Stories in philanthropy

Ann Johnson and Philanthropy Australia: finding your community

When Ann Johnson reflects on the start of her philanthropic journey, she describes herself as an ‘immature giver’: she and her husband Warwick made donations in a fairly random way. A meeting in 2004 with Peter Winneke from the philanthropic services division at the Myer Family Office eventually led Ann and Warwick to establish a PAF that became the W & A Johnson Family Foundation. They say it was the change to a formal structure for their giving that led them to think more about their reasons for doing it and then to focus on particular cause areas. 

‘One of the best things I did was to join Philanthropy Australia,’ Ann recalls, ‘and its then small family foundations’ funder group in Sydney where I met other donors, many of them larger trusts and foundations than ours, who offered helpful practical advice and more generally the benefit of their experience. There were also quite useful ‘nuts and bolts’ courses Philanthropy Australia was running on trustee responsibilities.’’

Thirteen years later, Ann is about to become Philanthropy Australia (PA) co-chair, with the co-founder of Impact Generation Partners, Amanda Miller. During the past decade, Ann has gradually changed the way she and her family approach their own giving and seen a range of changes in Australia’s philanthropic landscape.

‘All around the world we have witnessed the gradual erosion of trust in political, financial and religious institutions. Philanthropy won’t solve the problems but it can help create and maintain strong communities,’ Ann explains. ‘Networks of donors working with each other, with charities, not-for-profits, government and organisations like Philanthropy Australia together can make a real difference to all areas of life.’ 

Recognising the importance of community is close to Ann’s heart. After starting a legal career in Sydney working in banking and finance, she and her husband Warwick moved to Tokyo where two of their three daughters were born during their 10-year stint in the Japanese capital. But towards the end of their time there, Ann became aware that she was missing something – it was a sense of community. ‘We didn’t have a sense of belonging. We were never going to be part of the fabric of Japan, even though we spoke the language,’ Ann says.

It was after the family’s return to Sydney that they established their foundation. There was, though, still a lot to learn. Ann started to see how things were different in the philanthropic sector compared to her corporate work. ‘I would hear experienced funders talking about their experiences including their failures. I learned a lot,’ Ann says. ‘How often in the corporate world do you have people talk about their failures? It is all about being competitive.’

Out of that grew an appreciation of the importance of philanthropists working together for better outcomes. “The best form of philanthropy is collaborative philanthropy: it’s effective and deeply satisfying,’ Ann says.

She is a fan of collective giving because she has seen how it excites donors who can pool their resources for a significant impact. ‘I was recently involved in a small giving circle. Everyone agreed to contribute a relatively small amount over a few years for an educational initiative,’ Ann says. ‘It was a very happy experience because there were donors who had been put off initially by the feeling that their donation was not enough to make a difference. They loved being part of a small group who, together really would make a difference financially and with whom they shared a common interest. There was a real sense of community from the giving itself.’

Ann understands that every member will engage with Philanthropy Australia in a different way. ‘Our family PAF is quite small, not multi-generational and has no employees so it has different needs to say one of the very large trusts or foundations or to a fund seeker,’ Ann says. ‘But I believe we all benefit from the relationships we establish through PA over time, the sharing of knowledge and in some cases the funding collaborations that develop from those connections.’

PA has also become more active in policy and research during the past few years. ‘Our policy work has become as significant as our role in providing member services,’ Ann explains. ‘Since I joined PA it has assumed more of a peak body role and now works more actively with other donor networks as well as charities.’ Ann says. ‘PA will continue to promote the positive aspects of giving, the diverse forms of giving and is starting to take a more active role in facilitating collaborative grant making. ‘

Many Australians show their commitment to their communities through volunteering. Ann believes volunteering is vital and valuable but that it is not enough. “A large part of Australia is doing well enough to give more and that doesn’t have to be much,’ Ann says. For her, it all starts with the impulse to give and the potential of creating a unique community around the giving experience.

Ann is also the chair of the Sydney Theatre Company Foundation and deputy chair of the Sydney Theatre Company. The arts are an important part of her world view. ‘Even if you have no real interest in the arts, nobody wants to live in a city without good cultural institutions. I do want to live in a community that has a vibrant arts and cultural sector.’ Ann says. ‘I love the way different art forms can convey complex ideas in ways that provoke and entertain. And focusing on theatre, I am a strong believer that theatres play a vital social as well as cultural role in our cities and towns.’

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