Wise words: Jill Reichstein OAM and Jemima Myer

Fri, 31 May 2024 Estimated reading times: 3 minutes

Welcome to the first of a regular series in which an inspiring philanthropic leader is interviewed by a member of our New Gen Network. Deep knowledge derived from decades of experience in the sector underpins the direction our younger members are now taking forward. This is Philanthropy Weekly’s attempt to capture and bottle some of that wisdom to share. Jemima has crafted these thoughtful questions for Jill.

Jill Reichstein is Chair of the Reichstein Foundation and Jemima Myer is a Director of The Myer Foundation. Both are also members of Mannifera.

JM: There is a lot to consider when engaging in philanthropy – the needs of communities, the needs of civil society organisations, and the challenge of selecting grant recipients when there are so many that are worthy. What have you learned over the years that you wish you knew when you started at the Reichstein Foundation?

JR: During my nearly 40 years as Chair of the Foundation, I’ve learned quite a bit that I wish I knew when I started.

One of the key lessons has been to not shy away from being political. Creating social change requires political engagement because it’s often the policies governing our lives that are creating inequities or driving injustice. 

Another lesson has been that philanthropy is most successful when funders can build meaningful relationships with their grant partners. Relationships that aren’t merely transactional and that are built on strong foundations of trust.

And finally, effective philanthropy requires collaboration and long-term commitments. Many of the victories achieved by our grant partners have come about thanks to collective efforts over many years.

Jill participating in the campaign for marriage equality.

JM: As you’ve mentioned, collective action in philanthropy is an effective way of drawing attention and support to various funding areas. I fear that conversations around pitching co-funding may be awkward or difficult, but I know that they are important in forging collaboration. What advice do you have for bringing others to the table, and then along for the journey, without feeling like you are asking for too much?  

JR: I believe fostering collaboration in philanthropy is centred around relationship-building. It involves creating or participating in spaces where funders can come together to learn, share their knowledge, understand what each other are working on, and identify common goals.

This is something the Reichstein Foundation’s work has focused a lot on over the years, to help establish and grow networks such as the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network, Australians Investing in Women, Mannifera and Philanthropy Australia. A sense of community around shared objectives or interest areas can help bring funders together and alleviate any discomfort around pitching co-funding opportunities.

Ultimately, it’s not just about seeking financial support for an organisation, campaign or cause you feel passionate about, it’s about collectively advancing our goals.

Jill in the Barmah Millewa National Park in 2005. The Foundation provided support to the Yorta Yorta Nation and Friends of the Earth to establish the co-managed Barmah-Millewa National Park.

JM: The relationship between philanthropy and social change is complex. In many cases, the systems that have enabled people to accumulate enough wealth to be philanthropic are the same systems that create the inequities that grant recipients are working to overcome. We recognise the need for community-led approaches, yet the grantmaking decisions are led by funders who generally sit outside these communities. How have you grappled with these paradoxes?

JR: Inequality driven by unfair economic systems, and the decision-making power that lies within philanthropic entities rather than the communities they support, are indeed the challenges our sector must continue to acknowledge and overcome.

These paradoxes are also precisely why the Reichstein Foundation takes the approach it does. We fund organisations focused on changing systems (eg the laws, practices and beliefs) that drive inequality and injustice because we want to address the root causes of these issues rather than simply treating their symptoms.

We also recognise that as funders we don’t have the answers, which is why we’ve built our board to include experts from the community sector and why we engage community-led organisations to inform our strategic decision-making. We’re also proud to support and learn from organisations such as the Antipoverty Centre, which is led by people with experience of poverty and unemployment.

By elevating the voices of those with direct experience of the issues we seek to solve and focusing on systemic change, I believe that funders can begin to address the inherent paradoxes of philanthropy and contribute meaningfully to social progress.

The Reichstein Foundation hosted an event in partnership with the Sydney Peace Foundation with the founders and leaders of #BlackLivesMatter in November 2017. Credit: James Henry.

JM: There are many intersecting social issues, and many different approaches that partner organisations and individuals are taking to make change. What has helped to inform your outlook, and how has that impacted Reichstein Foundation’s funding areas?

JR: My outlook has been informed by listening to community-led organisations and individuals directly impacted by social injustices, and their insights have been invaluable in shaping the Reichstein Foundation’s funding priorities. For instance, as we approached our 50th anniversary, we undertook a strategic review and engaged with community-led organisations to help guide our new direction. Their input not only shaped our strategy but also provided clarity on where our support could make the most significant impact.

Our funding focus areas are also informed by the work of other funders, because complementing the work of others is also key. By identifying gaps in philanthropic support or contributing additional funds to pressing issues needing collective action, we can ensure our contributions are strategic and impactful.

Ultimately our commitment to listening, learning and collaborating informs our funding areas and ensures the Reichstein Foundation stays responsive to evolving needs.

JM: During your tenure as Chair of the Reichstein Foundation, the philanthropic sector has changed significantly and there has been substantial social progress. What issues do you hope the philanthropic sector will continue to pursue, and how can we best support to the next generation of civil society and community leaders? 

JR: The philanthropic landscape has indeed undergone a significant transformation over the years. When I started in philanthropy, the community was not at all what it is today. No co-ordinating bodies existed, collaborative giving wasn’t really done, and philanthropists had no resources and tools to further their own learning.

Looking ahead, my hope is that the next generation of philanthropists take advantage of the multitude of opportunities to learn and connect that are available today. These resources will be helpful for informing their own journeys and improving their approach.

Additionally, I urge the next generation of philanthropists to continue resourcing groups that are using advocacy as a tool to tackle systemic issues. While we can’t predict what new social issues future changes in government may bring, a strong and vibrant civil society sector will always be needed to hold power to account.

And in terms of supporting the next generation of civil society and community leaders, trust is paramount. Funders must trust these emerging leaders to be experts and empower them to take the lead.

Jill co-presented The Eve Mahlab AO Gender-wise Philanthropy Award at the Australian Philanthropy Awards 2024. Pictured with Sarah Bailey, of MECCA M-POWER, and Julie Reilly OAM, CEO of Australian Investing in Women.

The Reichstein Foundation is a family foundation that plays a leading role in Australia’s philanthropic community and has been a decades-long advocate for social change giving. The Myer Foundation works in partnership with Australia’s not-for-profit sector, other philanthropists and all levels of government to make Australia a healthier and more prosperous nation. Mannifera is a collective of Australian funders working together to support the systems-change work needed to create a stronger democracy and fair economy.