Stories in philanthropy

The next evolution: The Myer Foundation’s journey to refresh its strategic plan

“I see it as an evolution of the thinking that’s been developing over recent years,” says Leonard Vary, CEO of The Myer Foundation and Sidney Myer Fund, describing the recent update of the philanthropic institutions’ shared strategic plan. Anchoring the two entities’ work to four pillars (People, Organisations, Beyond Grantmaking and Family Engagement) the decision was made to wrap up the Education program and narrow the grantmaking focus to three areas: Arts & Humanities, Poverty & Disadvantage, Sustainability & the Environment. Here Leonard Vary shares the challenges and learnings and how the foundation navigated the journey.

Nicole Richards, September 2018

Few names are as recognisable on Australia’s giving landscape as that of the Myer family which has not one, but two, longstanding philanthropic entities: The Sidney Myer Fund, established by the will of the retail magnate, Sidney Myer, who died in 1934; and The Myer Foundation which was established by Sidney’s sons, Kenneth and Baillieu, with the support of their sisters, Lady Southey and Neilma Gantner, in 1959.

In 2016-17 the combined grantmaking of The Myer Foundation and Sidney Myer Fund was $13.6 million. Both organisations have distinct but complementary programs and are managed by the same Melbourne-based team.

When it came time to ponder the organisation’s five-year strategy that will guide its work through to 2023, CEO Leonard Vary says the team took a wide view.

“There’s nothing quite like the passing of time to focus one's attention,” Vary says. “With our existing strategy coming towards its natural end on June 30 this year we knew we had to step back and think about the focus that might guide the next five years.”

“We were keen to think about what was going on in the world that would inform the way we structured and developed the strategic plan,” he explains.

“Our starting point was ‘Let’s not pre-judge anything, but rather, let’s look and understand what’s happening.’”


The process

After a detailed literature review, Vary, two of the Sidney Myer Fund trustees and a program manager undertook a four-week study tour to the US and UK which included Philanthropy Australia’s 2017 UK study tour. The study tour was followed by a planning period used to explore “what it was we thought might represent a useful role for us in the philanthropic ecosystem,” Vary says.

Throughout the process, Vary and his team kept the organisation’s stakeholders engaged and worked closely with its directors and trustees.

“Though we didn’t go into this process with preconceived ideas, we did have a good sense that we needed a more focused approach to grantmaking that perhaps encompassed fewer programs so that we could develop greater expertise in key areas and fund those more significantly.”

These were prescient thoughts, with the review process ultimately settling upon four strategic themes for FY2019-2023:

1 – People: The Myer Innovation Fellowships, Sidney Myer Creative Fellowships and the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards will continue and an additional program that invests in non-profit leaders will be launched in partnership with The Ian Potter Foundation, with the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation having recently joined as an equal funding partner.

“When Craig [Connelly, CEO of The Ian Potter Foundation] and I first discussed the idea of developing and co-funding a program, we had in mind the thought that we might pool our resources and send a number of non-profit leaders off to Harvard and Stanford for a given number of years,” Vary explains.

“But with the benefit of the literature review and time in the US, we completely changed our minds. We come to the view that our prior thinking wouldn’t be likely to maximise impact or most sensibly use our limited resources. Instead we realised we ought to be thinking of developing a program that’s more aligned with several that are already up and running in the US such as those run by the Barr Foundation or the Durfee Foundation  which put an emphasis on sabbatical retreats, creating networks and providing support to the CEO’s immediate team.

“Ultimately, though the US experience was very informative, we wanted to understand the views of the Australian non-profit sector. Together with The Ian Potter Foundation, we convened a half-day session with 20 non-profit leaders facilitated by Peter Mares and talked those leaders through the findings of the literature review and what we’d discovered on our trip.

“We talked about what those leaders thought was needed by the sector and asked them, if the decision were theirs, how would they structure a leadership development program. It’s still in the development stage, but we’re making good progress.”

The prospect of a program dedicated to supporting non-profit CEOs has been warmly welcomed by the sector.

“Whenever I speak to people about our strategy, they are always super interested in this program simply on the basis that support and resources for CEOs to take time out is so rare yet so necessary given the stressful and under-resourced nature of those roles.”


2 – Organisations: Under this theme, organisational funding within Poverty & Disadvantage, Sustainability & Environment; Arts & Humanities will be directed to multi-year unrestricted general operating support. 

Vary says the need for unrestricted capacity support was a recurrent theme at the many meetings he and the foundation’s trustees participated in locally and abroad. 

“In hindsight, the importance of this theme is obvious, but it hadn’t dawned on me properly until I’d heard it a couple of times,” Vary admits.

“The most compelling argument is that most of our programs all have defined parameters and that encourages grantees to contort themselves in order to make themselves eligible for one of those programs. The result that flows is that our limited resources, and theirs, are deployed on suboptimal projects.

“Really, if we exist for the benefit of the sector, shouldn’t we be identifying non-profits that are mission aligned with us and whose work we value and is valuable and backing their decisions as to the deployment of the resources?

“It also prompted us to think very carefully and more sparingly about any short-term grantmaking,” Vary continues. “There have been plenty of organisations funded by us over the years, such as ClimateWorks and Asialink, which we’ve funded for year after year on a unrestricted basis and this just affirmed the need for us to think about our other grantmaking in that way.”

The consolidation to three large program areas has meant that the Education program will be phased out from the end of the 2018 financial year. Vary says it was a difficult but necessary decision.

“Transitioning out of education was an extremely difficult choice - there was no right answer,” he says. “But in the end, if we want to be more focused, we need to act in a way that is consistent with that objective.”


3 – Beyond Grantmaking: Advocacy and policy change will become heightened areas of interest, with the Fund and Foundation willing to take public positions on issues that align with their values. Collaboration and convening within the philanthropic sector remains a priority as does building the impact investing market. Exploring options to divest from fossil fuel investments is another item on the foundation’s agenda. 

“This really is an evolution rather than a revolution,” Vary says.

“The commitment to marketing building activity in the impact investing space was apparent in our last five-year strategy as was committing part of our corpus to impact investing opportunities which we’ll look to increase from 2 per cent to 6 per cent.

“The key message is that we in philanthropy can continue to fund forever and ever and not even begin to scratch the surface of need.

“It was useful to see that the Americans in particular are very interested in the use of scarce, but fiercely independent philanthropic dollars to influence government and the corporate world so that the really big money in those two sectors might be influenced in a way that is consistent with the philanthropic sector’s objectives.”

Vary points to grants the foundation has made in the realm of advocacy and policy influence, including its support of the Human Rights Law Centre, Australians for Equality, the Recognise campaign and the Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre’s Without Suspicion campaign.

“Advocacy is something that occupies our mind and that we wish to focus on with greater emphasis,” Vary says.


4 – Family Engagement: Unsurprisingly, with three generations of Myers involved in giving, family engagement remains a cornerstone of the organisation’s activity.

The Myer family was actively involved in the strategy refresh, which Vary describes as “an appropriately iterative process.”

“In my experience it’s the only way to usefully think about and examine prospective changes and understand what might be relevant to us,” Vary says.

“We spent a lot of time speaking to our directors and trustees at each stage of the process so that we could understand the different interests and recalibrate accordingly.”

“The Myers are a remarkable bunch,” he says. “The whole process was strongly encouraged and was made very seamless. That’s not to say we all agreed on every point but there’s a real desire within the family to think about how our resources might best be deployed. It’s been a stimulating and interesting journey.”


Lessons learned

From a leadership perspective, Vary says keeping an open mind was one of the most valuable lessons he took from the experience.

“Approaching it all with a very open mind really helped me,” he says.

“When we started this journey in August last year, we committed to taking it one step at a time and pausing at the end of each step to test our thinking with our peers and our authorising environment before moving onto the next steps.

“Breaking that thinking down into categories was also useful, for example asking the question ‘What is unique about philanthropic funding and are we thinking about that clearly and how does it all fit in?’

“Also, being able to take our time on it was important,” Vary adds.

“We started early and I’m really grateful that we did as there has been a great deal to think about. Each iteration of our strategy has seen its being further refined. Ultimately, we’ve ended up with a 30-page strategy plus five appendices so it’s a comprehensive document. We also created a one-page summary of our strategy which has proved particularly useful for the purpose of communicating our thinking. A lot of work has been done but the effort has been very much worth it.”

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