The stories that stay with you

Nick Richardson Fri, 16 Dec 2022

When I started as Philanthropy Australia’s storyteller more than three and a half years ago, the title seemed to contain a certain amount of aspiration: ‘storytelling’ seemed to be a lofty practice that was engaged with the higher ideals of philanthropic giving.

Now, as we hurtle towards the end of 2022, nothing seems further from the truth. Storytelling has always been one of the most effective tools in the philanthropic toolkit, to share the nuts and bolts of transformative outcomes and to explain why philanthropy matters. But it took me a while to learn that, and as a result it took me some time to appreciate the range and diversity of the stories, their power and ultimately, the inspiration that was intrinsic to so many of them.

I’ve spent a lot of the past few years engaging with those working for charities, not-for-profits, foundations and trusts, from the those who give grants, to those who manage grants and to those who receive grants. From those who are trying to solve dilemmas that are local versions of global problems. Or those who have seen a crack in the social fabric and are driven to do something to repair it, to mend the breach, to support the vulnerable and disadvantaged at their lowest ebb. None of this is surprising – we understand the vital role these individuals and the organisations play in supporting our communities. What was energising was actually finding out how that happened – the innovation, the strategic vision, the collaboration and the creativity that so often sat behind that work. And it was in exploring those elements that I realised how little most Australians know about how transformative philanthropy can be.

So, now when the time comes to leave the role, it feels appropriate to look back to identify some of those stories that have stayed with me, fundamentally because they reveal so much about the depth of our nation’s commitment to the principle of giving. There is, in all honesty, many candidates, but here are just a few.

In March, 2021 we told the story of how the Origin Foundation gave the Grattan Institute $100,000 to research the potential impact on disadvantaged kids of schools closing because of COVID-19 and the introduction of remote schooling. Grattan’s report identified potentially significant problems with remote schooling, with the achievement gaps trebling between disadvantaged students and other students. The report recommended establishing a tutoring program, which could deliver students potentially an extra four-five months added learning over one or two terms. The idea was taken up with vigour, initially by the Victorian Government, then NSW and South Australia. The combined states’ investment in the tutoring program was $587 million, in just six months, from a $100,000 starting point. Innovation, collaboration, expertise, strategic thinking and philanthropy’s great skill to back new thinking was all there. And what an outcome.

In a similar vein, the pandemic’s impact on not-for-profits was evident, and has, sadly, in some instances been on-going. But one organisation that lost 70 per cent of its revenue in the pandemic decided to find a novel way to identify fresh ideas and strategies. The Pancare Foundation was established to fund research and provide support for those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. What Pancare’s new CEO, Doug Hawkins, chose to do was create their own version of the TV show “Shark Tank’’, to get news ideas with a commercial intent that could help boost revenue. Not only that, Doug enlisted some of his old contacts from the corporate world, who not only helped identify and refine the ideas presented during the Shark Tank exercise but stayed around to provide on-going guidance. “The Shark Tank idea was to genuinely identify an initiative that we could work on now,’’ Doug said at the time, “but we’ve also now got seven or eight global innovation experts excited about supporting Pancare. They have the ability to take us to places as a group that we can’t even comprehend.’’

“but we’ve also now got seven or eight global innovation experts excited about supporting Pancare. They have the ability to take us to places as a group that we can’t even comprehend.”

Doug Hawkins CEO, Pancare

If there was one other important theme during the past few years, it was the importance of our local communities. So many Australians have felt the pain and loss from bushfires and floods, bookending the pandemic’s all-pervasive pressure on our lives. Community foundations, particularly in regional Australia, rose magnificently to the challenge, and supported their communities in new and innovative ways. But it was a bequest, in Melbourne’s Inner North Community Foundation, that struck me as creating a compelling model of how to leave a meaningful legacy. It was called the Bakers Dozen Social Justice Fund, and it was established through a legacy gift of $3.5m left by local philanthropist, academic and former Chair of the Foundation, Christopher Baker and his partner, Ms Kerri Hall. Christopher believed in philanthropy’s capacity to help create prosperous and connected communities, and he lived a life committed to social justice. As the Foundation’s Executive Officer Ben Rodgers noted at the time: “Christopher knew that sometimes the biggest gift a person would make is the one they never got to see.’’

And then there was the 1000 Dresses Project. What a story of international generosity, driven by a simple idea and fueled (positively) by social media. The location was the remote Fitzroy Valley in Western Australia, and the idea was to help find dresses for the Valley’s grandmothers. The man behind the idea put the idea to his Facebook friends and soon there was a campaign – called 1000 Dresses – run by Marninwarntikura Women’s Resource Centre at Fitzroy Crossing.

But what happens when you hit your target of finding 1000 dresses? Well, you keep going. Within months, the Marninwarntikura Facebook post had reached more than 115,000 people, with calls coming in from Canada and the UK, and every Australian state and territory. The clothes just kept turning up, including high-end fashion labels. “There were some of the best-dressed girls in the Kimberly,’’ Sue Thomas, Strategic Priority Lead at Marninwarntikura, said later.

There are two other stories that are recent and resonate for different reasons: both of them are part of our third season of the Philanthropy Australia podcast.

The first is the story behind the health justice networks in Australia, an innovative approach that brings health and legal experts together to help navigate the often-complex web of circumstances that trap many vulnerable Australians and prevent them from finding accommodation, work, and the security of a visa.
It took some innovative support from the Clayton Utz Foundation and Justice Connect to establish Health Justice Australia, a charity that is actually driving significant system change.
As I listened to just how easy it is for some Australians to become caught between a chronic health issue and a complex legal situation, about tenancy or family violence, it became all too clear how enormous these challenges must appear, especially for those from CALD communities.

Most recently, it was our podcast on the Australian Schools Plus program that enlists philanthropy to help address educational disadvantage that revealed a moment of inspiration. One of Australia’s best-know businessmen and noted philanthropist David Gonski AC had recommended the establishment of such an organisation as Schools Plus during his own Gonski Review of Australian education. In our interview, David recounted just how influential one of his own teachers had been in shaping his education, and eventually, career options. The positive impact of that teacher underpinned his faith in the impact of committed teaching on changing educational outcomes. Schools Plus has brought that to life.

If all these stories tell me anything, it is the power of the personal – the centrality of lived experience to help shift thinking and create positive outcomes. But it is, of course, more than just that: for transformative change we need a combination of factors, a range of inputs, and a deep desire for change. It has been my privilege to listen to many of those who are committed to that change and to share their stories with the Philanthropy Australia audience. There are many more stories to be told in future editions of Philanthropy Weekly, but I already know they will have that same power to inspire, and to celebrate, to reveal those moments when philanthropy, in all its forms and expressions, comforts, supports, elevates and engages us. It is philanthropy’s unique role, and it is a story that just keeps on needing to be told.

I already know they will have that same power to inspire, and to celebrate, to reveal those moments when philanthropy, in all its forms and expressions, comforts, supports, elevates and engages us. It is philanthropy’s unique role, and it is a story that just keeps on needing to be told.

Nick Richardson Storyteller, Philanthropy Australia