Big-hearted leader, passionate advocate and mentor to many, Genevieve Timmons, who recently received an honorary doctorate from Swinburne University, is one of the most beloved figures in Australian philanthropy.
Genevieve Timmons is the type of person who leans in. Not just in the Sheryl-Sandberg-call-to-action way, but also in the minutiae of the everyday. She physically leans in to every conversation, keen to hear and understand the thoughts of the person she’s speaking with. She leans in to the prickly issues the philanthropic sector might prefer not to tackle. She leans in to the opportunities others might dismiss as inconsequential.
Yet, despite the whirlwind activity her leaning in incites, Genevieve is a grounded force of compassion and kindness. No matter how busy her schedule is, she somehow manages to have time for everybody. She’s quick to offer an encouraging word or a helping hand regardless of whether you sit on the grant maker or grantee side of the funding equation. Nurturing is a big part of her DNA.
On the eve of being awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Swinburne University of Technology for her decades of contribution to philanthropy and social change in Australia, Genevieve Timmons sat down with Philanthropy Australia’s Chief Storyteller, Nicole Richards.
NR - You’re famous for your generosity of spirit. Was that a big part of your upbringing or life experience, or is it simply part of the fabric of your being?
GT - It’s funny because I hadn’t really thought much about it till the last few years. I remember at my 50th birthday one of my brothers gave a lovely speech and said, “When we played Monopoly when we were little, Gen used to always want to get lots of money. One time she said it’s because she wanted to walk down the street and throw it over her shoulder so that other people could have it -and that’s what she ended up being paid to do!”
Growing up, we didn’t have any money, we were broke really, but we didn’t feel poor. There were five in our family, four of us born within three and a half years - no twins.
My earliest memory is living at the back of my grandmother’s house in Preston before we moved to the country, out to Horsham, when I was four. Mum and Dad were always generous in a sense of if you look after everybody that’s how it works. Not largesse generosity but functional generosity - “We’re all in this together”.
I remember my grandmother used to give away her money before pension day because she knew she was going to get another pension. She’d say, “My money’s no good in the bank,” and she’d hand it around, mostly in the family but also with great generosity to others who you’d find she’d bought a new pair of shoes for or given the money to. So, it was an effortless thing for me to just look around and say, “Well, who’s sharing? Of course you are.”
When I spoke at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival a few years ago, things really crystallised for me. I’d heard David Bussau from Opportunity International on the radio talking about the economics of enough and I thought that was such a clever concept.
When you started out, did you have an idea about what your career was going to look like or did you just happen into this space?
I did some social work at university and then a Dip Ed because I thought I’d be a teacher, but while I was waiting for my school placement (which took 18 months) I decided to work short-term in the not-for-profit area.
It was a bit hand to mouth with part-time work, but by the time I’d had three kids I was at CERES which was an eight-acre tip site in Brunswick. That was probably the biggest turning point in a way.
I was the first staff person there and had to get the keys cut and the phone on, get the board organised. I had my second child, this little three-week old baby in a papoose and I worked at CERES for five years as a local Brunswick resident. We got community gardens established and a lot of people poured in the gates in those days to help transform the site which was just a moonscape initially. It took a lot of restoration.
That was where I first met people from trusts and foundations who’d given money to put dams in or to help coordinate the community gardens, setting up the bee hives.
There was a lot of early philanthropy. The first cheque came from the RE Ross Trust for $6,000 and I remember I had it in my top pocket and had to go and start a bank account with it!
I spent five years at CERES and during that time I saw how philanthropy can bring community ideas to life, but I really had no idea what it was all about. After leaving CERES I didn’t know what I was going to do when Jill Reichstein rang me up and said “Are you available? We’ve got a job for 12 months.”
I met Jill and was very impressed with her as a person. So, I said “Alright, I’ll give it a go” even though I was yet to understand what it was all about.
I ended up working at the Reichstein Foundation for 12 years. It was a marvellous time, learning what goes on within philanthropy and watching the sector take shape over a very formative period.
After that, I became a consultant and was fortunate to meet up with colleagues and friends in the New Zealand philanthropy sector. This was another steep learning curve, the philanthropy across The Ditch has a lot to teach us in Australia, and I recommend it to anyone thinking of travelling across.
In 2004 I started at Portland House Foundation as Philanthropic Executive, where I am still now.
Your book, Savvy Giving, was an important text for the sector, published in 2013. How did that come about?
I’d decided to leave Reichstein because I’d realised after ten years that nobody ever leaves these jobs.
When I heard someone say that people who work in trusts and foundations will never have a bad lunch, it was like a spear in my heart! Do people really laugh at all my jokes even if they’re not funny? Yes, probably.
I was so used to being welded to a bucket of money that I didn’t know who I was. It was a really difficult decision, but an important one, to open up creative options for the Reichstein Foundation and for me.
Immediately after I’d made the decision to leave Reichstein, I was asked to speak at a conference in New Zealand for 12 community trusts. They’d never met together before and the PM was coming and they wanted me to speak on the role of trusts and foundations in a civil society.
Then the person running Philanthropy NZ at that time asked me if I’d like to do a strategic plan for them. This was in 2000. So, I ended up doing strategic planning, evaluation, professional development with about six of their trusts and foundations over the course of the next five years. It wasn’t rocket science but it got me thinking: What is a grant making pathway? How do you assess a funding proposal? I realised that the work of giving money away was becoming more deliberate and more of an industry, maturing from random acts of generosity based on well-meaning hunches.
In 2010 Philanthropy NZ published a Grantmaker’s Toolkit – a beautifully designed clip binder with a workshop structure and worksheets. Then in 2011 Australian Communities Foundation said they’d like to commission an Australian version of the Toolkit which I was happy to do, thinking I could just cut and paste some of the material and update it. But the final product was actually a book, because Hardie Grant agreed to publish it, and that took the work to the next stage of development - more dense and challenging journalistically.
Did you enjoy the process of pulling it all together?
Yes. It was hard work, but it helped crystallise the core of information and concepts that have been emerging around philanthropy and social investment practice in the last decade, and some key principles we can all apply in our own unique circumstances.
They are like core precepts if you like, understanding what philanthropy can be for people. It can look very different and it can change, but the core principles are pretty solid.
Even though perhaps some of the core precepts remain the same, philanthropy has changed quite a bit over the years. What do you think philanthropy’s doing right and what still needs to be done?
The first thing for me is that we must remain vigilant about the things we don’t know we don’t know. Because otherwise, with so much change and challenge, we can miss the opportunities for the best impact and return on our philanthropic dollars.
Sometimes we do know, and sometimes we know the questions we should be asking, but sometimes we haven’t got any idea what questions we should be asking and we have to sit in the not-knowing space. And, as long as we’re doing that, great things come into the frame.
In the past, it was easy to get caught up in the glamours of philanthropy, you know, you’re sort of in the bubble of everybody laughing at your jokes and telling you they love your dress, but I think we’re moving away from that more and more.
The more self-aware we are and the more we know we’re not the whole deal, the more we become aware of the fact that there are people and partnerships and connections we need to make our philanthropy work.
All we’ve got really is the money, and the people who will bring it to life for us are the linchpins. If we keep remembering those things and stay self-reflective, then we’ll be open to working with and learning from whoever’s going to spend our money for us. That way we keep moving forward with new and more and better philanthropy.
But, if we think, “Everybody tells me we’re doing great work. We give our money and this is how we do it,” then it’s a closed, set-and-forget system where we’ve stopped learning and are potentially frittering our money away - but people will still make us feel good about it.
Unless we listen more and understand that whoever brings our money to life is our key partner, we’re not going to know the answers.
We need a safe space for not-for-profits to talk about what they need to make our dollars get the best impact. They are the managers of our money, and often know the best way to go about their work, but people don’t want to be badged as having a go at the grantmakers when they raise valuable critique or questions for us to consider.
That’s why I’m passionate that Philanthropy Australia has close connections with not-for-profit members. If we don’t have that voice within our midst, how are we ever going to break out of the bubble? How will we keep discovering the things we don’t know we don’t know?
What else would you like to see more or less of?
I’d love to see more acceptance of common guiding principles and collaboration in philanthropy, like that group of men who’ve said they will only publicly join boards where there is a gender balance – that is a courageous and practical step.
The more you say that, the more obvious it is that it’s a positive step against a negative and I think we in philanthropy, are capable of stating the cases like that and the guiding principles around things like working with Indigenous Australia.
We can’t have second or third-hand representation anymore. If we’re not creating places for Aboriginal people to give their position and take their place as leaders – and I know this is very critical - but we’re just like the missionaries. We can have a roomful of people talking about Indigenous issues and yet not have one Aboriginal person in there. We’ve got to stop doing that.
What I want to see more of is an ability to keep people moving along the continuum of where the most effective role for philanthropy is. If we understand how to do that, we accept everything and challenge it to keep moving forward.
You’re a fierce champion for nonprofits. What are your thoughts about the 50,000+ charities in Australia and the funding pressures they face? Is there a case for consolidation?
I do feel protective of the not-for-profits and I believe that it’s a free market like everything else. Nobody goes down to Bourke St and says, “All you shoe shops should be working together,” do they? If they’re no good, they go out of business.
I think the ACNC has really sharpened up and refined our understanding of the sector. I don’t know why you would treat the not-for-profit sector any differently to a corporate sector, in that if people want to have a go setting up a charity, why not?
There are magnificent capabilities in the not-for-profit world and I believe in its leadership having acumen and vision. If we can accelerate their progress, it’s about asking all the right questions so that we know where they’re headed and we can invest in their risk taking. If people want to do social enterprise, why not? Give it a crack!
I’m a big fan of “let all the flowers bloom”. And you know, I’ve only ever come across a couple of not-for-profits in all my time that I would say are wasting theirs and everybody else’s time, and they fizzled out soon enough.
How do you feel about receiving your Honorary Doctorate?
I was speechless. I just keep pinching myself!
It took me quite a while to absorb the significance of it. At first, I was uncomfortable at being the centre of attention, but now I’m deeply delighted for several reasons.
One, I think it elevates the sense of recognition for philanthropy and it’s great to say, “This sector has matured enough to recognise the value of people’s work, at a time when philanthropy is emerging as a field of practice and a profession.”
Second, by recognising my work, there is recognition for everyone I have worked with and been supported by along the way – hundreds of people. I could not have achieved anything if I sat in a room for thirty-five years on my own, so it’s a celebration of many.
And, most importantly, Swinburne is leading as a university with this award, building on their own research and teaching of social investment and philanthropy, and promoting the message that philanthropy can become part of any contemporary academic achievement, which is important for their students and staff.
What’s the last mountain for you to climb? What’s left for you to do?
My most immediate thought is to lift as I climb. I want to be a good elder. I want to stop doing all the things that I don’t need to be doing, that someone else can do, and I have to find the places that are of value for me to be active in.
Being on boards, I’ve learnt a lot about influence and how we need to plan big, work hard and be persistent with leadership and the ideas we believe matter. The work of leadership and wisdom and having the long view – we have responsibilities that come with that. That’s why I cannot tell you how grateful I am to be on the Philanthropy Australia Board, working with Alan, Sarah and our board members as we keep moving forward and transforming our philanthropy sector – something that’s very powerful and important in Australia today and across the world.
Genevieve Timmons has worked in the Australian philanthropic sector since the 1980s and is the author of Savvy Giving: the Art and Science of Philanthropy. She is a Philanthropy Australia Council Member and Philanthropic Executive at Portland House Foundation.