Ideas for a brighter future for all

Storytelling is the key to delivering ethical Indigenous financial services

For thousands of years Indigenous communities have used storytelling as a governance tool to gain clarity on ethical dilemmas. Elders know the power of stories to communicate morals, understanding, and lore which carries cultural significance. When we hear a powerful story it engages our empathy, our humanitythis is important for ethical decision-making. Without empathic insight we run the risk of seeing people as less than human. In finance there is the potential to see people as numbersnumbers which can be manipulated to generate a profit. A deficit in ethical decision-making was seen in the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services. Culturally there have been problems in Australian finance since 1893 

High pressure sales tactics used

One substantial deficit highlighted in the Commission was the service provided to Indigenous customers, particularly those in rural and remote areas. Indigenous finance customers spoke of being “disgusted” and “used and used, and used,” at the way they, and Community Elders, were sold funeral insurance they could not use. Finance staff had been incentivised to use high pressure sales tactics on some of the most vulnerable in the community. Indigenous teenagers were targeted for payday loans, which places them in a debt cycle before they are 20 years old.  

There was one organisation in the Commission which bucked the trend: QSuper (now Australian Retirement Trust).

QSuper were viewed as exemplars in providing superannuation to Indigenous customers.  As researchers we wanted to know how and why QSuper were different, so we explored the organisation’s day-to-day operations to see how they ‘walked the talk,’ rather than ‘talked the talk.’ 

What we found was staff throughout the organisation tell stories about how they engage with Indigenous customers, Indigenous counsellors, Elders, suppliers, and each other. While there were some heart-warming stories of customers being reunited with their, or a deceased loved ones, super they were not blind to the barriers Indigenous customers face.

This storytelling approach started in 2014 when QSuper visited Lockhart River and their awareness of the barriers customer’s face was heightened.  On returning from the trip, QSuper’s Head of Technical Advice, Lyn Melcer, returned from the trip with a powerful story, some of which was captured when she testified at the Commission: 

"…having difficulties meeting our rules on identification. Driver’s licenses don’t exist, passports don’t exist… I thought we treated all our customers equally because we had exactly the same rules for everyone. What Lockhart River showed me is not everyone starts in the same place."
Australian money
A human-centred approach

Melcer credits storytelling with engaging QSuper’s board, saying: “I never talk about statistics only, I talk about stories, the human side because if you hear human stories there is no way you cannot not want to act.” Indigenous communities are well aware of the power of stories as a truthtelling tool,  which engages both the left and right side of the brain: processes and emotion.

When staff at all levels of QSuper’s hierarchy spoke of their customers a human-centred approach was evident; they perpetually asked two questions: what is the right thing to do by the customer? and how would I feel if this was my mother/uncle/brother? This empathic questioning, aligned with the storytelling, helps to guide staff in tilling the soil of the organisation’s ethical infrastructure. From director to frontline workers, all spoke of the QSuper being different to other finance organisations, one of those differences being they use customer’s names, while other’s use numbers. 

Real life stories are shared as part of QSuper’s continual learning process. One coach relayed a story they share with staff:

"We changed our procedure for him [dying customer] because he was financially illiterate, he could not fill in forms. Our outreach person worked with the social worker to interview the doctor so we could pay his claim. This is what you need to be doing, not treat people as though one size fits all.."
Changing the culture of financial services

Hearing these stories has changed the organisation. Staff now go out to remote areas to serve and to learnthey return with powerful stories. On these visits staff experiences some of the challenges their customers experience first-hand, such as limited phone coverage, internet access, medical practitioners, and other support services. These stories  led to championing for an adjustment to the law on non-conventional forms of identification for Indigenous customers.  This legal change not only benefits Indigenous customers, but people experiencing domestic violence, refugees, and bushfire victims too. 

Another group benefiting from QSuper’s increased moral capacity is migrant customers. One Indigenous Team Leader spoke of how their staff’s deeper understanding of Indigenous customers has led to this improved service. This Team Leader spoke of the importance of not assuming people who have English as a second language are “dumb because they’re not. They’re very intelligent people. If you go into a conversation with an Indigenous person, with respect of their history, their culture, and who they are, you will achieve a lot together.” 

Ethical finance
Implementing storytelling as ethical service

The learnings from QSuper’s Indigenous customer service approach can benefit other finance organisations as well as other industries struggling to ethically walk side-by-side with their Indigenous members. The three key behaviours which QSuper directors role-model, setting the tone for the rest of the organisation to ethically serve Indigenous customers include: 

  1. Storytelling this involves ongoing listening to vulnerable customers telling their story, staff members relaying the barriers they have observed, as well as the joy of connecting people with their finance. It also involves appropriately sharing stories so action can taken. 
  2. Asking empathic questions: “What is the right thing to do by the customer?” and “How would I feel if this was my mother?” 
  3. Inclusive practice: go out to remote and rural areas to see what the reality is on the ground. There are some things that cannot be learnt sitting in a tall building in a capital city. Before going out to remote Communities QSuper engages with Elders knowing there are unknown knowns they need to be made aware of. This moral awareness helps to meaningfully engage and maintain a long-term community relationship.  

Cultural change to increase moral capacity is not instaneous. A one-off cultural training exercise is not enough. QSuper presented a document to the Commission with 100 different Indigenous activities they had been engaged in since 2014, a Reconciliation Action was just one of these actions.  


Dr Clare BurnsDr Clare JM Burns is a lecturer in management teaching and researching values-based leadership, corporate sustainability, and strategy and often exploring organisational culture, ethics, and Indigenous finance.  Prior to undertaking PhD studies Clare worked in corporate communications, management, and organisational development for government, multinationals, and not-for profits. For the past 30 years Clare has been a volunteer working with some of the most marginalised people in Australia and overseas, including Africa in a war zone.

Clare is a non-executive director for Rosies Friends on the Street. 


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