Stories in philanthropy

Never assume, never presume: Sylvia Admans

The R E Ross Trust CEO reflects with characteristic frankness on almost two decades’ worth of philanthropic experience before she steps down in January 2018.

Nicole Richards, December 2107

 

Sylvia Admans will be the first to tell you that she didn’t plan a career in philanthropy. It was a bit of an accident, albeit a happy one.

Admans was working for the Federal Government in 1999, when then Prime Minister John Howard established the first Prime Minister’s Community Business Partnership, and Admans landed a secondment to the peak body, Philanthropy Australia.  

“I stumbled into philanthropy,” Admans admits cheerily. “I was interested in it from the beginning but knew nothing about it. I’ve always had a natural sense of enquiry, and here was the opportunity to learn something new and different, so I took it!”

By the time the year was up, Admans was hooked.

“During those 12 months I discovered this wonderful, wonderful world where people were doing good and each foundation had the ability to figure out what was the best approach for them. After having worked in government with so many pre-determined processes, this was entirely liberating! I’d done grant making in government back in the 90s, and had also worked for local government as a public librarian, so I had reasonable sense of the community and the challenges in accessing services.”

Next came a role at ANZ Trustees where Admans managed charitable services, before she joined the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal (FRRR) as CEO in 2001.

“I knew that was where I wanted to be,” Admans says definitively. “My first task was to find a home for FRRR and that was Bendigo, so it was a bit like setting it up from the beginning.”

After a decade at FRRR, Admans’ curiosity propelled her forward again.

“When the R E Ross Trust role came up, I thought, ‘There you go—you’ve worked for a peak body, you’ve worked for a corporate trustee, you’ve worked for a government-initiated foundation, here’s the chance to work at a private endowed foundation.’”

After 19 years in philanthropy, Admans is preparing to retire. When she steps down from her role at the Ross Trust in January 2018, the sector will lose a much-treasured leader—one who is accessible yet engaged in the goings on of the sector, ever curious, forthright but encouraging. When Sylvia Admans was in your corner, you knew you could rely on her support through thick and thin.

 

Persistence

Though she’d never say it herself, Admans is a change maker, always questioning and pushing boundaries in an unassuming way.

“I certainly don’t see myself as a change maker,” she says predictably.

“What I’ve learned about myself in my latter years is that I’m quite persistent and that’s something you need to be in this sector because it takes a long time to effect change.

“The other thing I’ve learned is how formative your growing up years are on your whole life. For me, it’s part of my upbringing growing up in rural Australian in the 1960s in a family where my mother was widowed quite suddenly and had to raise five little girls on her own. That meant you grew up quite quickly and if you wanted something, you had to do it for yourself.

“It was a really good upbringing and it’s stayed with me and formed who I am today, but sometimes it means that I don’t have any filters. I say what I think and perhaps that’s not always the best thing!”

Even still, when asked if there was anything she do differently in philanthropy if she had her time over, Admans says it would be to speak up even more.

“I probably would like to be more assertive and more logical and less wanting to please,” she says.

“When you sit in these roles and you’re supporting a whole decision-making process and you’re mounting coherent arguments, if you’re naturally a people pleaser you can end up doing less.

“Sometimes it’s easy to get intimidated in this sector because you’re dealing with a lot of high profile, powerful people. How do you sit in that space and assert yourself and have your voice heard in a certain way? Sometimes I still go back and think, ‘God, I’m still that kid from the country.’”

That’s a revelation that will likely come as a surprise to most people who’ve worked with Admans who has practiced philanthropy with a pronounced business sensibility during her tenure at the R E Ross Trust. The perpetual charitable trust, established in 1970 by the will of the late Roy Everard Ross, also owns Hillview Quarries, a working business from which 100 per cent of profits are distributed to community organisations via the Ross Trust.

“It is a bit of an unusual situation,” Admans says.

“The business provides between 65-75 per cent of our income depending on how it’s performing in any given year and your trustees are also directors of the company. The challenge is how you keep the balance between income generation and the core business and then the distribution of its income—you don’t want the tail to wag the dog.”

“It’s a for-purpose business in a way,” Admans continues. “It exists to produce income for the Trust for the purposes of charitable granting and I think that keeps the Trust really active because you have to actively work on the business and that creates energy throughout the entire organisation.”

Philanthropy with a taut sense of energy is the space Admans prefers to be in.

"The majority of trusts and foundations sit in the endowed space and that's a position that very few businesses or organisations have the luxury of being in," she says.

"Unless there's a diabolical stock market crash, we are (or at least, should be) the most sustainable of all business models. I think the consequence of that, if we're not careful, is that we can get a bit preachy and lecture people about their sustainability which is disingenuous if we never have to question our own."

“One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is that you should never assume, never presume,” Admans continues.

“You should never assume that you know the position someone else is coming from. Sometimes this sector lacks lived experience just because of the nature of wealth and privilege. It’s critical therefore that we don’t presume to know what a solution might be for someone else or what a system needs.

“To be honest, when I see that happening, that’s when I fall out of love with philanthropy. I don’t like it when things become rarified—we must always listen.

“People can be experiential, they can expose themselves to different things that will make them more empathetic but at the end of the day, you’ve got to trust the people who are working in the areas in which you wish to create change.

“At the end of the day, we’re giving a gift and that’s a powerful thing to do. In theory, a gift means it has no expectations of anything in return. I fear sometimes that we’re becoming more and more expectant rather than empathetic.

“Sometimes we can be a bit bureaucratic, yet philanthropy is relational work. It’s the relationships that sustain philanthropy—it’s not transactional.”

“I’m still completely fascinated by philanthropy,” Admans says.

“I think that’s because it’s underpinned by individuals and I’m fascinated by people. Working in this sector is a bit like getting to know all the people in your street and the next town over. There’s nothing standard about it and I like that. I like quirky.”

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