Tim leads strong foundation for change
Tim Diamond isn’t one to spend too much time dwelling on past achievements.
But the general manager of Cotton On Foundation has good reason to pause and reflect after what has been an outstanding year of fundraising which generated $24.7 million in the last financial year.
Every cent of that was poured back into supported projects across the globe – including meals, new schools and water tanks, home schooling packs, PPE, sanitary items, vaccinations and more – during what has been a challenging time due to the pandemic.
Tim places the credit firmly with his dedicated team and, above all else, the Cotton On customers who purchased everyday items such as face masks and tote bags to raise the record sum.
“It’s incredible when you think about one item being sold every two seconds across the globe,” he says.
“We’re not asking for massive donations and we’re not asking for a straight donation.
“You can purchase something you need or want for $3, $4 or $5 where 100 per cent of proceeds go towards making a difference.
“All of our projects, and the fact that I’m even doing this work, is because of the support from our customers.”
Tim’s philanthropic-focused career journey began in 2006 when he was introduced to Cotton On owner Nigel Austin.
The former St Joseph’s College student was working in the sports industry at the time and preparing for the birth of the first of his four sons.
“I’d left Torquay, where I grew up and myself and my wife Celeste were up in Queensland but planning to move back to Geelong,” he recalls.
“I met Nigel through a friend and he was looking to do some community work at the time and he said ‘come and see me about a job’.
“I rocked up on his doorstep, had a chat and he didn’t have anything for me but he said ‘let’s get started on some community work’. Nigel had pretty much just got back from Uganda and he said ‘mate you’ve got to jump on a plane’ so I did and I spent six weeks across in East Africa.”
That first visit to Mannya village – an area rife with HIV/AIDS – was a life-changing experience that continues to motivate Tim to this day.
“I remember walking down past the village in torrential rain – it was like a ghost town, it was very quiet – and I walked up to this mud brick hut.
“I stood in the doorway and my eyes adjusted to the light and I saw there were 30 kids huddled up on the ground, tattered clothing, no shoes on and I realised it was a school.
“They were looking up at this beautiful Ugandan lady, who I later found out was a mother from the village who was their teacher. You could see every single kid looking at her, taking in every single word and I sat down on the dirt floor while all the rain was coming through holes in the tin roof and turning into mud on the floor.
“Terrible conditions, but I was amazed by how connected they were to their teacher and that was my introduction to education there.”
That same day Tim visited the home of 11-year-old student, Paul, which was a simple hut kept in immaculate condition.
“Paul showed me the thatched mat where he slept and he took me outside and showed me the rabbit hutch he had put together which had three little rabbits inside.
“I still remember getting down on my knees and holding his hand saying ‘thank you so much for taking me on this little tour’ and I asked him if I could say thank you to his mother and father.
“He said he had never met his father and his mother had passed away from HIV/AIDS the year before. I was just blown away.”
Tim also came to realise Paul was caring for his younger siblings aged only four and five.
“It dawned on me that this little man, 11 years old, gets up every day, looks after his little brother and sister, keeps the house immaculate, does his chores and then has the resilience and strength to walk three kilometres in the rain to a school that is falling down around him.
“That was the awakening.”
Tim and the foundation got to work addressing need in the village and came back to Australia to share the story.
“It was heartbreaking to realise there were a lot of kids with no parents, one parent or being a child-headed household,” he says.
“But we also realised that if we could support these young people, we could change the tide of poverty very quickly because they are going to come through it as empowered adults and hopefully change things for the future.”
About $140,000 was raised in that first year and much more was to come.
Fast forward to today and Cotton On stores are in 19 countries which has supercharged the foundation’s ability to fundraise.
“We’ve come off the back of raising $24m, we’ve ticked over $130m since we started and we’re now in 26 villages, not only in Uganda but in South Africa and Thailand as well,” Tim says.
Looking back he says Run Geelong, in support of Barwon Health, was another highlight.
“That was such an important moment in our history.
“Again, it’s the power of community, when everyone is on the same page and contributing it can be pretty bloody amazing.”
Tim says the foundation is preparing for a change of direction with an expanded focus on three pillars – equality (equal access to quality education), wellbeing in young people and the environment.
This new focus has already resulted in partnerships with school-focussed youth mental health program LifeChanger Foundation, as well as Strong Brother Strong Sister which mentors and empowers young Aboriginal people.
“We know wellbeing is being threatened through this pandemic so we are asking ourselves what can we do here locally as well,” Tim says.
“That’s where we sought out strong partnerships not only in this area, but across Australia as well.”
The foundation also partnered with UNICEF to provide one million COVID vaccinations to some of the most vulnerable people in the world.
“We need to be able to pivot, not focus just on remote communities and some of the most disadvantaged communities, but we also need to be able to respond to the needs of the world today,” Tim says.
“We are going to make a really strong commitment to a couple of big global causes in the environmental space.
“That’s going to be the new frontier for us whilst we continue to work with disadvantaged communities, we’ll be focusing on larger scale wellbeing and environmental impact programs.
“It’s exciting, it’s going to be an epic opportunity for us to not only engage our team but our customer and raise more funds and do more good.”
Tim acknowledges it has been an incredible journey to date.
“There’s been so many challenging times but also so many amazing moments that stick with you where you think ‘this is unbelievable’ – so many people contributing, our customers contributing in store, our team members being part of it but also importantly the community and the young people. It’s just this amazing mix and it is incredible the power and momentum that creates.”
And, of course, there are the inspiring people like Paul, the young boy Tim met on that first of about 60 trips to Mannya, who is now an accountant living in the city.
“That’s kind of telling the story of thousands of kids who have gone through the system and how it is really changing that whole cycle.”