What’s the best career path to follow to ensure you end up in philanthropy? How does rest-of-the-world experience inform an understanding of how best to grow philanthropy? What qualifications are required to take a leadership role in one of the nation’s best-known foundations? Whatever the route others have taken, it’s a fair bet that Niall Fay’s journey to CEO of the Fay Fuller Foundation is as distinct as it is intriguing.
Fay took up the role from Stacey Thomas, a Philanthropy Australia board member, who moved across to the Wyatt Trust, at the start of November. Fay has a diverse career that has ranged from sport, to research and development. But where others might struggle to see the synchronicity between his career choices and the new role, Fay sees continuity and even harmony.
“In the past seven or eight years, I’ve been working in research and development, which has been all about capacity building,’’ he explains. “And good research and development, much like good philanthropy, is about understanding and funding to meet the needs of the community. So, there’s very good similarities between what I used to do and what I do now.’’
Regardless of the career signposts to Fay’s arrival at Fay Fuller, there’s no doubting that he seems philosophically predisposed to the idea of making a difference. His parents were Irish migrants, and he has two older brothers who are teachers in South Australia and a sister who works in philanthropy at Perpetual. “We’re pretty much all cut from the same cloth,’’ is how Fay sums up the family’s world view. “Our parents saw the opportunity Australia provided for us and fostered the idea of a responsibility to acknowledge that and extend those opportunities to others.’’
Fay started out as a promising soccer player in South Australia and was earmarked for potential national honours. He spent a month with English club Leeds, trained with their reserves team and slotted in to their youth scheme. He returned home to pursue a place at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, where after 12 months and offers of trials in Italy, he injured his knee on the eve of his departure to Europe. Fay’s injury kept him out of the game for a year and he fell behind in the pecking order of talent and opportunity. He says now: “No regrets. I was luckier than some, not as lucky as others. I left nothing for chance and in the end, a sporting career is never a sure thing.’’
But he and sport have never been far apart. In Adelaide, he is co-founder and chair of the advisory board of a new program being run at the Crows Australian football club to deal with the decline in high school students’ engagement with STEM subjects and the increase in STEM-related jobs.
The program, called STEMfooty, is built around a 10-week lesson plan for teachers that canvasses nutrition, health and well-being and mathematics and science, statistics and aerodynamics, to include the practical application of studying the trajectory of a football in flight or testing a maths hypothesis on the school oval by using speed radar.
The program is based on US research from the Science of Sport, which has partnered with the major league baseball teams and national basketball association teams. The goal both in the US and here is to provide a new set of career pathways for students to consider, from sports science to sports management. Some Crows players work directly with the students and many of the club’s AFLW team are particularly in demand.
Fay’s most recent job was at a co-operative research centre which partnered with multiple universities across Australia, working with the federal Department of Industry, collaborating, sharing and developing ideas and projects. “In a way, the CRC has the role of the funder,’’ Fay explains, foreshadowing a component of his new role. “I’ve worked a long time with scientists and engineers but I’m not an expert in these areas. What we’re trying to do is leverage that expertise and ground the collaborations in what’s wanted to be achieved.’’
If that sounds appropriate to Fay Fuller too, then that is no coincidence. But there is another word that comes up in relation to the Foundation, especially its recent initiative to take a long-term approach to funding mental health in South Australia – “bold’’.
The Our Town initiative includes 10-year funding opportunities to provide certainty and consistency for local communities who can identify what they need most. In a world where short-term solutions are common, the Foundation’s long-term commitment manages to look both old-fashioned and innovative.
Just this week, The Foundation announced that in the wake of the catastrophic bushfires on Kangaroo Island, it was going to extend the program to include the island. The $3 million funding will provide on-ground support to work long-term on the community’s mental health for the next 10 years.
“We’re being bold in the next six-twelve months and going to build on that initiative,’’ Fay says. “We have a raft of grants we’re providing in the same vein.’’
“I have a saying – “The first one through the wall, gets the bloody nose.’’. There is a recognition that we’re doing something different, opening things up and involving and sharing what we do.’’
It sounds like Fay knows exactly what he’s talking about.