The recent opening of NeuRA’s Margarete Ainsworth building marked the realisation of a grand vision for neurological health and a milestone in Australian philanthropy. Sam Gibbs charts the journey and the foundational role played by one very generous woman. 

In a sun-filled laboratory of Sydney’s Margarete Ainsworth Building, three women are helping to cut a slice of human brain so thin it’s barely one-cell deep.

Federal Minister for Health and Minister for Medical Research Tanya Plibersek MP carefully shifts the sliced tissue onto a microscope slide. NSW State Minister for Health and Minister for Medical Research Jillian Skinner MP applies an antibody solution. Finally, Margarete Ainsworth adds a stain and the cells are ready for use in research into schizophrenia – the disorder that claimed her friend’s life only weeks before.

Together, the three women lending a helping hand at the new $70 million home of medical research institute NeuRA (Neuroscience Research Australia) represent the parties responsible for its existence.

The impressive seven-storey facility – dedicated to the prevention and cure of brain disorders such as stroke, dementia, schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease – has been financed jointly through federal and state government contributions, and a remarkable $22 million of philanthropic funds. Ainsworth herself has injected $10 million – a donation being heralded as one of the most significant individual gifts given by a female in Australian history.

Not that Ainsworth – Gretel to her friends – is one to make much of her philanthropy. A long-time supporter of mental health research, she says she is motivated in her generosity by two simple factors: “A desperate need for research, and a confidence in NeuRA.”

Margarete Ainsworth – small lady, big passion

Small, blonde and driven, Ainsworth is the youngest of seven children. She was born in Thuringia, Germany, and despite the hardships of war endured by her family, fondly remembers an “idyllic upbringing”. Her academic ambitions took her to England, where she met and eventually married Australian Len Ainsworth, founder of poker machine megabrand Aristocrat and self-made billionaire.

In 1994, when Len was diagnosed with prostate cancer and divided up his $180 million company evenly among the nine members of his family, his wife inherited significant personal wealth. Len’s diagnosis was retracted soon after, and while the Ainsworth patriarch busied himself building a new gaming empire, Ainsworth Gaming Technology, Margarete turned her business acumen to her own projects, including a quiet but consistent dedication to philanthropy.  

Over many years, Margarete Ainsworth has made multiple gifts to the programs of the Schizophrenia Research Institute, the University of New South Wales, and NeuRA. Her donations have included support for a PhD scholarship, a research fellowship, and the funding of the Macquarie Group Foundation Chair of Schizophrenia Research – a collaborative project of all three.

“I have always felt for those families living with mental illness,” she says. “Compassion for people who have not been as lucky as I have been has given me inspiration to give.” Ainsworth’s philanthropic philosophy is simple: give to what you feel passionate about. “I find it mentally very rewarding,” she says, “especially when there is a light on the horizon.”

An ambitious vision

The success of NeuRA’s capital campaign resulted from a series of “unexpected wins,” says Professor Peter Schofield, executive director and chief executive officer. The nucleus of a planned research precinct, the new NeuRA building was always an ambitious project.

“We were advised in the early stages of campaign planning that we had some valuable supporters, but not a huge number,” Schofield says. “We were told our aspirations were probably beyond what a campaign might deliver.”

Having already raised $5 million to leverage a $30 million federal government contribution, the NeuRA team set a fundraising target of $14 million and committed to its vision. In early 2011, the project suffered a setback. A NSW state election threatened vital funds.

“$6 million had been pledged by state, but it was a ‘notional allocation’ made before a change of government,” Schofield says. “The money was promised but it wasn’t actually there. You can’t continue work unless you know you can pay your bills.”

Grill guarantees a gift

Chairman of engineering consultancy Worley Parsons, John Grill has been an independent director on the NeuRA Board since 2010. “When John came on the board I thought, fantastic, he’s down to earth but also quite prescient,” Schofield says. “He’ll push me as director.” Grill did more than that – he pushed the capital campaign through its barrier with a personal $3 million guarantee.

“We never had to call on it,” Schofield says, “but John’s underwriting enabled us to proceed until the state pledge was honoured.” Grill then converted his guarantee to a $3 million gift.

The Ainsworth Ask

“In a way, the building did the asking,” Schofield says of the NeuRA structure and its namesake. Over a number of visits to the work site, Ainsworth – clad in hard-hat and construction vest – watched the facility and floors grow around her. “The building was building the crescendo. It was becoming very real. There was a sense of ‘now’s the time’, and there was an important opportunity for women of capacity to be identified as donors.”

“We put the explicit proposal to Margarete at the end of 2012, nearing the end of the campaign, including the significance of such a gift by a female philanthropist,” Schofield says, adding that he left the meeting not knowing its outcome. “It was clear she intended to make a significant gift, but it wasn’t until we learned the amount that we realised just how significant.”

Schofield describes Ainsworth’s $10 million gift as humbling and hopes that it will encourage other women to be equally visible in supporting the causes that matter to them.

Sam Gibbs

Sam is the founding editor of Generosity Magazine (GenerosityMag.com.au). A sister publication of F&P, Generosity is a unique Australian philanthropy resource providing news, best practice examples, how-to articles, donor  profiles and updates on the latest big donations.

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