Genevieve Timmons

The virtues of curiosity and commitment

Genevieve Timmons is telling a story against herself. No surprise there. Those who know her will nod knowingly. She starts off on the tale, there’s the occasional giggle, a burst of laughter. If a smile can have a sound, it’s there in her voice.

Genevieve is recalling an occasion at Government House in Melbourne when the place was packed for the launch of a new leadership network. Across the crowded room, Genevieve saw a good friend, Paul Briggs, a member of the Indigenous Leadership Network. Amid the several hundred guests, the tinkle of glasses, the hubbub of chatter that becomes a kind of dull roar, Genevieve turned to Paul and asked: “What would you say is the one thing we need to understand about leadership that is part of First Nations culture, but that we've missed?“

 “A bit of silence would be good,’’ Paul responded. Genevieve continues the story. “Muggins me, looks at him and says quite seriously: ‘Oh, we should get together and talk more about that sometime’. And as he waits for the penny to drop, Paul smiles with such acceptance and grace and humour.’’ 

The story will come with a nod of affirmation from those who know Genevieve – it’s a classic example of how she sees the world, turning experience into insights, shaping knowledge into a shared resource. 

Genevieve Timmons is one of those people in Australian philanthropy who has been close to the heart of the action for the past 35 years, initially as a founding member of the CERES project in Brunswick, then the Reichstein Foundation, followed by the Portland House Foundation, and until last week’s AGM, a board member of Philanthropy Australia. 

Talk to pretty much anyone in philanthropy and they know her. Ben Rodgers, Executive Officer of the Inner North Community Foundation in Melbourne, worked closely with Genevieve when she was the Foundation’s chair. Her reputation preceded her: 

“Genevieve is one of those people who you hear about before you meet. Family friends would say how amazing she was and how we should meet,’’ Ben says. “And then one day we met over the back fence near Darebin Parklands. It turned out we were neighbours and lived three houses from each other.  A few years later she hired me as the EO for the Inner North Community Foundation in her role as Chair.’’ 

More importantly, many people in philanthropy also know what Genevieve has done and admire the way she has done it, working across Australia and New Zealand, exploring new ways of giving. Take for example Trawalla group managing director and former Philanthropy Australia chair Alan Schwartz: “I think when they tell the story of philanthropy in Australia…Genevieve will be one of the 10 people who would be named as being very, very influential in the early years, in the professionalisation of philanthropy.  

“She has an incredible warmth, an incredible human touch and a love of people. A genuine goodness about her that I think is really important. It’s not just her skills, her intelligence… but she influenced a lot of people [and] she inspired a lot of people.’’ 

Besen Family Foundation Chair Debbie Dadon agrees while singling out another quality Genevieve has brought to her contribution to philanthropy. “It’s her deep breadth of knowledge,’’ Debbie says. “She’s worked in the area for so long and she’s very generous and always makes herself available to share what is best practice.’’ 

Knowledge, in fact, may be the key to understanding what runs like a ribbon through Genevieve’s career. The quest to know and to understand has only been rivalled by her acceptance of not knowing what she doesn’t know, a liberating junction in the professional journey. 

It is an important part of the book she wrote, Savvy Giving, now seven years old and awaiting the author’s final revisions for a second edition. In the Genevieve Timmons’ knowledge wheel, the “biggest piece is that we don’t know what we don’t know’’.

“Until you see someone else do something you don’t even realise it’s an option,’’ she says. “That’s the wonderful creativity that philanthropy allows if we don’t stay stuck in our own vision of what we think needs to happen.’’ 

But just because she understands the power of this hidden piece of knowledge, doesn’t mean Genevieve will suddenly reveal an answer or a strategy that transforms the philanthropic equation. Her role, as she sees it, has been more nuanced than that. 

“People say I’m expert in all this but I’m sort of a channeller,’’ she explains. “I just channel whatever people ask and there’s usually a good answer… [Philanthropy] is not like the law, medicine or engineering where somebody else has already given you the answer, where the profession is highly defined. We’re in a field where we are still pioneering and setting down the frameworks, so for people to be willing to be open and to say: ‘I don’t know and I want to find out’ is part of the pioneering element – it still needs to be done.’’ 

In this world view, it’s not about right or wrong, solutions and fixes – it’s about having the courage to ask the question in the first place. That’s what Genevieve is looking for in all those conversations she has with those who work in philanthropy. 

“I don’t need them to be right, I just need them to be curious and committed,’’ she explains. “There’s no right question as long as they’re prepared to say: ‘I want this to work and I want to know – can it be better? ‘And it’s accelerating their progress, wherever they are on the continuum, as long as they’re asking that, they’re going to get somewhere that’s good value. And I love it, it’s such a good moment for me. When people go: “Oh, this is great, I can see where the value is landing, let’s keep doing this.’’ 

Her pleasure in those moments of inspiration is almost tangible, even in a Zoom interview. Over more than three decades, those moments mount up. And sometimes, other people think it’s time you get the recognition you deserve. For Genevieve, it was an Honorary Doctorate from Swinburne University for her contribution to philanthropy and social change in Australia. It conferred an honour on her that many saw as the formal expression of her years of work on the ground. 

Ben Rodgers explains: “Most of my best insights about community foundations come from Genevieve! She role-models leadership and has given advice and perspective on different issues. She has a wonderful sense of how to step lightly in the world, how not to get frustrated and how to have hard conversations.’’ 

After such spontaneous endorsements, you could be forgiving for retreating into the background. Not now. There’s still too much to be done. Genevieve is now working for the Paul Ramsay Foundation, and the Naomi Milgrom Foundation. And yes, the deadline for the new edition of Savvy Giving, was ahem! a little while ago, but it will get finished soon.  

But in a moment of reflection, what is the moment in her career she cherishes? There’s no hesitation. 

 “Straight up, a very personal thing,’’ she says. “The fact that work has brought me in proximity to First Nations people who have become my friends and colleagues and it’s really been the only way that I can start to understand what the hell we’ve done as colonisers.’’ 

And Genevieve would like to acknowledge: 

Belinda Duarte, Paul Briggs and Stephanie Armstrong, First Nations leaders from the Fellowship for Indigenous Leadership, who have brought their grace, intelligence and courage to our sector, and demonstrated among many things the cultural values of Dadirri - deep listening; the importance of silence; and willingness to take responsibility for knowledge when it is given to us.  

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