Stories in philanthropy

For the love of a good challenge: Jan Robins, Colonial Foundation

Nicole Richards | July 2017

Retirement isn’t a word that resonates with Jan Robins, the soon-to-depart CEO of the Colonial Foundation.

Fourteen years ago she announced her intention to retire from a successful career in private banking but inspired by a close friend who’d spent her retired life working as a volunteer at various community organisations, Jan opted to use her skills and knowledge to help others.

One of her earliest roles was with a youth outreach organisation where she helped get their fundraising strategy on track.

“Initially, I had a terrible job convincing them that I was happy to go from being a director at UBS, to wanting to help set up their fundraising strategy,” Jan says.

“They said they couldn’t offer me an office, which was fine because all I needed was a phone and a laptop, so I ended up working in the broom closet! My friends all thought I was going through a midlife crisis when they heard about it!”

But after nearly two decades in investment banking, Jan found new purpose in her work with these small not-for-profit organisations. 

A former colleague at RACV enticed Jan to take on a new part-time role with the organisation’s Foundation which kick-started her career in philanthropy. Within two weeks she was invited to become the Foundation’s CEO.

While at the RACV Foundation Jan initiated changes to the way the organisation engaged with its stakeholders and developed a strategy to build its presence in the philanthropic sector and grow its capacity. 

“After about three years with the RACV Foundation, following the establishment of a number of innovative fundraising ideas and implementation of a donor engagement strategy, all of which I believe remain in place today, I was approached to take on the CEO role with the Jack Brockhoff Foundation,” Jan says.

“One of the accomplishments I’m most proud of in my time with those two organisations was the investment strategies I implemented which placed both organisation’s corpuses in a very good position to withstand the global financial crisis.” 

“The GFC barely impacted either foundation’s granting capacity. In the four years at Brockhoff, I was also very proud to initiate an idea to celebrate what was the centenary of the birth of the Late Sir Jack Brockhoff to establish a $5 million research grant with the University of Melbourne—the Jack Brockhoff Child Health and Wellbeing Program—the largest grant ever awarded by the Foundation.”

Next came one of Australia’s largest philanthropic funders, the Colonial Foundation, where Jan has led the organisation for the past six and a half years.

“As I reflect on my philanthropic journey from humble beginnings in the non-profit sector and dwell on the wealth of knowledge and experience that I have gained along the way, I pay homage to the generosity of many colleagues and friends in the sector that have motivated and inspired me to accomplish more,” Jan says.

“As the CEO of a philanthropic trust it is no longer just about giving money, but providing skills, knowledge and/or influence and that’s been a huge change!”

“There is a need to empower our grantees, not to have power over them,” Jan says emphatically.

“Yes, we give money but it’s important to look at other ways you can empower them too. That might be acting as a thought leader, encouraging the sharing of ideas, improving the level of communication or assisting them in advocating for change.”

“I think CEOs should be more visible and use their positions for purposes other than just as a granter of dollars. I suppose it’s about walking the talk.”

Communication is a skill Jan promotes and prizes highly. It’s also something she’d like to see more of in the social sector.

“I’d really like to see more communication in the sector amongst funders, amongst grantees and across the two groups. Within the non-profit sector, I’d love to see greater engagement amongst organisations that are delivering similar services to the same cohort of clients—it appals me to see fiefdoms, particularly when those organisations could offer a lot and learn a lot. I think those walls are being broken down but slowly.”

Jan will step down from the Chief Executive role at the Colonial Foundation in August. 

“I am proud of what I have achieved here,” she says. “Colonial has a clear vision and strategy for what impact it intends making in the future and I have greatly enjoyed the opportunity to be part of its history.” 

As to what comes next, Jan says she’s ready for another challenge.

“Give me something that’s not quite right, needs a bit of structure or strategic design or vision—that’s what I love doing. I’m excited about what the future may offer in terms of a new challenge, undoubtedly in philanthropy, but it’ll be nice to fit in a few weeks’ break in between.”

To date over the past twenty years the Colonial Foundation has granted more than $115 million to charitable organisations that are focused on finding solutions and improving outcomes for disadvantaged and vulnerable Australians. Over the last financial year ending June 2017, the Foundation distributed grants totalling $5.4 million to thirteen organisations, including a $3 million grant to youth mental health organisation, Orygen, which has received more than $47.4 million from the Colonial Foundation over the past 16 years.


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