Tonya and Malcolm McCusker have recently announced a $900,000 donation over three years to Murdoch University. Vicky Dodds profiles the McCusker family’s philanthropic nature and the development of their relationship with the university.

When you meet Tonya and Malcolm McCusker, you quickly understand their passion for making a difference. They both believe that talking about philanthropy helps encourage others to become more generous, but the McCuskers do much more than just talk about it. They are active in helping organisations raise funds, opening their home and making introductions to potential donors with a range of groups.

This year alone, the McCusker Charitable Foundation will distribute over $5 million to more than 80 organisations, including the first instalment of a $900,000 gift over three years to Murdoch University’s Integrated Health Research Institute.

The Murdoch connection

Murdoch University was fortunate to have Malcolm as a member of its senate, or governing council, in its early years from 1977 to 1984. Malcolm also played an important role in the establishment of the university’s law school, which has a strong focus on social justice. Since that time however, the contact with the McCuskers had been intermittent until 2006, when the university established the Banksia Association. The organisation was established to reconnect with people like Malcolm who had played a role in the development of the university.

In 2007, the university initiated its most significant capital campaign to raise $10 million to establish the Institute for Immunology and Infectious Diseases. The then vice chancellor, Professor John Yovich, and I approached Tonya and Malcolm about the project and, when they showed interest, arranged for them to visit the working facilities of the research team. There they met Professor Simon Mallal, the head of the team and a tireless clinician researching treatments and cures for HIV AIDS.

Tonya’s son, Nik, joined them on the visit and was clearly part of the process, gaining an understanding of how the family chooses what the foundation supports. The McCuskers gave the generous first gift of $500,000 to the campaign, which helped to secure a matched gift from Perth philanthropists Stan and Jean Perron.

Since then, Tonya and Malcolm have also been generous with their time, helping to introduce the university to other potential donors and increasing their support for smaller projects, including student scholarships and practical programs for law students.

The next big gift

In 2010, during one of our regular conversations, the McCuskers asked about the range of other medical research being carried out at Murdoch which might also need funding and so began the planning for their next big gift. Professor Yovich and I again met with them to talk about the importance of assisting and encouraging early career researchers and the value of supporting research collaboration.

Over the next three months, Tonya met with the leader of our newly-formed Integrated Health Research Institute and considered several proposals for specific support. This included one exciting option which didn’t eventuate, but in each case our written proposals went back and forth with Tonya until she was confident that she had an option the foundation’s trustees would support. In the end, the foundation pledged $900,000 over three years to support a group of early career researchers and a very targeted multiple sclerosis research project.

Getting to this stage was not a short process. We have enjoyed working closely with Tonya and Malcolm over almost four years, with regular meetings, emails and invitations to keep them up-to-date every step of the way. That work has developed trust and respect on both sides and an understanding of our commitment to help them achieve their goals of benefiting the community.

Charitable by nature

Malcolm, a QC and one of Perth’s most respected lawyers, has recently been announced as WA’s next governor. At the time of the announcement, Malcolm confirmed his intention to donate the governor’s salary of more than $400,000 a year to charity. He and Tonya also decided to refuse the dress allowance, which is part of the governor’s role, and instead made a donation to an organisation providing clothes to women trying to enter the work force free of charge. It is this type of example that is part of a strong theme running through the McCusker’s lives and their philanthropy.

Malcolm and his father had founded the Town and Country Building Society, and the family decided to give back to the community when, many years later, it was purchased by ANZ. The McCusker Charitable Foundation was established and the family has donated more than $20 million to countless organisations over 20 years since, with a strong initial focus on medical research. Tonya and Malcolm are trustees of the foundation, along with Malcolm’s sister Carolyn and lawyer James Edelman.

Tonya is the key contact, managing the work of the foundation and liaising with the many organisations that they support. Her background as a dancer with the Australian Ballet and a law graduate means that she understands the value of hard work and the importance of the arts and education.

A fundraiser’s experience

Having also worked as a fundraiser, Tonya has a unique perspective on fundraising and how fundraisers work from both sides of the fence. She is happy to share her experience and has spoken to large groups of fundraisers in Western Australia to help them to understand how to approach donors and how to develop long-term relationships.

“We have had vastly differing experiences when it comes to fundraising,” Tonya explains. “But it all comes down to developing a relationship with your donor and nurturing that relationship.

“There are fundraisers that I have developed a relationship with, who I have 100% confidence in. If they come to me with a new project, I know it will be a good one and I know our funds will be well managed. The relationship is often two-way and I can ask these fundraisers to help me on other projects. These people are philanthropic by nature and not obsessed with their own organisation, but look at all the needs within our community.

“Some outstanding fundraisers examine the donor relationship from every angle,” she adds. “If we are coming to visit their institute/university they are there to greet us on arrival and parking is organised. “If our daughter Mary is with us, they organise some colouring pencils, they send through a photo of the presentation afterwards, and keep us well updated. This attention to detail gives us enormous confidence that our donation will be well managed.

“There are a few fundraisers that I will not support,” admits Tonya. “Because of previous poor experiences, I have lost confidence in their ability to manage our donations. It is amazing that there are still a few charities that forget to send a thank you letter or who fail to invite the donor to events organised by the charity or to even send a newsletter.

“We understand that many smaller organisations do not have the infrastructure of a large institute or university. However, a simple two paragraph email sent quarterly to a donor, touching base and saying this is what is happening … is all that is needed. Not costly in terms of time or money.”

The theme of setting an example runs through the McCusker story. From Malcolm’s parents, Sir James and Lady Mary McCusker, to the way that Tonya and Malcolm involve their own children and encourage them to feel grateful and help others. WA is fortunate that they do so publicly as an example to others.

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