A roll call of alumni from Swinburne’s Asia-Pacific Centre for Social Investment and Philanthropy (APCSIP) features the names of some of the most active players in Australian philanthropy today. As SPA marks its 10th anniversary, Adjunct Professor Michael Liffman and a host of graduates reflect on lessons learned.

Billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffett famously said “philanthropy is tougher than business.” Dr Michael Liffman, founding Director of APCSIP at Swinburne University of Technology, agrees.  

After spending a decade and a half at the helm of the Myer Foundation and Sidney Myer Fund, Liffman’s appraisal of Australia’s changing philanthropic landscape 15 years ago identified a detrimental gap.

“In my time at the Foundation, I’d come to realise that the task of social investment is not all that different from financial or commercial investment,” he explains.

“The one difference being you’re looking for a social rather than a financial outcome, and I would argue that the social outcome is both more important and more difficult to achieve.”

“I couldn’t understand why people were giving away money on such an unreflective and emotional basis. Even today, most people probably do more research when they go out to buy a washing machine than they do when they make a much larger philanthropic donation,” Liffman continues.

“It struck me as paradoxical that there were squillions of courses and MBA programs out there to learn about financial investment, but less than a handful available for the harder and more important task of social investment.”

And thus, the Asia-Pacific Centre for Social Investment and Philanthropy (APCSIP) was founded in 2001, launching one of the nation’s first graduate courses in giving.

More than ‘doing good’

Liffman has a strong preference for the term ‘social investment’ over ‘philanthropy.’ The distinction, he says, not only reflects the field’s shift towards metrics and outcomes, but also brings legitimacy and clarity to the fact that both funder and recipient have a stake in the transaction.

“For me, I think the term philanthropy has noble connotations overall, but it tends to be thought of as something wealthy people do for poor people,” he explains. “And of course, associated with that is the worrying self-congratulatory aspect of philanthropy. For some reason, we tend not to treat philanthropy or social investment with the same sort of scrutiny or critique that we apply in other fields.”

According to Liffman, one of the most valuable lessons APCSIP students learn can be summarised in four words: Promote outcomes, not intentions.

“I’ve always wanted students to understand there will always be creative tension between the heart and the head, but we’re not here because we want to do good, or because we’re passionate. The purpose of this course is to focus on intention and what your passions can achieve.”

APCSIP graduates have heeded the call. High profile alumni include Rikki Andrews, Pat Burke and Gillian Hund, who have gone on to establish the collective giving groups Impact100 Melbourne and Melbourne Women’s Fund respectively. Julia Keady and Julie Reilly filled the position of CEO at the Australian Women Donors Network in succession.

If it seems as though women are particularly well represented here, it’s true—the overwhelming majority of students are women; a fact that Liffman says continues to puzzle him.

Beyond Melbourne, Belinda Morrissey heads up the Queensland-based English Family Foundation; Stacey Thomas does the same for the Fay Fuller Foundation in South Australia.

Each cites the formation of a like-minded alumni community as one of the most valuable and enduring outcomes of their study.

“For me both professionally and personally, the course has been the inspiration for growth and development within the philanthropic sector,” Belinda Morrissey says.

“It not only provided me with the baseline tools and knowledge, but opened up an incredible network of passionate people striving to improve our world, a network which has been invaluable over the past decade.”

Formalising that community in 2005, a group of alumni created Swinburne Philanthropy Alumni (SPA) with the intention of contributing to the broader community and gaining practical experience by setting up a philanthropic fund with Australia’s largest community foundation, the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation (LMCF).

Current SPA Committee President, Sarah Wickham, who is also cofounder of the new collective giving social enterprise, Good Mob, says the opportunity for members to develop grant making, compliance and fundraising skills as a result of managing their own philanthropic sub-fund has been invaluable and that SPA is the only philanthropy student group in the world to have established its own philanthropic vehicle. To date, more than $20,000 has been disbursed to a wide range of nonprofits.

“My work as President of SPA helped me secure my dream job,” Wickham says. “I now work at Equity Trustees with their philanthropic clients to establish individual giving vehicles and support them in their philanthropic journey.”

“I’m very fortunate to work with people every day who are in the position to give back and are driven by the motivation to support a better future for their communities. I wouldn’t have the skills, resources or networks to do this job if I hadn’t taken the time to be involved in SPA while studying my Masters of Social Investment and Philanthropy.”

For Pat Burke, the opportunity to study alongside people with shared values and goals was life changing. “After an early career in HR in the US and emigrating to Australia, I sought a new direction so that the efforts from my work would contribute to social good,” she explains.

“Through the meaningful friendships and connections I made during the course, new opportunities arose for me in the nonprofit sector amongst people with shared values and goals. Now, through my role [as Victoria and Tasmania Manager] at Philanthropy Australia and as co-founder of the Melbourne Women’s Fund, each day is about growing philanthropy and giving.”

Stacey Thomas believes the real learning came from establishing “networks of like-minded grant making professionals, people who were able to discuss the theory but also provide real life examples of situations to back it up. Chatham House rules always applied and it created a really trusting environment,” she says. “I still call a number of peers from the course close friends and we still share our learnings and stories about philanthropy.”

Rikki Andrews says the course introduced her not only to “a fabulous new career” (present roles include Founding Committee Member, Impact100Melbourne, Non-Executive Director, Inner North Community Foundation and Trustee at Trust for Nature), but also to an “amazing professional network.”

“It’s exciting to see the impact that graduates are making across the country, especially in the space of collective giving—the SPA Trust started us all! As someone new to Melbourne I have been very fortunate to gain friends as well as colleagues through the course and am very glad I cut out the ad from The Age back in 2004!”

Theory into practice

On 28 October, many of these alumni came together in Melbourne to celebrate SPA’s tenth anniversary, hear a thought provoking presentation from UK social impact investing specialist, David Carrington, and fundraise for the future of the philanthropic fund, which has a corpus just shy of $100,000.

“The success of our fund is due to some very generous early donors, many of those were students of the Masters program at the time who helped establish the fund,” Wickham says.

“We hope that this 10th anniversary celebration is a good opportunity for the SPA community to look towards the next 10 years, to consider new and innovative ways to both grow the culture of giving in Australia and support a sustainable nonprofit sector.”

“So many of our alumni have gone on to make meaningful contributions to the Australian philanthropic sector as well as grow both the culture of giving and the sustainability of the nonprofit sector. I like to think that these advances wouldn’t have been possible without the training, networking and opportunities provided to our SPA members and supporters at the early stage of their careers.”


To support the SPA sub-fund, visit: www.lmcf.org.au/waystogive/donate




Of the people, by the people, for the people: Rikki Andrews

Building a movement: The collective future of philanthropy

Philanthropy’s magic pudding

SPA: 10 years 11 stories



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