‘Helping others is the most satisfying thing you can do in life’: Nicola Forrest

Tue, 19 Jun 2018

Bold ambition has never been in short supply in the Forrest family. It’s a trait that seems to give shape to most of the family’s endeavours, philanthropic or otherwise.

In May 2017, the Forrests announced their intention to give away $400 million, the biggest ever philanthropic gift made by a living Australian. In keeping with their tradition of audacious goal-setting, the Forrests have set their sights on “eliminating” both cancer and modern slavery. That’s in addition to their ongoing work to end disparity for Indigenous Australians through sustainable employment and welfare policy reform (GenerationOne), ensuring every child has the best chance to reach their potential (Thrive by Five), enabling world class research collaborations (Forrest Research Foundation) and supporting arts and community initiatives.

While she may not have the same public profile as mining magnate husband Andrew Forrest AO, whose estimated wealth of $6 billion (give or take) makes him a mainstay on top 10 rich lists, as CEO of the Minderoo Foundation, Nicola is an active and integral force in the organisation’s efforts.

On the day that I sit down with Nicola in early June, both she and Andrew are at work in the Minderoo offices, but it’s the latter Forrest who sticks his head into the meeting room, twice, to check if Nicola would like anything to eat, if we need the heating turned up and to clarify who’s picking up their son that afternoon.

Though the Forrest name is spoken in near-reverential tones in Western Australia where the family is based, Nicola Forrest doesn’t buy into the celebrity – there isn’t the faintest trace of ostentation on or around her. She is warm, exceedingly welcoming and refreshingly candid. She laughs easily and often.

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

NR: Thinking back over your extraordinary philanthropic journey, when you established the Minderoo Foundation (initially called the Australian Children’s Trust) in 2001, would you ever have expected you would go on to become the first Australian signatories of the Giving Pledge in 2013 or that you would be announcing Australia’s biggest philanthropic gift by a living person?

NF: That’s a very good question! I think it’s larger than we ever imagined.

What started our journey was the realisation that we had enough for ourselves and our children and our families. We both come from a country background and we knew we didn’t want more than we needed to live a satisfying life. We also didn’t want to burden our children with something that wasn’t their choice.

So, we made a decision that once we reached a certain point of security we’d give everything else away.

So, knowing ‘how much is enough’ was part of your thinking from very early on?

Yes, from very early on. And then it got triggered in 2001 because Andrew had started Anaconda Nickel and he had major shareholders who squeezed him out and he said, ‘We’re going to grab victory from the jaws of defeat’ – that’s his favourite quote.

So, he headed into a meeting with these major shareholders and the amount of money they offered him to walk away established the Foundation. We were determined to make something positive out of what was a terrible time in our lives because he’d worked so hard to build the company up, we’d both worked hard, and we’d been through quite a lot of personal things in the year leading up to that, so that’s how it all started.

In our minds, I don’t think we ever thought the Foundation would go beyond 20 or 50 million dollars – that seemed like a huge amount of money that you could use in an annual giving program.

Family is a pronounced value in much of the Minderoo Foundation’s work. Was philanthropy always in your DNA?

I think growing up in the country, you’re part of a community and you pull together in all that you do. People pitch in and it’s more about giving your time and your talent to whatever project needs to be done – communities always come together.

I certainly didn’t grow up with a lot of money but my family would always help someone if they needed help, whether it was to cook a meal or give a bed or help someone when they’d had a tragedy. I think it’s part of your nature that you want to help others, and in fact it’s the most satisfying thing you can do in your life.

The Forrest name is synonymous with bold ambitions and in terms of your giving, you’ve really upped the ante with your philanthropic goals, for instance by announcing your intention to eliminate cancer and global slavery. Was your intent to go big from the beginning or did you develop that vision as you went deeper into philanthropy?

I think there’s always been a big vision. When we first started as the Australian Children’s Trust, it was because, in our minds, if you want to help society or a community, you have to invest in children and you have to look after your most disadvantaged. When you talk about children, that means families and in fact it means community too because you can’t help one without the other.

Andrew and I both grew up in country New South Wales and GenerationOne stemmed from our upbringings. We both grew up with Aboriginal families that were our friends and to see how things have changed in the course of our lives to the detriment of a lot of Indigenous people was something we just thought was unacceptable in Australia.

If you look at cancer or Walk Free [the Foundation co-founded by Andrew and daughter Grace Forrest that is working to end modern slavery] there’s a natural connection because it’s about empowering the disempowered. There’s also a correlation where you start looking at a problem and thinking about prevention rather than cure.

You know, if you look at foreign aid or government spending, we’re spending big money on problems in school yards and people who are incarcerated, whereas if we looked to turn the dial earlier on in their lives, maybe the trajectory of that child would be different. For us, it’s about taking a holistic approach.

When you have a holistic approach and you look at a problem like cancer, which affects just about everyone, you start to look at some of the things that might unlock the research. A lot of our work has moved into research. One of the things that was a lightbulb moment for me with our Forrest Research Foundation was understanding that in order for researchers to get funding, they’ve got to be so specific. They have to head down a track that, even if they start to discover something over here [gestures], their funding doesn’t allow them to explore it until they finish the other research.

We’re trying to unlock that so the sharing happens in an environment where this person’s research might work along with mine, make me think about something differently and enable something greater to happen.

So, going back to cancer, there’s amazing research being done around the world but guess what, no one shares their data. When you think about the age of intelligence that we live in and how we might use that multiplier effect to change things quicker, that’s what drives some of the things that seem so ambitious and so outrageous but actually, it’s just about challenging the norm.

It’s about trying to bring people together. As someone who’s prepared to fund research, we’ve got no ulterior motive, we don’t have an agenda other than trying to make things better, which means you can bring people to the table and say, ‘Look, we’re prepared to fund this to bring you together to work out how we can work on things differently.’

Convening and collaborating is another key theme for your philanthropic funding – that’s clearly a priority?

Absolutely. And co-creation. Because no one person has all the answers and that’s why it’s also important to work with governments.

Philanthropy does a great job, but the amount of money that’s spent by very generous people across Australia and across the world is a fraction, is miniscule, compared to what governments spend on the same problems.

If the money that we spend helps unlock a new way of doing things, it makes it more efficient for everybody. So, you’ve got to work together, you can’t just go off on your own agenda. You have to try and work out which things might help change a policy in the way services are delivered or the way something happens. You have to prove that up and bring people on the journey. But in doing that you need all the people who are involved in that problem.

You’ve been a member of the Prime Minister’s Community Business Partnership (PMCBP) for several years and have worked closely with the State and Federal Government on various philanthropic initiatives. How do you think government and philanthropy can best work together in a modern democracy?

I think the biggest thing we can help with by working with government is trying to break down silos.

Governments try and do the best they can. They get driven by budgets and by politics and unfortunately this means they often don’t marry opportunities up.

The PMCBP was put together to help advise the Government on how we might create more giving in Australia. I think it’s a really great thing that they reached out and said to philanthropists and people involved in the non-profit sector, ‘Okay, how would you encourage this to happen?’.

So now, after three years, we’ve got two areas of focus. One of them is the First Thousand Days and I have pushed for that from the very beginning. For me, that’s about how you help whatever money is going into a community to do much more and the way you’re going to do much more is by empowering the community to say where the money goes.

The other pillar is focused on the financial vehicles and what they might look like to help people. Some of the best organisations for helping communities are the local sports clubs or the local champions who don’t have DGR status and can’t receive funds, so it’s about trying to unlock that potential.

You’ve spoken a lot about bringing people together and through your philanthropy you’ve taken a leadership stance on many issues. Was your decision to sign the Giving Pledge and last year’s $400 million announcement about bringing more people into philanthropy?

Yes, very much so.

With the Giving Pledge, we’d already said amongst ourselves and publicly here in Perth that we were going to give away the vast majority of our wealth. So, when the Giving Pledge people first approached us we said, ‘Well we’ve already actually said we’re giving our money away so we don’t see any need to join up.’ They convinced us that signing it would help them with some leadership in Australia and it’s been a valuable experience for us.

Through the annual gathering we’ve made friends and formed partnerships like the Freedom Fund, and co-invested with people we’ve met.

The announcement last year came very much on the back of that. We have done a lot of our philanthropy with a limited budget, we’ve had to be very careful. It has actually really helped refine what we do and what we don’t do because we haven’t been inundated with cash – we’ve had a lot of shares which, you know, up until a few years ago didn’t pay many dividends. So, to have the opportunity to actually put the cash in was really exciting for us. We’ve challenged our teams to really think about what they could really ramp up now that we’ve got a bit more petrol in the tank.

We’ve grown quite a lot over the last two years. The total Minderoo head count is now at about 142 people – that’s across our corporate as well as our non-profit arm and that’s very much the philosophy of Minderoo and whatever we do in business to help drive sustainable outcomes.

We want to lead with impact investment and things that are doing good and we’re great believers in employment as the greatest good you can do in communities.

I think last year’s announcement did help bring people together. It’s also given us a greater seat at the table to speak with the Government and I do find that extraordinary because $400 million is a lot of money, everybody knows that, but if you look at the Department of Education in WA, they spend that in one day.

Your daughter, Grace, is actively involved in social change through her work to end modern slavery. Did you try and steer any of your children along a philanthropic path or have you left it open for them to navigate their own way?

Grace has really driven it, she is the founding director of Walk Free. And that came about as part of an experience she had at 15 where she said, ‘I want to do something about this issue. This will be my life’s work.’ She literally did say that at that age. And as her mother, my first thought was, ‘That’s not very safe, I don’t think that’s a good idea!’

Anyway, she’s 25 this year and she’s absolutely passionate about it.

I am so confident about this next generation because they are so well informed and so well connected and they sure as hell aren’t going to sit back and watch things happen. I think they’ve got so much potential to create great change.

I love the way Grace thinks, she comes up with all these entrepreneurial ideas. We always challenge her by asking, ‘Well how could that work and who would you need to talk to and how can we bring them together?’

And I must say, my daughter Grace is also remarkable at storytelling. I should say ‘our daughter Grace’, even though she’s always called Andrew Forrest’s daughter [laughs] or Sophia Forrest, daughter of Andrew Forrest. Anyone would think it was the immaculate conception! [more laughter]

Grace has been mentored by people who work here and she joined the board of Minderoo when she was 21 so she’s been very involved and she’s been a great asset because, you know, we’ve got a few older people on the board and it’s really fantastic to have a younger voice.

How do you grapple with measuring the impact of your philanthropy?

I think you start where you mean to finish and then you come backwards and work out what you need to do along the way. One of the most important things is deciding what we are going to measure to see if we’re making a difference and that’s a joint decision with the people you’re collaborating with.

If we take modern slavery for example, every year we publish the Global Slavery Index, terrifyingly, the numbers are bigger but it demonstrates that our understanding of this issue is improving. It’s really helping to highlight a situation and allowing academics, NGOs and corporates to start saying, ‘Well, this government is coming on board, these people are doing something, here’s some involvement with the Freedom Fund,’ so there’s many different layers.

With the Freedom Fund we’ve been able to measure how many people have been freed from slavery in some of the hotspots where they’ve worked holistically with communities. It’s a small number compared with the rising number of people who’ve been enslaved but what it’s showing is how you can do it. If you can measure all the steps it took to get there, then it can be scaled up.

I think that’s what we’ve always aimed to do with Minderoo. It’s not us declaring we’re going to fix the whole problem it’s us going into places or projects and saying, ‘Okay, if we can prove this up and we can measure along the way all the things we did – and it will be different in different places but here’s something that worked – then it can be scaled’.  

Even having Australia sign the Modern Slavery Act, they’re things you can point to and not because we achieved that by ourselves but it’s because of the collective effort. A lot of our work, I think, is advocacy.

Making those connections is a lot of what I consider advocacy and that’s part of the journey of being a [pauses, leans in and gestures with quote marks] philanthropist. We have trouble with that word… [laughs].

What would you rather be known as? Or do you accept the term ‘philanthropist’ reluctantly?

Look, I accept it. It’s a good term, it’s a good definition. It just sometimes seems exclusive, when in fact anyone can be a philanthropist in whatever way is accessible to them – time, talent or treasure.

For a long time, we were a grant making organisation so someone would come to see us and say we’re working with children with disabilities and we’ve got this great program and would you fund it and we’d say, ‘That looks really good but we saw so-and-so last week who also works in this area, do you talk to them?’ We used to say, you need to go away and talk to these other people and come back with a united voice because we want to see how you’re working together.

I’m now at the point where it’s really important for funders, philanthropists [spoken with a smile], to talk with each other because we’ve got the opportunity to really share and learn from each other and that’s something we’re starting to do more and more, and we’ve done some great things with some of the bigger foundations.

Talking to other funders, you find the common space of what we’re all trying to achieve and if you can share your experiences and data then that’s a big part of that.

Picking up that point, non-profits are often under a lot of pressure from funders to collaborate and share information and talk with each other but at the same time, we’ve not really modelled that very well in philanthropy…

Exactly! And I’ve always challenged Philanthropy Australia on that point and we weren’t members for a long time.

And we’re very grateful to have you onboard as Impact members now.

Well, I think it’s important that we’re all there. I used to sort of challenge and say, ‘Why can’t you have this data on a database so people can come in and get it?’ There’s a lot of privacy issues and I respect that, you know, people don’t want to be picked on all the time.

You’ll be happy to know we’ve been doing a lot of work to address that and in September we’re launching Foundation Maps Australia, which is a database that shows who’s funding what and where.

Great! I look forward to seeing it.

What’s been your most valuable philanthropic lesson?

Something that we’ve done quite a lot of is match funding. So, having said earlier that it’s not all about money, I think sometimes the opposite can happen where people think, ‘Well, they’ve given a million dollars so why would I give ten dollars?’

When we first started supporting Telethon, we were doing it anonymously, and we asked them to say, ‘An anonymous donor will match every dollar given before midnight’, and the phones went crazy.  If they’d done it the other way, wouldn’t you think, ‘Oh well, my ten dollars isn’t worth much’, but every dollar counts and that gets people engaged.

When all’s said and done, what do you hope that your philanthropy has achieved? What will it be that warms your heart at the end of the day?

Well, this is a little bit self-focused, but I think within Australia, if we can see in the next five years and then ten years and then twenty years, a brighter future for our children through a more productive and healthy environment for them growing up then I’ll feel very happy about that.

If we see government departments working together in a holistic way around children and families I think it will transform Australia and our productivity.

That sounds like another ambitious goal.

[Laughs] That’s true, but this isn’t just socially and morally correct but economically too. It’s an imperative. So yes, I like to start at the beginning with the children.

Read more about the work of the Minderoo Foundation.

Images (in order of appearance):

Nicola Forrest at the opening of the Forrest Hall research and accommodation facility in Perth. Image credit: UWA

Nicola Forrest accepting a WA Museum Fellowship with husband Andrew. Image credit: Minderoo

Nicola Forrest, WA Premier Mark McGowan, Minister Simone McGurk and Telethon Kids director Jonathan Carapetis at the launch of the Early Years Initiative. Credit: State Government of Western Australia