9. Aleksei

Aleksei has been part of our crew at gigs, festivals, pubs and parties since our days as carefree uni students. He’s always been determined, enthusiastic and engaged, but, chatting over coffee at the social enterprise he now co-directs, I was blown away by his unwavering dedication to this passion project. 14 years after I first met him, gigs, festivals, pubs and parties are still a big part of his life, but these days he connects them with something bigger. Not only are Aleksei and his team creating opportunities for people to party with purpose, they’ve built a community around the concept.

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“When I was playing in a band, I’d jump at the opportunity to play a fundraiser. My band mate and I wanted to make some kind of positive impact with our music, but we weren’t sure how. So, when someone posed an opportunity, we’d go for it. It was the same when I worked in street press. If we could shine a light on a local charity gig, we’d try to do it.

I always wanted to do something more and I could see how rallying the support of people who want to do good, could make it all possible. So, when the chance to start Co-Ground presented itself, it was a no-brainer.

It all began when Cyclone Pam tore through Vanuatu in 2015. I pulled together a fundraiser (Melbourne for Vanuatu- Party Against Pam) at the Toff in Town with now co-directors, Andrew Mellody and Nikkie Precel. Nikki and I were working in media at the time so were able to use our connections to create some hype. We managed to secure some big acts like Tripod, The Cactus Channel and Kylie Auldist who helped put on a massive show and raise quite a lot of money.

But, when it came time to donate, many of the aid organisations we wanted to support had redirected their resources from Vanuatu to Nepal, which had just been hit by a devastating earthquake.

It was important to us that the funds went to the aid effort in Vanuatu. Not only had we told our supporters that’s where their money was going, but my co-director Andrew actually had family and friends there when the cyclone hit. They were forced to take shelter in a cave for a few days and with no access to radio, there was no way of confirming they were okay. This made it even more important for us to ensure any funds raised got to where they needed to go— to the communities that were affected.

So, after the fundraiser, Andrew and Nikki decided to visit Vanuatu to determine where we could have the greatest impact. We owed that to the community, to our supporters and to each other. They set up a partnership with Sara Primary School on Epi Island which services numerous local villages. The original fundraising efforts enabled us to help rebuild and cyclone proof the school.

At that point, we hadn’t thought beyond that initial donation. But, we’d had such an amazing time fundraising, we’d met incredible people who wanted to chip in and make a difference in their own unique way and we’d created a partnership on the ground. We didn’t want to just dump the money and run.

While the community were getting back on their feet, we knew there would be a lot of residual impact. So, we made the decision to establish what is now Co-Ground. The name encompasses everything we stand for— community, cohesion and collaboration, grounded at the grassroots level.

We work in unison with our partners in Vanuatu— we don’t go there and tell them what to do. The community comes to us, outlines what they would like to do and we work together to determine if it’s feasible and sustainable. We actually have a Co-Ground team in Vanuatu now — it was set up by a group of community leaders and they host their own local fundraisers for the school. It’s an empowering collaboration.

The whole idea around Co-Ground is to do what you love— drink coffee, go to shows— but integrate it with something bigger than all of us, something that makes a tangible difference.

We’re not re-inventing the wheel, we’re just adding to everyday experiences by making sure that 100% of profits go to education and development projects for kids who need them, or to communities that want the opportunity to improve their lives.

Since that first event at the Toff, we’ve held multiple fundraisers — gigs, parties and crowdfunding — and all of our events are accessible, they’ve all been under $20. We’ve also got our first social enterprise, Co-Ground Coffee, off the ground and 100% of our profits from these initiatives goes right back into our partnership projects.

We’re volunteer led and our diverse and talented team has grown from three to 30. There are so many people with so many amazing skills who want to help but may not have the time or nous to find the right opportunity, so we’re not afraid to ask.  There’s always some way you can contribute—no matter how small— it all makes a real difference.

We’ve been really lucky, but we’ve also been incredibly dedicated and confident in our approach. We invite people, artists, media and organisations to get on board and become part of the Co-Ground story. Rodrigo who served us coffee earlier, he’s a volunteer. We have volunteer lawyers, a volunteer accountant, musicians who play at our gigs and friends who spend a few hours every week pouring coffee here at Co-Ground Coffee.

They’re all absolute legends and they’re hungry to make this a success.

We’ve also set up partnerships with suppliers. 5 Senses provide us with all of our high quality coffee, La Marzocco donated our amazing coffee machine and we have great deals with the rest of our suppliers. Pace of Collingwood have allowed us to set up our mobile cafe here on their premises, they pay for all of our bills as well as paying Todd Nicholls, our Social Enterprise Development Manager to manage our volunteers. Our network also extends to organisations like the YMCA who have previously provided us with office space and coaching and representatives from organisations such as the Oaktree Foundation and Russell Kennedy Lawyers who have helped guide us with their support and advice.

Co-Ground is still in its infancy, but we’ve already been able to show the impact of our work. Every time we have a party, we are completely transparent with how much money we raise and how it will make a difference in someone’s life. From the minute someone opens their wallet to buy an event ticket or a coffee, the impact is tracked and felt by supporters— from buying a bag of cement in Vanuatu, to that cement being mixed and laid down on foundations. Showing people their social impact is incredibly rewarding.

Receiving the Jetstar Flying Grant recently will enable us to nail our five year plan sooner as we expand into the Philippines this year. We’re currently in the process of determining how we can best work with some worthy grass roots organisations there. It’s an exciting time for us.

In Vanuatu, we’re working on our next development project at Sara Primary School which is a community library. In time, we’d also like to help the local community launch their own social enterprises.

Co-Ground isn’t ours. It’s everyone’s if they want it to be, and that’s what it’s all about. At the end of the day, we want people to continue enjoying the Co-Ground experience — supporting our events, making a Co-Ground Coffee pit-stop and contributing to our story.

We want to enable people to make a difference with what they do day-to-day… that’s the dream right?”

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