Philanthropist, arts lover and chair of the Documentary Australia Foundation, Sam Meers AO, on the powerful impact of visual storytelling, the biggest challenges facing philanthropy, the declining currency of kindness and respect…and her secret acting ambitions.
Nicole Richards, January 2019
For Sam Meers, giving in all its forms is a way of life. It is, she says, what connects us as a society and to each other.
“It makes us think deeply about what is important, what kind of society we want and what role we can each play in crafting that society,” she explains.
Together with her father, Nelson Meers AO, Sam co-founded the Nelson Meers Foundation, a private philanthropic arts foundation, in 2001. The foundation was the first prescribed private fund (now known as private ancillary funds) in Australia.
A life-long arts lover with a background in corporate law, Sam’s deep commitment to the arts is plain to see via a quick survey of the boards of she currently serves on, which includes the Art Gallery of NSW, the State Library of NSW and Creative Partnerships Australia. She chairs the boards at the Brett Whiteley Foundation, Belvoir St Theatre and the Documentary Australia Foundation (DAF), the latter of which marked its tenth anniversary last year.
Sam has a long history with Documentary Australia, which aims to foster social impact through documentary storytelling, and has been a supporter since it was founded by former Philanthropy Leader of the Year, Ian Darling, in 2008.
“The Nelson Meers Foundation was a founding donor and I was also a founding director,” she says, adding that she left the DAF board in 2011 then returned as Chair in 2015.
After a decade of compelling results and achievements, Sam reflects on the continued power of documentary filmmaking to spur social change.
As Board Chair, which of Documentary Australia’s achievements over its first 10 years are you most proud of?
Documentary Australia has had a remarkable 10-year trajectory. For those who may not be so familiar with what we do, Documentary Australia connects the not-for-profit, philanthropic and documentary sectors to create positive and measurable social impact. We do this through the powerful combination of documentary storytelling and comprehensive outreach and education programs.
The magical art form of documentary filmmaking provides a safe context to engage with the unfamiliar, and immerse ourselves in issues that we find challenging, or disconcerting, in an open and more thoughtful way. The many, many issues Documentary Australia has explored through the films in its stable over the past decade express for me a cultural democracy in which the ideas of many are considered with deep respect. These stories provide a lens through which to understand our complex world, encouraging a vibrant conversation with diverse perspectives in which the rich democratic traditions of protest and debate are welcomed.
The compassion, the determination and the bravery of documentary filmmakers is breathtaking. They use their art, their vision and their mastery of storytelling to hold all of us to account.
In terms of what I’m most proud of, it’s been a very busy decade, so it’s not easy to be concise! However, I think we’ve achieved four things in particular: Firstly, we’ve created a new shared model for the funding and distribution of documentary films, giving these films a longer life and amplifying their effect. Secondly, we’ve engaged broader audiences, formed crucial partnerships to create greater impact, and influenced individuals, governments and corporates at the highest levels. Thirdly, we’ve established documentary as a critically important social tool with the ability to leverage meaningful impact on a broad range of significant social issues and last but not least, we’ve attracted and disbursed over 24 million dollars of private funding to over 200 documentary films nationally, bringing greater levels of long-term sustainability to the documentary sector
How critical has philanthropy been to the organisation’s success?
Philanthropy has been the reason for our success! Over 95 percent of our funding is through philanthropy. The philanthropic sector has really embraced the Documentary Australia model because it understands the way in which visual storytelling is a powerful tool for social change.
Why do you think visual storytelling is so powerful in this context?
Documentary is the most effective way of allowing us to walk in someone else’s shoes, which makes it a powerful, and at times visceral, way of persuading us to change our perception on an issue.
The visual power of a documentary can move an issue from the abstract to the tangible, influence public policy and access a broad audience, particularly when accompanied by a strategic outreach campaign. Furthermore, new technologies, global access and social media are creating unlimited opportunities to build a film’s audience and achieve broad and rapid momentum on important issues.
There’s a beautiful quote on the Nelson Meers Foundation website that explains your support of the arts [‘In order to live as compassionate human beings, we need to construct a society that enables us to develop imagination and empathy. This learning must be experienced in all dimensions – emotional, intellectual and spiritual. The most powerful place in which all these dimensions converge is in the arts.’] Was your love of the arts innate or learned? Do you personally practice any art?
I was one of those precocious children who grew up singing, dancing, acting and playing lots of musical instruments! Whilst my talent was limited, I became an ardent lover of creative expression in all its forms. My exposure to and sheer enjoyment of creative practice as a child informed my deep belief in the importance of art and creative expression to the fabric of society, and my desire to support those with talent.
These days, I have little time to practice much art of my own, unfortunately, but I’m lucky enough to be able to watch and be inspired by the many talented artists we have in Australia. I still play the guitar and sing a bit with my daughters - and I am secretly hoping Eamon Flack, the artistic director of Belvoir St Theatre, which I chair, will cast me in one of our shows! Eamon??
What’s one thing you know now about philanthropy that you wished you’d known when you were starting out?
It’s the most joyful, but most difficult, task to give money effectively and respectfully.
What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities facing philanthropy today?
Many challenges are, of course, also conversely opportunities. To my mind, the challenges for the philanthropic sector are symptomatic of the many global issues we face today – inequality and polarisation; compromises to truth and trust; challenges to the ideals of democracy; the many complexities around the effect and influence of large philanthropy; dependency on data; and the declining currency of kindness and respect.
The opportunities are increasing wealth and the corresponding influence this brings, particularly in tackling endemic large-scale social issues; the increasing understanding of philanthropy as a non-financial tool and its ability to create positive social change; and increasing connectedness and opportunities through technology. With all of these opportunities comes greater scope for collaboration - in all its forms - and shared knowledge, which is particularly exciting.