Sue McKinnon shares her giving journey, including the rewards of engaged giving, philanthropy’s critical role in shifting parameters, and why every investment has an impact.
Philanthropy spends a lot of time talking about social justice—Sue McKinnon favours action.
Together with her husband and McKinnon Family Foundation co-founder, John, Sue is not just a funder, but an advocate, mentor, and occasionally an accounting advisor (by virtue of her professional background), who stands side-by-side on the frontline with communities bearing the brunt of climate change.
During the course of a couple of phone conversations, it was impossible to miss her passion and commitment. Sue is focused, extremely well-informed about the issues that matter to her, and is, I would venture, a leading protagonist in the movement towards engaged philanthropy.
NR: When you set up your PAF in 2005, what did you hope to achieve with your giving? Has that goal shifted over time?
SMc: Our main aim in setting up the PAF was to facilitate giving over a long period of time so that we could put more thought into it and commit to sustained giving to organisations over a number of years. We’ve learnt that when you can commit to three or five or more years’ worth of funding it makes such a difference.
So that facilitation aspect has worked out really well and I’d have to say that using that approach means you’re not under pressure to give on the spot.
Our initial focus was on poverty alleviation in more vulnerable parts of the world and over time we realised that involved climate change. We could see Australia’s key role initially as an international player leading the way, but since then Australia has become a tremendous blocker and at the same time dropping aid which we’re concerned about too.
I think our tactics have changed over time, but the aim to help the poorest of the poor is still there.
What are the values that guide your giving and how did you come to choose your focus areas for the Foundation?
For me, it’s focusing on justice. That means loving your neighbour as yourself and looking to see if justice is being served. It includes economic justice as well as political justice, and that change doesn’t happen overnight.
We’ve always operated at three levels: immediate relief, developing sustainable communities, and advocacy.
We look for the communities that are on the front line, for instance those with gas wells or coal ports. We want to support those people so that they strengthen their communities during transitions. It’s not enough just to lobby at federal or state level for the closure of coal-fired power stations—you have to help equip people at the local level for those transitions.
The work we’re involved with on the Great Barrier Reef has several levels: equipping people at the local level, helping them connect with other groups, finding allies among tourism operators, as well as getting involved in strategic litigation to influence the process and challenge the underlying narrative.
Did you grow up with a strong environmental sensibility?
No, both John and I grew up in the country and at the time, nature wasn’t much of a consideration at all. It was more a case of ‘If it moves, shoot it; if it doesn’t, cut it down.’ So I can’t say that I grew up with an early love of nature.
I think our connection to the environment really came about while we working in overseas aid and development. The most vulnerable people and communities are always impacted first and worst. We could see the challenges involved in addressing climate change and that really started to shift our thinking in terms of working, campaigning and donating.
How did you first get involved in impact investing and why do you prefer to drop the ‘impact’ from impact investing?
John has an investment background and spent 17 years in the industry. He became disenchanted with traditional investing and did his PhD on social enterprises operating in the NGO space.
When we had our own money to look after we wanted all our investments to be ethical and we wanted them to have a positive impact.
From John’s research we saw that it was possible to have business that are profitable and that do good at same time—it wasn’t just a pipedream.
I guess the adjunct is that it seems crazy to invest all your funds in things that are doing harm in the world and then use 5 or 10 per cent of your funds each year to try to fix up some of those problems.
Traditionally there’s been a very wide gulf in philanthropic funds between what you do with your money in your investing and how you do your giving—they were on completely different pages.
It’s interesting to see an organisation like Rockefeller Brothers Fund turn around and say ‘There’s a connection to climate change there and we’re not going to invest oil and gas anymore.’ That notion has grown very quickly and it’s fantastic seeing the biggest funders taking it up.
All investing has an impact. As soon as you say it people realise it’s true. Everything has an impact—whether good or bad. Good investing leaves the world better off socially and environmentally.
We’d like turn the conversation about impact investing around and say it’s ALL impact investing. Everything you invest in has an impact and you should find out what that is, and decide if you’re OK with that.
Both you and John are very engaged givers. Why have you chosen to handle the work of the Foundation yourselves?
Our foundation is of the size that we could employ somebody full time but we’ve chosen to do it all ourselves, from the investing to the granting and the due diligence, and that’s been very satisfying.
I think we’re somewhat uniquely placed amongst many donors in that we have experience as business entrepreneurs as well as in running a nonprofit which helps us understand what it looks like on that side of the fence, too.
People often tell us we “get” what it’s like, and why a charity is not like a business (as well as the ways it should be run like a business!). So that contribution we’re able to make, in bridging gaps of understanding between the needs of nonprofits and their potential funders, seems to be too valuable to lose at this stage.
It’s also very rewarding meeting all the people who are working in these areas. We’re on close terms with the people who run the organisations we fund but its’ also such a privilege to be regularly meeting with people on the front line like those who live in coal-affected communities.
John and I have the privilege of choosing to be involved in this work but so many people don’t get to choose. They don’t choose the fight, the fight chooses them. There are so many incredibly brave and resourceful people who don’t have a lot of advantages and they’ve reached out and found these organisations that can offer support and resources. They’re the people I’ve got the most admiration for—they’re doing the best they can while still running a farm or a business. So for us, spending our time to do our little bit doesn’t seem like much compared to them.
There hasn’t been a lot of good news coming out of the environmental space lately. Do you ever feel despondent?
Well, I like to think there are always some good things happening somewhere! But, yes, it’s easy to become despondent. It would certainly be a lot easier to chuck it all in and go to the Caribbean but I start thinking again about all the people on the front line and I’m so safe and comfortable by comparison.
It can be pretty depressing when you know the big picture and you’re staying across the news but really, what else can you do? And what else can I tell my children? We have four children—they’re inheriting this world. We want them to see that we’re doing something.
Philanthropic support of environmental causes in Australia has been quite low. What do you think is holding philanthropy back?
I think the disconnect goes beyond philanthropy. In the wider community most people don’t seem to grasp the urgency of the situation. The fact is that whatever your plans are for the next 30 years, they’re going to be impacted by climate change.
That’s a really difficult message to get across. Generally for us humans it’s much more attractive to focus on something where we can see change and that we feel is measureable.
Any work in advocacy where you’re trying to influence the political process is very difficult to measure. You do tend to find quite a few donors in this space that are smaller foundations giving smaller amounts but usually they’re the direct decision makers as well. Your risk takers are definitely people who’ve made their own money or inherited and don’t have to share it with anyone else or worry about longevity. That’s something that’s definitely influenced us—we’re not accountable to anybody.
What’s been the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in your time as a funder?
The importance of funding good advocacy. Charity moves millions but advocacy can move billions.
If you spend all your money on doing some social good in the community that’s great but if you can shift government policy that will release billions in the current budget and the one after that and the one after that—it changes the parameters. You end up shifting a lot more money than what you could supply in the first place.
Collaboration between groups is important too. We funded a number of NGOs along with other funders to save the renewable energy target and the CFC. It was really good collaboration using collective impact models. Now we try and avoid funding single organisations that have a good idea and rather try and get them to tie that in with an overarching strategy and work with others.
Ultimately, with our advocacy work we’re investing in people and I’m particularly encouraged when I look at the people in Australia who’ve made a lot of positive change over the last 50 years. It’s always interesting to look at where they started and what their influences were.
I don’t know what the future will look like but I think society will benefit from people who can mobilise a community, break down barriers and get people looking out for each other.
The activist: Jill Reichstein