Few Australian funders have made a visionary bet as big and bold as the Poola Foundation which wrapped up its operations in 2016. Founders Eve Kantor and Mark Wootton share the story of their philanthropic journey.
Founders of the Poola Foundation, Eve Kantor and Mark Wootton, aren’t ones to shy away from hard work. Their endeavours, philanthropic or otherwise, tend to be characterised by maximum effort. On the day we speak, they’ve been hard at work on their 3000-plus hectare family farm in western Victoria which integrates livestock production and agroforestry with environmental sustainability.
“We’ve worked independently all our lives,” Mark says. “We’d seen wealth do a lot of damage, particularly to people who haven’t earnt the money themselves.”
“We decided not to rely on inherited wealth,” Eve says, picking up the theme.
“When people do that, it can become how they identify themselves and their cheque book comes between themselves and the work they do. We want our kids to value the money they earn and not have that value diluted by having a big inheritance. Also, there’s a lot of non-financial benefits in being part of the workforce.”
“We’d rather be defined by what we achieve in our own lives and what our children achieve rather than what they’ve inherited,” Mark adds.
“We’re not really part of the philanthropy set – we just don’t gravitate towards that. Sometimes philanthropists live a luxurious lifestyle, talking about helping the poor while their gold jewellery jangles. We’re not right and they’re not wrong – just different.”
Point of difference
Eve and Mark established the Poola Foundation in 1992 after Eve received an endowment from her extended family.
Poola is the phonetic spelling of the currency used in Botswana where the couple had taught for two years in the early 90s.
“Poola also means rain and fertility and gift, so as we were sitting in the lawyer’s office trying to come up with a name, we thought that was a pretty good fit,” Mark explains.
From the outset, the couple’s intention was to grant well but spend down, rather than grow, the endowment. The Stegley Foundation, one of Australia’s earliest examples of a limited life foundation, was an inspiration.
“We weren’t interested in becoming professional philanthropists,” Eve says. “We were both school teachers and farmers at the time.”
When the Poola Foundation wound up its operations after 24 years in 2016, the Foundation and its offshoot, the Tom Kantor Fund, had disbursed more than $50 million.
“Our priorities and focus areas evolved over the years,” Eve explains. “We started more broadly than we ended. In the first 12 years or so, we focused on anti-nuclear, social justice and environmental issues, treating them at times separately but often in combination.”
“We stuck with some important but tough issues which enjoyed little philanthropic or government support. They didn’t all bear fruit, but some came in with heavy crops."
“We were the initial and continuing core funder, along with my mother Anne Kantor, of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which began in Melbourne in 2007 and now has 468 partner organisations in 101 countries," Eve says.
"Just this month, October 2017, ICAN was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their pivotal work in the UN adopting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Two absolutely incredible achievements.”
One of the other big bets the Poola Foundation made during its time as a philanthropic funder was setting up The Climate Institute, an independent policy think-tank.
“By 2005, climate change had emerged as a huge problem which, more than most, needed to be attacked with a bang not a whimper,” Mark says. “We could see that if it wasn’t addressed urgently, there was little value in funding any other issues.”
Recognising the value in flagging not just the environmental effects of climate change but cross-sector impacts too, Eve and Mark contributed five years’ worth of operational funding to get The Climate Institute on its feet.
“In terms of structure, we wanted a lean fit-for-purpose organisation that could act quickly,” Mark explains.
A bipartisan board was established that included CSIRO scientists, politicians, business people and strong strategic thinkers with knowledge of the political landscape. Mark chaired the board for 12 years.
“The Climate Institute's intended impact, by necessity, was ambitious,” Eve says. “It was inspired by the urgency and scale of action required. There was a need for an authoritative expert voice that could speak not only to the risks and threats to Australia from inaction, but also to the opportunities that would arise from early action.”
The Climate Institute counted ground-breaking research, cross-sectoral strategic partnerships, positive policy outcomes and improved regulatory frameworks among its achievements, but the organisation was forced to close its doors in June 2017 after failing to secure ongoing core funding.
“In the end, we just couldn’t raise enough money to continue as we were,” Mark says simply. “Other players had entered the space and we’d always wanted to pass on the legacy so after a rigorous EOI process we passed on the IP and some remaining funds to The Australia Institute.”
Though others might feel dismayed by the closure of an institute they’d helped establish, Mark is philosophical.
“Honestly, I feel relieved,” he says. “It was 12 years of my life. I had a heart operation last year and the thing is you only know your capacity when you go past it. Everyone has a use-by date.
"I felt very proud of what we’d achieved. When we started in 2005 there was no one there, it was just a vacuum. I’d argue from a philanthropic point of view that it was a very successful story because sometimes success isn’t just about what you’ve achieved, but the detrimental effects you’ve stopped. That’s a difficult model to translate, but often with advocacy when you lose less, you win.”
Throughout it all, neither Eve nor Mark sought the spotlight, but both recognised the potential benefits of going public with their giving.
“I think the most compelling way to get people to give is to say, ‘I’d like you to give to this cause and I’m backing it too,’” Mark says.
Eve agrees but adds a caution. “It’s been a debate in our extended family,” she says (Eve’s uncle is media mogul Rupert Murdoch).
“One theory is that if you put your name to a project or organisation you’ll inspire people to give – that it’s a personal type of connection. But, in other ways, as we’ve seen happen, that can actually put people off. They can think there’s no need to give because that area is already covered by the person who’s got their name on the project. It’s an interesting discussion.”
Lessons and legacy
Climate change isn’t a cause area inundated with philanthropic support. Estimates from the US suggest it attracts less than two per cent of all philanthropic funding and the figure isn’t thought to be much higher here in Australia.
While the headlines about climate change aren’t exactly heart-warming, Eve and Mark are undeterred.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunity to do a lot more than others have,” Eve says. “We count ourselves lucky.”
“If we’d have known then what we know now about climate change we would’ve focused even more on it,” Mark says in hindsight. “If anything, we would’ve gone harder.”
“Every philanthropist should have a sizeable chunk of their money in whatever sector they’re funding, whether that’s the arts or medicine, going towards climate change because it’s all going to be affected. If you’re not protecting that funding, you’re devaluing what you do.
“I don’t talk anymore about whether or not you believe in climate science. If you want religion, go to church. This is not about belief. At some point, you will be accountable to your children’s children.”
“I hope that we’ve done the best that we could’ve done. To be honest, we’ve got four kids and that’s our legacy – trying to make our world a safer climate than it was when we started.”
The Poola Foundation: Eve Kantor and Mark Wootton share lessons learned
1 - Limit your funding to one or two areas of interest and do them really well.
2 - Don’t set up an onerous administration process for you or the funded organisations. Having open applications and unsolicited requests for money can open floodgates which are hard to close. Some people are good at writing grant applications, but not doing the actual job. Putting your ear to the ground about good operators around one or two issues is worth the effort.
3 - Once you have done your research, be prepared to take some risks.
4 - Develop relationships with organisations and individuals you trust, but don’t let them become too dependent on your funding. Be aware that organisations change and be observant of their possibly shifting capacities.
5 - Be aware of the value of supporting work on the most important issues, even if they are not prominent in the immediate political/media spaces.
6 - Core support is vital to sustain organisations and people long enough to make a difference on big and difficult challenges.
7 - Sustained support that allows organisations to stick with it, be persistent, learn and get experience and build momentum and capacity and provide some security so they can focus maximally on the work is enormously valuable.
8 - Don’t worry about an organisation being small. Is it an important issue, do they have a vision and a plan, are they good people who work well together, are they team players with good networks, are more important than size.