Stories in philanthropy

The accidental philanthropist: Michael Barr

The thought of a family foundation had never crossed Michael Barr’s mind until the day his father called a family meeting and announced he intended to start one. As the sole remaining founding family member, Michael has charted a course that honours the legacy of his family and is deeply committed to not just giving money, but giving it well.

Nicole Richards, March 2019 
 

In 2005, Michael Barr was contentedly ensconced in family life, raising three kids and working at what he describes as a “long and happy teaching career” when his father called a family meeting.

“I remember my father said, ‘I’ve been fortunate in business and built up this wealth. I could either leave it to you and your brother, or we could do something really good with this money and set up a foundation,’” Barr says, still with a trace of surprise.

“My brother and I didn’t know about any wealth. We lived comfortably but were always taught to be independent and had created our own lives and careers.  There was never any expectation that we’d inherit money so it was a bit staggering!

“I’ve always referred to myself as the ‘accidental philanthropist’ because I’d gone from being the head of a school to suddenly being involved in this world of giving.”

The Barr Family Foundation was established as a private ancillary fund in 2007. Its primary area of focus was supporting sick children and their families.

Over time, the Foundation’s focus broadened to include children, young people and their families who were experiencing disadvantage.

Michael’s philanthropy learning curve didn’t follow an easy path. Shortly after the Foundation was established, Michael’s mother died. Michael and his brother sat on the Board with their father until his brother became ill and passed away. Michael’s wife, Jayne, then joined the Board. 

Michael left teaching in 2010 and joined the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, working on a variety of projects addressing discrimination and equal opportunity. In 2012, his father had a stroke and Michael took over as Chair of the Foundation. In 2015, Michael’s father passed away suddenly.

“We’d had this plan for a family foundation and plans for my brother and I to eventually take it over and all of a sudden, I was the only founding family member left at the Foundation,” Barr says.

“Even though I had strong support and guidance around me from the other directors, it was up to me to guide the Foundation.

“I wanted to commit to the legacy that I’d been given and do the best I could to find about this whole giving journey. I embraced it and saw it as a privilege, but I had to learn how to do it.”

Barr says one of the most valuable lessons to come out of his giving journey thus far is that “it’s not easy to give away money responsibly.”

Now retired, Barr dedicates roughly three days a week to becoming a ‘good philanthropist’.

“I spend a lot of time speaking with people over coffee and hearing their ideas,” he says.

“I’ve got the best unpaid job in the world. As a philanthropist, you can make a huge impact. You can change lives.”

Barr’s quest to be a good philanthropist has already yielded success. The Barr Family Foundation received the 2016 Gender-Wise Philanthropy Award at the Australian Philanthropy Awards for its support of the Court Support 4 Kids program run by McAuley Community Services for Women.

Court Support 4 Kids provides a trained worker to take care of the children of women affected by family violence and was funded by the Barr Family Foundation for a trial period.

“That program was the perfect example of philanthropy being able to prove the value of a really great initiative to government,” Barr says.

“I’d heard McAuley’s CEO, Jocelyn Bignold speak on the radio and I contacted her and said, ‘Is there something you want to fund that you haven’t been able to do yet because I want to help you.’ She explained that they’d had feedback from women fleeing domestic violence about how hard it was to go through the court system when they had children so that’s where the idea came from.

“We ended up funding the program for two years and it was such a success that it was mentioned in the Royal Commission into Family Violence and was one of the recommendations that came out of it.”

Helping non-profits keep the lights on as well as pioneer new life-changing projects is also important to the Barr Family Foundation.

“I hear from many non-profits that they find it difficult to find and/or receive grants for capacity building,” Barr says.

“We’ll consider capacity building grants where the grant is related to a project that meets the funding guidelines of giving to sick or disadvantaged children and their families. Many philanthropists don’t necessarily share this view.

“The other matter where philanthropy could be more flexible is allowing ‘on-costs’ of a project to be included in the grant proposal,” Barr continues.

“A grant-seeking organisation still has bills to pay – rent, utilities, technology etc, and this money has to come from somewhere.”
 

Teachable moments

Perhaps it’s the teacher in him, but Barr doesn’t miss an opportunity to spread the word about giving and its many rewards.

“I’d like to see more philanthropy in Australia,” he says definitively. “I try to advocate for more giving whenever I can.

“We should be sharing our successes instead of protecting the bottom line of personal wealth. More income doesn’t necessarily improve your wellbeing and you don’t have to be wealthy to give. Even things like collective giving where small amounts of money are pooled together can have real impact.”

As a life-long educator, Barr has also pondered the opportunities for getting more children involved in giving.

“I’m a firm believer in the teachable moment. When I was teaching, it would drive kids nuts when I’d suddenly go off on a tangent because I saw the opportunity for a teachable moment,” Barr recalls with a chuckle.

“But I think there’s a teachable moment, if you will, with one of the personal projects I’m working on at the moment, which is a matched funding initiative.”

“The idea is that young people who raise, say $500 for a cause that’s important to them, I want to spend the time to talk to these children and ask them, ‘Why did you choose this organisation to support? How did you raise the funds?’

“The teachable moment for them will be sitting in an office talking to me about their giving journey, and then me saying, ‘You raised $500 and I’m going to match that, so you’ve raised $1,000.’”

“Even if I only have an impact on 20 or 30 children, that’s hopefully 20 or 30 more philanthropists we have in life.”
 

Two tips for anyone thinking of establishing a family foundation:  

“Be prepared to learn a new skill of responsible giving because it isn’t as easy as it sounds.
“Be involved with your potential grant recipient, face to face if you can – close relationships are much more satisfying than granting from afar.” – Michael Barr, Barr Family Foundation
 

Nicole Richards is a freelance writer, story coach and former Chief Storyteller at Philanthropy Australia.

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