Stories in philanthropy

“Great leaders are truly inclusive”: Sam Mostyn on leadership, diversity and giving

Sam Mostyn is a leader in so many fields it’s hard to keep track. She’s won awards for her leadership and for breaking down barriers and bringing attention to issues ranging from diversity to Indigenous reconciliation and environmental sustainability. Her work may be complex, but the values that drive her are powerfully simple, reflecting what she calls the difference between a wealthy life and a rich one.

Nicole Richards, March 2019

It’s hard to give a pithy introduction to someone whose work is as busy and varied as Sam Mostyn’s which spans business, government, sport, the arts and community. To view her professional experience as per her LinkedIn profile is an exercise in lengthy scrolling.

Here are the highlights: She is Chair of Australia's National Research Organisation for Women's Safety (ANROWS), Citi Australia, Carriageworks and FYA, sits on the boards of GO Foundation, Climate Works, the Climate Council, Mirvac, Transurban, Virgin Australia and the Sydney Swans. Mostyn made headlines in 2005 when she was appointed the AFL’s first female commissioner. She was President of the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) for four years, commissioner at the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, Deputy Chair of the Diversity Council of Australia and held roles at the National Mental Health Commission and the National Sustainability Council. She was a policy adviser to Prime Minister Paul Keating. There’s plenty more, but you get the picture.

To this list, Mostyn has recently added the role of Chair at the Australian Women Donor’s Network (AWDN), the education-focused non-profit that advocates for gender-sensitive practice within the social investment and grant-making sector.

The decision to add to her portfolio of board roles wasn’t one Mostyn made lightly, but the process was helped by her deep familiarity with AWDN, an organisation she has been “in and around for a number of years.”

“My choices about where to spend my time come down to the purpose of the organisation and the quality and commitment of the people involved,” Mostyn explains.

“AWDN has always had the most extraordinary women involved. I’ve always admired Eve Mahlab [AWDN founder], Deanne Weir [former AWDN Chair], Jill Reichstein, Catherine Fox and of course Julie Reilly, [CEO] who is the tour de force running the organisation.

“There’s also a lot of interconnection with other areas that I can bring to the work of AWDN.”

On the eve of International Women’s Day, Sam happily agreed to share her thoughts about diversity and inclusion, why philanthropy has a vanguard role to play, the values that guide her own giving, what drives her and some lessons she’s learned along the way.


You’ve spent much of your career advocating for diversity. Why does greater diversity and inclusion matter?

We know that gender equality and the true equal empowerment of women and girls can underpin success in all domains.

So, whether that’s access to education, access to good jobs, access to capital and money, access to leadership roles – greater gender equality, we know, solves so many of the world’s greatest problems.

Every sector I’ve ever worked in, when we’ve done the work to confront what it means to be gender equal and address the systems and processes that are inherently biased against women and girls, the outcomes are bigger than you can imagine.

This is a global priority as captured in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. SDG5 sets the ambition to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. When we don’t include women and girls, we’re leaving out half the population. It starts as early as ensuring equal access to education for girls, supporting their ambitions and removing bias from all our systems.

Solving gender equality solves so many other problems.

When I turn to philanthropy, one of the things I find most interesting is that we’ve always thought philanthropy is very good in this area and yet there are relatively few funders who actually apply a gender lens to their grantmaking. Those philanthropists who are starting to use a gender lens are often surprised at what they find in their own giving which is why it has to be an intentional examination.

It’s interesting that in this year’s Gates Letter, Bill and Melinda Gates say that one of the things that surprised them most in 2018 was the fact that we’re still not measuring the gender gap in investment in women.

When we invest in women, in whatever form that may be – philanthropically, in a business sense or entrepreneurially - the data is conclusive. When you invest in women you get a very, very good return however you want to measure that return.

This is an area where philanthropy can achieve great things.  


Do you think we’re making progress?

I do. I’m a practical optimist so I’ve got to believe that we are. I see opportunities everywhere.

Part of what drives me is to see if we can accelerate this change, but sustainable change takes time and there are many layers here that require attention, for instance bringing more women into positions of power to direct funds, getting more women involved in our political system etc.

It’s slower than I’d like, and it’s possibly time for us to set more aggressive targets and ambitions so we can achieve some of these outcomes faster.

I have a 19-year old daughter and I often think about many of the indicators I thought would be resolved by now. I didn’t imagine we’d still be solving for these issues today. It is disturbing that my daughter has so many of the same concerns about safety from violence – an area that needs great focus now.


What role do you think philanthropy can play in supporting diversity and inclusion and specifically, facilitating greater investment in women and girls?

I see it as a structural opportunity. We see improvement when there are more women sitting at the table as trustees or on foundation boards. That’s where there’s a significant opportunity to have a different conversation about giving and applying a gender lens to that giving provides a pathway for improving giving decisions.

When philanthropy moves on an area, government will often come in and sometimes provide substantial support as will the private sector. Philanthropy is often at the vanguard.

When it comes to gender equality, I think we’ll see a lot of investment into wicked problems like domestic violence and women’s homelessness where philanthropy can take a lead because it is patient and brave and can choose to back the right people.


What would you like to achieve during your time as Chair of AWDN?

One of my ambitions is that we develop a really deep understanding of the role of giving to women and girls such that we know what that’s doing out in the broader world to address some of the big structural issues.

I’d like to see more people who give to know about the network and I’d like to connect AWDN to so many other fields that have ambitions but haven’t yet connected.

Ultimately, I’d like to see the normalising of giving to women and girls so that it’s the most natural priority for a philanthropist or anyone involved in giving.

Our founder, Eve Mahlab AO said, ‘If you treat unequal people the same, they will remain unequal - we need to take a genderwise approach if we are to truly strengthen society.’


At its most fundamental level, why is giving important to you?

For me, when you live in an unequal world that still struggles with what inclusion means, I believe that for anyone who has the means and intention to be a good citizen, the act of giving is one of the most important things we can do to ensure we’re an active part of the society in which we live.

I was raised in a middle-class family. My father was an army officer and I was one of four kids, so it wasn’t a wealthy life, but it was a rich life in so many ways. I was brought up to believe in volunteering in your local community and helping others.  

As the oldest child, my dad used to say to me, ‘You have choice in your life so be grateful for that and exercise that choice wisely and well.’ He’s a generous man who devoted his life to service in army then devoted 10 years of his life giving to a disability community in Canberra. We door knocked for the Salvos and other charities; I spent my summers teaching swimming to kids with a disability.

Giving is one of the most important things we do alongside volunteering, mentoring and engaging in community life. I don’t think waiting to be super rich to give is a prescription for a good life.

It’s trite to say it but the giver always gets so much more. Acts of generosity define good societies.


What does your own philanthropy look like?

Half of my portfolio of work is always of a voluntary nature. It’s my choice to give my time and focus to the non-profit sector.

I’ve always been a regular giver to certain things like Medecins Sans Frontieres long before I joined ACFID and I’m also a regular giver to Indigenous X.

I divert many of my speaking fees or advisory board fees directly to the organisations and my bigger giving tends to be saved for specific things that I have a particular interest in.

My philanthropy sits around gender equality, environment and climate change, Indigenous reconciliation, arts, education and young people.

I think it’s important to give a strong proportion of my income to those things I care deeply about.


What does great leadership look like to you?

It’s compassionate and generous and humble – those are lessons I learned in my family.

What I’ve learnt along the way is that great leaders are insatiably curious and enjoy learning from others – they don’t assume they’re the smartest person in the room and are excited, not frightened, by bringing along others who are much smarter.

Great leaders are great listeners and they’re generally good communicators and storytellers who can bring their whole selves to bear on the issue they’re leading. There’s power and authenticity in that.

They’re also relentless in their pursuit of the right outcomes.

And last, but not least, great leaders are truly inclusive.


Who or what inspires you?

There are so many people who inspire me. Ian Darling is one, Audette Exel is another. The model Audette has developed at Adara is unique in that it brings the full power and capacity of a group of corporates directly to the development work she’s focused on. What she’s doing is extraordinary and I learn from her all the time.

But I’m constantly inspired by the nature and quality of volunteerism and giving in this country.


Are there three young or emerging women leaders you think philanthropy should know about?

From my vantage point at the Foundation for Young Australians, three emerging leaders to look out for are:

Zoe Condliffe from She’s a Crowd, Lily Dempster from The Neighbourhood Effect and Jane Kou from Bring Me Home.
 

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

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