After devastating floods ravaged north-west Queensland in February 2019, a group of Cloncurry women created an online fundraiser for a local barbecue. 

Key points:

  • Sisters of the North, set up after the 2019 floods, has disbanded after two years
  • The charity has distributed $1.3 million to north-west communities, councils, and events
  • Co-founder Susan Dowling encourages those starting disaster fundraisers to get training and support

Unexpectedly, the group raised over $1 million, and in a matter of weeks were thrown into the responsibility of charity work, disaster relief and eventually, scrutiny. 

The Sisters of the North (SOTN) charity officially disbanded this week after two years, with more than $1.3 million donated to north-west Queensland communities and councils.  

Reflecting on the experience, co-founder Susan Dowling said she would do it all again, but had some warnings for others who might find themselves in the same boat during future disasters.

Unexpected beginnings

Ms Dowling, from Round Oak Station south of Cloncurry, remembered the build-up to the monsoonal event, with north-west Queensland enduring scorching heat and drought. 

“We had a 43-day record of over 40 degree heat,” Ms Dowling said. 

“Looking back on it, when it did start raining, it was a massive moment of jubilation.

Cattle huddle together in a paddock at Carnwath Station, south of Richmond.

Cattle huddle together in a paddock at Carnwath Station, south of Richmond.(

Supplied: Marty and Camilla Rogers

)

Within 12 days, half-a-million cattle died from drowning or exposure, which led to income losses for surrounding cattle stations and communities. 

Ms Dowling said Sisters of the North was never supposed to be a charity. 

“We were at a wedding, and a few of the girls thought it would be a good idea to hold a fundraising event for the drought,” she said.

“We had called that event Sisters of the North, but when the floods came, we made a GoFundMe page for that instead.” 

Two cattle walk in deep mud in flooded paddock near Richmond in north-west Queensland.

Cows roam a muddy Richmond property amid days of rain and harsh winds.(

Supplied

)

The page raised $100,000 in four days, then $250,000 within 10 days. 

“We had to suddenly jump through hoops to get ourselves registered as a legal charity to distribute the money that was coming in,” Ms Dowling said. 

In a matter of weeks, a board was made up of Susan and Peter Dowling, Hannah and Sos Hacon, Dr Leonie Fromberg, Kelly Shann, and Jane and Anthony McMillian. 

More than $1.3m given to community

In its two-year lifespan, SOTN distributed funds through a series of vouchers that could only be spent in north-west Queensland towns, and community events including balls and rodeos. 

Vouchers took up 70 per cent of the money, 10 per cent went to administration and the remaining 20 per cent to 63 community events.

The vouchers equated to more than $1 million spent, as of September last year.

women holding sisters of the north sign

Board members Susan Dowling and Kylie Warrian with volunteers during a 2019 charity event.(

Supplied: Susan Dowling

)

“Local mine MMG had also donated funds for our operational costs, which gave us a lot of flexibility,” Ms Dowling said. 

This month, the charity was left with $15,000, which will remain in the account in caretaker mode.

Although the SOTN charity has disbanded, Ms Dowling said the name was still registered as a campdraft sporting group. 

Advice for other disasters

The Cloncurry Shire consists of more than 2,000 people, and Ms Dowling said the board had felt a change in their social lives. 

woman standing in outback landscape

Susan Dowling now works with the Western Queensland Primary Health Network.(

Supplied: Susan Dowling

)

When the charity reached the $1 million mark, there were consistent phone calls demanding where the money was. 

“Unfortunately, it wasn’t Tom Cruise,” she said. 

“I didn’t wake up one morning and think I wanted to start a charity, it just went that way.

Ms Dowling’s advice to other people in the same situation was to get trained, find support, and expect a strain on your personal life.

“I’m not saying I did it all on my own — the board and locals [who were] part of Sisters of the North are incredible,” she said. 

family standing in outback landscape

Ms Dowling says the charity was a personal juggle with her family, with husband Peter and children Jack and Jodi. (

Supplied: Susan Dowling

)

“We just had our final event in Cloncurry, and I fell into bed and just thought ‘it’s done’.

“If I was asked to do it again, I would say yes in a heartbeat. My husband and kids would probably think otherwise.”

‘I’d do it again in a heartbeat’: Accidental charity calls it a day after raising $1.3m for outback flood relief
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