Stories in philanthropy

Racing against the clock: Seri Renkin on the challenges and opportunities of a ‘sunset’ foundation

Describing itself as a ‘catalytic philanthropy organisation’ the ten20 Foundation was established with an intentionally short, 10-year funding horizon. That’s now been whittled down to eight years because the need for investment in its chosen focus area has been so great. Seri Renkin, Managing Director of ten20 Foundation and Chair of the Stella Prize, shares her thoughts on the challenges and opportunities of catalysing impact in a short time frame.

Nicole Richards, October 2018


When asked what it means to be a ‘catalytic philanthropy organisation’, Seri Renkin, Managing Director of ten20 Foundation says it boils down to intentions and approaches (and a good dose of self-awareness).

“We see ourselves as being early stage catalysers of supporting new ways of working within a systems change frame,” she explains.

“We also see ourselves as being as much a part of the problem as the problem itself.”

This frank assessment isn’t something you hear very often from foundation leaders. Renkin says candour and greater self-awareness come with the territory when you take a systems view of a complex problem.

“The role philanthropy plays will either inhibit or enable change, or in some cases, create unintended consequences which can be positive or negative,” she says.

“It would be fair to say that we thought we had the right mindset from the start, but we’ve been challenged on that, and listening to feedback we realised there was a bit of ego with our brand and being little and trying to have bigger impact when you know you’re not going to be around too long.

“What we’ve learned is that humility is about really taking the time to listen, respond and build trusted relationships and that’s not easy.”

Holding itself accountable to its own organisational principles and ways of working, Renkin says the urgency that comes with a fixed operational deadline (ten20 is due to close its doors in 2020) has freed the foundation in some ways to take more risks.

“We can’t change the fact that we’ve only got a corpus that’s so big and that we’re only around for a certain amount of time,” Renkin says. “So, the question becomes, ‘How can we catalyse disruption and innovation that creates ripples and tipping points?’”

“We’ve got such a short time, everything we do matters.” 

“As a small sunset foundation, we’ve been able to take a lot of risk around testing new things, and working with community and organisational partners we’ve been able to keep asking, ‘What is it about our approach and our way of working that’s either helping or hindering the communities on the ground doing the work they need to do?’

“That’s driven a different way of working for us as a foundation,” Renkin says. “We’ve had to be quite adaptive.”

“We’ve had to constantly look at our impact, our governance and our accountability and make them responsive. As a sunset foundation, we’ve always been a bit of an innovation lab and now we’ve started to codify what we’ve learnt and how that might be helpful to others."


The incubation process

The ten20 Foundation was established in 2013 using the funds generated by the sale of assets of GordonCare, a 125-year old children’s charity. 

Committed to a collective impact approach, ten20 launched Opportunity Child in 2014 to address the fact that one in five Australian kids starts school with significant challenges in life and learning. Joining forces with six communities and eight national partner organisations, Opportunity Child works to align individual strategies that improve outcomes for children and young people, and drive systems change.

In what’s been called a milestone for ten20, Opportunity Child will formally separate from the Foundation later this month in order to become its own ongoing, independent legal entity.

A statement announcing the change acknowledged the “boundaries of ten20’s role as a philanthropic catalyser and the importance of releasing Opportunity Child to enable its ongoing sustainability and legacy.”  

“When we talk about our role as a catalyser, it’s not about catalysing then just disappearing,” Renkin says. “It’s about ensuring enough of our initiatives, like Opportunity Child, have got traction so that the ripples of our legacy will go on. We’re passing a baton to others and hoping that the ripples we’ve catalysed will keep going.”

That’s not to say Renkin believes ripples alone will solve the problem and change the system.

“We’ve learned how hard it is to achieve change, even collectively,” Renkin says.  

“When philanthropy keeps asking for better evaluation and clearer signs of impact, but is only prepared to fund over a two-year period when the problems will take at least a generation to solve, you stop and ask yourself, ‘Who are you kidding?’”

“Working in systems change as a sunset organisation is almost a contradiction in terms because we’re not around very long, yet we’re working in a space where you have to be patient.”

“You can be a little bit of a disruptor when you know you’re going to disappear,” Renkin says with the hint of a smile. “You can give yourself permission to be annoying, to agitate and challenge power structures in a way that others can’t.”


Stories and systems

Working to achieve systems change seems to be Renkin’s natural habitat. Marrying up her committed advocacy for diversity with her love of literature, Renkin has served for the last three years on the board of the Stella Prize, a major literary award that celebrates, and champions, Australian women’s writing. This year, she took up the position of board chair.

“I’ve always loved stories,” Renkin says. “I’ve learnt a lot through my work with the communities at ten20 about the importance of narrative and stories in building cultural norms and behaviours and calling out stereotypes and gender biases. Stories can teach us acceptance and empathy for others - all these things are really important to creating a national identity and a story around who we are as Australians.”

“What’s become apparent,” Renkin continues, “is that Australian women’s stories don’t get the same recognition as other writing.”

The Stella Prize seeks not only to recognise Australian women’s writing, but to attract more readers and increase sales. The Stella Schools Program is designed to equip young readers with the skills to question gender disparities and the ability to imagine a future not limited by gender.   

“I’m really interested in enabling young people to be part of a better future which includes diversity,” Renkin says. “At the moment, our young women and men aren’t getting the opportunity within the school curriculum to do that critical thinking around language and discourse and stereotypes.”

Taking a systems change view, Renkin is quick to acknowledge that gender issues and stereotypes are further compounded by inequity.

“We cannot underestimate the impact of the structural inequities of racism and social and economic disadvantage,” Renkin says.

“That’s ultimately the challenge: how do you shift intergenerational disadvantage? You’ve got to go to the heart of what creates and reinforces these conditions.”

Though systems change often dictates a steep learning curve and a long journey, Renkin remains optimistic.

“I’ve always been someone who wanted to make some small contribution of good in the world,” she says.

“We haven’t got it all right by any means, but the learnings have been equally as important as our successes.”





Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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