John Cunningham AOM 

Board Member & Inaugural CEO

"Being part of the Graham Polly Farmer Foundation’s journey has enriched my life beyond measure.”

John Cunningham was the inaugural Chief Executive Officer of the Graham (Polly) Farmer Foundation from 1994 to 2008 and is currently a valued board member.

After retiring from Argyle Diamonds in 1994, John joined Fred Chaney and Ron Edwards to help establish the Foundation and he served as CEO for nearly 15 years.

John was instrumental in bringing on board key people and partners, many of whom continue today to support the Foundation and its work in empowering young Aboriginal people.

John's recollections of starting the Foundation

After I retired from Argyle Diamonds in 1994, Fred Chaney, a family friend, asked me if I would be interested in helping to establish a Foundation to assist young Aboriginal people. I believed that Aboriginal people had received a rotten deal since white people came into their country over 200 hundred years ago. And that something had to be done. I truly believed that with support Aboriginal people could have healthier and more involved lives.

At this stage the Foundation hadn’t been legally constituted. Mallesons were doing some pro-bono work and Arthur Anderson was arranging to get us a small grant from DEETYA. We were really just a bunch of ‘do gooders’ looking for a way to assist young Aboriginal people. 

In that very first year, we thought we’d give awards of $500 to the top four Aboriginal TEE students in WA. I contacted the Department of Education who told us there were no Aboriginal students in WA who had completed their TEE that year.

This was a huge shock to us but it focused our minds. Until then we had thought that sport was the area in which we would probably be more involved, but education was to become our major focus from then on.

May O’Brien, who was involved in many Aboriginal organisations and indigenous education issues, said to me: “If you want to look at indigenous education you need to talk to Mark Simpson at Pundulmurra College”. With Hamersley Iron’s help we organised a meeting in South Hedland. I remember it well. The room was packed. The interest from industry and education people was immediate. Hamersley agreed to get involved and also agreed to pay for a research proposal. The first Polly Farmer project, “Gumala Mirnuwarni” (Coming Together to Learn), was born.

As a direct result of this meeting, Mark Simpson went to work for Hamersley Iron and we were offered 50% of his time to help establish the project. We couldn’t have done it without him. Woodside and Dampier Salt came on board, and the WA Education Department agreed to commit to 50% of the costs of a school teacher who would work full time on the project.

The model we were developing was based on providing an after-school program for indigenous secondary school students who wanted to achieve and to finish high school. The Foundation’s role was to manage the project through a local steering committee and to raise funds and basically to provide the glue to hold everything together if and when it was needed. Other important findings to come out of our research were, not surprisingly, that Aboriginal people wanted their children to get a good education, good jobs, retain their culture, and stay local.

After nearly fifteen years of the most satisfying and enjoyable period of my working life, I retired for the second time at the end of 2008 and handed over the reins to Neil Jarvis (second CEO) and Douglas Mitchell (Program Manager).

Working in the not-for-profit sector has been an amazing experience. I have met so many wonderful and generous people; people who have a genuine commitment to improve the outcomes for our hundreds of Aboriginal students across Australia.