Next-gen philanthropist Este Darin-Cooper shares light bulb moments from her giving journey which have not only informed her philanthropy, but shaped her professional career.
Nicole Richards, November 2017
If next-generation philanthropy is typified by action, engagement and deep-seated purpose, Este Darin-Cooper is a shining example of what’s to come.
Not only is the grant making practiced by the Darin-Cooper Foundation strategic and deeply personal, but with each passing year, philanthropy has come to play an increasingly bigger role in Este’s life.
After graduating from the University of Melbourne with a Bachelor of Engineering (Electrical)/Law with first class honours in both, Este found herself on the “law travelator” before realising she wanted to align her professional skills with her personal passions.
“I got on the law travelator for a few years and forgot to get off!” she says with a laugh. “After a few years, I decided the work wasn’t as fulfilling as I’d hoped and I needed to take my skills somewhere where I could have more impact and add more value."
After a stint in the public sector, Este worked as a consultant for Social Ventures Australia before joining the team to head up SVA’s venture philanthropy arm which has the twin goals of supporting philanthropists to give more effectively and empowering ventures to deliver social impact and systemic change.
The valuable interplay between the personal and the professional has yielded many insights and is a powerful driver of purpose Este says.
“The next generation of change makers strongly believe in the importance of philanthropy,” she says. “They recognise that the philanthropic dollar remains incredibly powerful in its role to support innovation and risk when backing initiatives that wouldn’t otherwise attract funding.”
Este Darin-Cooper’s philanthropic instincts kicked in at a young age, sparked by a long-standing love of the arts.
“My whole giving journey got started with a realisation about the power of storytelling,” Este reflects.
“I remember seeing a production of Death of a Salesman and being quite emotionally affected by it which made me appreciate the incredible power of storytelling and forced me to see the world in a new light. That was the first spark.
“The second spark was meeting other young people in the New Gen program who’d already started on their giving journey, and drawing energy and confidence from them. They helped me realise that philanthropy doesn’t have to be complicated—just dive in and take action,” Este says.
“You don’t have to be perfect, you’ve just got to get started.”
“Each philanthropist is unique and needs to be true to themselves,” Este adds.
“While it’s important to be intelligent, think it through and bring some level of rigour to your giving by being informed by your head, you also have to follow your heart.”
Since its establishment three years ago, the Darin Cooper Foundation has focussed its support on the arts and education.
“When we started giving, our support was based on existing relationships and giving amounts here and there,” Este explains.
“Early on, we kept our focus intentionally broad, but we’ve refocussed a little bit and realised that the motivation that’s really been our giving all along is ensuring that everyone living in Australia has an opportunity to thrive and enjoy life and experience personal fulfillment. And for us, we look to address that through the arts and education.”
“Ensuring that Australian art reflects the diversity of the Australian community is something that’s really important to me,” Este continues. “And I think that goes back to my belief in the power of storytelling to build understanding not just of others, but also of ourselves.
“In a time when our community is increasingly segmented and divided, art can build bridges and break down barriers. It can be an avenue for all voices and stories to be heard.”
Despite practicing what she calls a “relational rather than transactional” form of giving that relies upon personal connections, Este says the Darin Cooper Foundation tends to channel its support to organisations where it sees the opportunity for outsized impact. Still, relationships are key.
“One of the most important things I’ve learnt is acknowledging the power dynamic that exists in a grantee relationship and the need to be very intentional and careful as a funder to ensure that’s not unintentionally exploited in any way," Este says.
“That’s also led to a really deep appreciation of the knowledge and strengths of the organisations we support and we try to draw and be guided by those.
“There can be a tendency in philanthropy to come at it from a point of, ‘This is the impact we want to have’, but it’s important to realise that the knowledge about how to achieve that impact lies within the organisation doing the work. Philanthropy is just the enabler and supporter of that work.”
After asking many questions of the organisations the Foundation supports and listening closely to the answers, the Darin Cooper Foundation is a keen supporter of capacity building.
“One of the key things we’ve realised over time is that we achieve big impact from funding organisations to build capacity in the long term.
"I think capacity building is probably the most important thing a philanthropist can do. By providing untied funding, you’re empowering the organisation to do what it does best.”
Another realisation in the impact equation was the Foundation’s capacity to use all its resources to support positive social change.
“It was a light bulb moment when we realised that all the capital sitting behind our foundation can also have an impact,” Este says of the Foundation’s early forays into impact investing.
“It also ensures our investments are aligned with our values.”
Consistent with the prevailing attitudes of her peers, Este believes that philanthropy goes beyond financial support.
“There are so many roles where you can add value,” she says.
“We recently realised that one of our biggest roles is to be an advocate for the organisations we’re supporting and spreading the word about the great work they’re doing. When you give that commitment of time and energy to an organisation, you’re really showing that you’ve got their back.”
Este Darin Cooper’s most valuable lessons learned in philanthropy (so far):
1 - Educate yourself: listen not just to other philanthropists but to the organisations and communities you’re trying to support.
2 - Just do it: Don’t be afraid of making mistakes and don’t be afraid to start before you think you’re ‘ready’.
3 - Be intentional: Know why you’re doing what you’re doing. Be honest and transparent with yourself.
4 - Don’t overdo the impact assessment: Make sure it’s valuable but don’t overcomplicate it. Keep your giving as simple as it can be for the organisation you’re funding.
Read more about Philanthropy Australia's Next Generation of Giving program.
Additional images courtesy of Beyond Empathy.