Stories in philanthropy

Joining the dots: Lin Bender, AM

“The funding that is given to a service provider is just one part of the equation, and it’s not the most important part,” says Lin Bender. The Helen Macpherson Smith Trust CEO on the importance of looking to the past to determine the future, reframing failure and why the organisation’s open-door policy has become one of her greatest joys.

Lin Bender, AMNicole Richards, May 2018

 

Lin Bender, AM has been at the helm of the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust for almost five years, but the path that brought her there included plenty of twists and turns.

“I saw recently that FYA (Foundation for Young Australians) predicts graduates today will end up having 17 jobs across five sectors,” Bender says. “I’ve had about 19 myself!” she says with a chuckle.

Starting out as a practicing artist, Bender’s love of photography led her to establish a studio and gallery which opened the doors to a career in the arts, beginning as house photographer for Ballet Victoria. Bender spent considerable time in the performing arts, particularly chamber music, going on to manage major events for government, including strategic development for the Melbourne Recital Centre Project.

“In each of my roles, it was always very much about how to build a community of support, how to establish an organisation, how to build gravitas, develop a business model and partnerships,” Bender says. “Fundamentally, everything I’ve done in the past has led to where I am today.”

 

Building. Enabling. Leading.

As CEO of the Melbourne-based Helen Macpherson Smith Trust, Bender oversees a granting program across five program areas: education, community, arts and culture, environment and health.

Bender’s leadership has helped contemporise and sharpen the focus of the Trust, whose benefactor left only the slimmest of instructions in relation to grantmaking: ongoing support for charitable institutions in Victoria.

Since its establishment in 1951, the Trust has distributed more than $113.4 million to the Victorian community, though its remit was recently expanded after a complicated journey to change the provisions of the Will (written in the 1930s). 

“Essentially, the original provisions meant that if an organisation was based in Victoria but had operations outside of the state we couldn’t fund them,” Bender explains. “Following the successful cy pres order in 2015, we can fund a charitable organisation that’s based in Victoria for a charitable purpose in Victoria, regardless of whether they also provide services outside the state.”

Honouring the wishes of the Trust’s creator while remaining effective as a modern philanthropic entity required deep strategic thinking.

“We knew we had to put a strategy in place,” Bender says. “We are a small team and we were overwhelmed with far too many applications.

“One of the first things we did was look at our grantmaking history. You need to look to your history to help define your future. It’s about a continuum, rather than reinventing the wheel. We narrowed our focus areas within our five programs and developed our grants matrix to provide greater clarity to grant seekers and a transparent guide for assessment and decision-making.”

Whereas the Trust previously received roughly 300 funding applications each year, resulting in a funding rate of around 30 per cent, the introduction of the grants matrix has delivered swift efficiencies. Now the Trust receives an average of 130 funding requests that are better aligned with its own priorities, resulting in an approval rate that hovers around 60 per cent.

“We automatically reduced the paper churn which enabled us to introduce an open-door policy that helps us dive deeper into our areas of interest and engage with grantseekers,” Bender says.

“This open-door policy is one of my biggest joys because it enables us to meet with people, to listen and learn, and even though that may not result in funding, it does give us the opportunity to provide advice, join the dots and make connections.”

“Ultimately, we want to build the capacity of our grantees and enable them to be self-empowered so they can take on leadership roles to provide the best service to their beneficiaries.”

The Helen Macpherson Smith Trust’s open-door policy extends to a commitment to transparency, with all 4,500 grants available to view on a grants database.

“I’m a great believer in transparency,” Bender says.

“Given that philanthropy operates in a tax- exempt climate, we have a responsibility to be transparent. Our searchable grants database goes right back to the very first grants the Trust ever made, and our finances are also published on our website. That’s as it should be.”

 

Finding balance

Armed with her own experience working in the non-profit realm, Bender is acutely aware of the power differential that characterises funder and grantee relationships and is determined to do what she can to correct the imbalance.

“The funding that is given to a service provider is just one part of the equation, and it’s not the most important part,” she says.

“A grant has a measurable value, but what the grantee brings to the table is experience, knowledge and implementation, which is at the very least of equal value, and in most cases of greater value. One is impotent without the other.

“It’s about mutual respect. You need to listen and fund with humility. I strongly believe that the solutions come from the service provider, from the community and the funding follows - not the other way around.

“As a funder, we need to stay flexible. We need to stay connected with our grantees and take the journey with them. At HMSTrust we invite our grantees not just to tell us when things are going well, but to talk to us about the challenges and the things that aren’t working.”

When asked about what she considers the biggest challenges facing philanthropy, Bender doesn’t hesitate: “measurement and evaluation”.

“Everyone wants to measure impact, but the problem with impact is that it is unpredictable,” she says. “I would say it’s rare that only one intervention is responsible for a significant social impact yet that’s what everybody’s trying to measure.”

“We need to embrace the concept of failure and to reframe failure as learning. A day doesn’t go by when we’re not learning.

“Nothing’s ever perfect, but as we keep refining, we hopefully get a bit better.”

 

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2017 Highlights and lowlights: 40 philanthropic leaders share their thoughts

 

Image: Lin Bender (centre) on a grantee site visit with Philip Moors AO and Claire Higgins meeting board, staff and community participants at Sisterworks in Abbotsford.

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