for change that are ahead of them.


The Future phase generates a vision for transformation by asking “What if?” and “What could be?”.

This transitioned the process away from the current state and into imagining, and invited co-designers to picture potential collective futures.

Participants engaged with collective imagination and story through activities like imagining what-ifs, backcasting, and seeding the ideas garden. Out of this phase, they finalised stories for change and an ecosystem of ideas began to emerge, along with the beginnings of their shared vision for change.


In the How phase, we explored how we could get there by crafting ideas to action and investing in the future.

Clarence Valley co-designers were supported to cultivate ideas for profound change that they could put forward for funding. This included short-term and long-term ideas from their initial garden of ideas.

The co-designers shared their ideas at a harvest presentation event with the broader program team and funder, then they reconvened to co-decide how to allocate their funding through a structured decision-making process.

The insights

Community members opted into the Now-Future-How process and stayed with it as they realised the power of grounding resilience-building activities in values, mindsets and ways of being.

Through the process, they shifted their understanding of the community and its potential, and developed over 30 ideas for systemic change across emergency responses and national resilience-building activities. 

We learnt:

  • We can support communities to build cultural awareness and cultural safety

  • Connection to Country could be the first step to building resilience;

  • Combining resilience planning with participatory granting activities avoids the letdown of planning without granting, and wasting grants due to a lack of planning;

  • We can discover and support a greater diversity of leaders to collectively lead community-focused work, without burdening existing over-committed leaders. This process strengthens the resilience and capacity of local leadership;

  • Working alongside communities supports them to lead their own change, rather than parachuting in and ‘doing to’;

  • With the right support, communities experiencing multiple inequities (like Clarence Valley) can lead their own change;

  • Community members have great insight into the complex systems that shape what they experience on the ground.

Meet Cate, one of our Clarence Valley co-designers

“You don't often get to do something really big, because not only are we doing something together in the Clarence Valley, but we're taking on an endeavour that's a big change in thinking of how money is distributed, how grants are made – but it's more than money. 

It's about the creative thought processes and working together, and the ideas that blossomed through each other. Someone would come up with an idea and people would add to it – that notion of co-designing means that as a group of people together, we designed a garden of ideas.”

What’s next?

Participatory granting is the big innovation

Participatory granting is an umbrella term that encompasses a range of philanthropy models that aim to re-balance power (Evans, 2015). It emerged as an alternative to traditional granting where decisions are typically top-down outside of the community.

Collective decision making happens when community members decide how funds are distributed in their community. In participatory granting, decision-making is passed to the people most impacted by the funding, which can include the applicants themselves. 

This opens new ways to build agency, trust, transparency and accountability within the granting process, and can increase the impact of funding in the community (Dr Toby Lowe, CPI, Northumbria University 2019, 2020; Gibson, 2018).

Making top-down decisions can:

  • Entrench inequity: Conditional funding can create and amplify gaps in support (e.g. trauma-affected community members can miss out on funding due to time restrictions or rules around where the money can be sent to).

  • Inhibit self-determination: Top-down decision-making perpetuates paternalistic systems.

  • Restrict access: By limiting participation to certain kinds of legal entities.

  • Promote local competition over collective thinking and action: Applicants compete for allocations, submit individual projects and have no vision of other submissions (Gibson, 2017; Gibson, 2018; Wairimu et al., 2019).

Participatory granting looks like:

  • Building the foundations and capabilities for collective decision-making, including trust and respect

  • Devolving decision-making from facilitators and funders by building trusting, collaborative relationships;

  • Creating moments of decision-making throughout the phases and wearing two hats (applicants and decision-makers);

  • Prioritising collaborative projects based on shared visions and seeing the ideas as an ecosystem.

It doesn’t mean:

  • Expecting community members to run participatory granting activities without support

  • Funders, facilitators and the program team have the decision-making powers

To do participatory granting well, we must:

  • Identify priorities and refine a shared vision for resilience

  • Acknowledge different decision-making styles and create the opportunity for co-designers to plan the decision-making process together;

  • Have a clearly structured advice process, and time for the group to practise it;

  • Present ideas in a range of ways and in multiple rounds to refine ideas throughout the process;

  • Consider different process requirements for different application sizes;

  • Recommend a pool of assured funding for co-designer’s individual projects and then a pool for collective projects to support existing work.

Diagram of the cultural learning journey

Our impact

Cultural learning, reconciliation and foregrounding Aboriginal wisdom has played a key role throughout this work.

This diagram illustrates the Clarence Valley co-designers’ cultural learning journey from learning about lands and local custodians to deep reflection and taking action as allies.

It became more than Acknowledging Country – they grew a deep connection to Country and a commitment to the ongoing learning journey that all non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander allies are on.

Talk to us about how we can bring community led co-design and the Now-Future-Now model to your next project.

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