Laurie Cowled’s philanthropy is aimed at giving others access to what she couldn’t have as a child. Anne Collett details the journey that led to the former banker’s recent $1.5 million pledge.

Philanthropy isn’t just about giving money for Laurie Cowled; she takes a hands-on approach with the recipients of her financial support. Cowled offers encouragement to the recipients of the various scholarships she funds by meeting and supporting them, while helping build their self-esteem.

When Cowled was nominated Philanthropist of the Year at Queensland Community Foundation’s (QCF) inaugural Philanthropy Week in July, she was in Prague supporting National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) students who were recipients of the Ruth Cowled Memorial Scholarships for the study of stage design. It’s this type of involvement that gives Cowled enormous joy and satisfaction from being able to help.

“I particularly want to help people who will help others,” says Cowled. “I hope my giving is like a big spider web that keeps on going out and out.

“My ambition was to support young women who could achieve at the highest levels,” she adds. “Being able to help is of great importance to me. It keeps me in touch with young and talented people, and helps to offset my advancing years.”

Cowled has contributed to a broad range of charitable causes focused on education in the arts, business and medical science. The education of gifted underprivileged and disadvantaged women from rural communities throughout Australia is a big priority for Cowled, largely due to her own life experience.

From Cootamundra to the coast

Born in the New South Wales rural town of Bethungra, Cowled was educated at the local state school before moving onto Cootamundra Intermediate High School. Her initial philanthropic inspiration came from the example of her mother’s practical acts of giving.

“My mother was always interested in Red Cross, the CWA and the P&C and was inclined to give to others rather than thinking of herself,” says Cowled.

Living in isolated circumstances as a child, Cowled was unable to pursue her own interest in the arts. This life experience is directly reflected in Cowled’s philanthropy, with her support of the NIDA students complemented by financial support of three students, including a young indigenous woman, currently studying at the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne.

“I loved music, dance and theatre and as a young girl I wanted to be a ballerina, but there was no opportunity in the country,” says Cowled. “My only sister was also passionate about the arts and after studying, began her career in stage design.”

Cowled travelled to the United Kingdom together with her sister, Ruth, aboard the Orontes in 1954. While abroad, Ruth completed studies in stage design thanks to a scholarship at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre, but she sadly passed away in 1956.

Following a 35-year career in the banking sector, Cowled moved to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and married Ron Macnamara. “My late husband and I decided we would leave our estates to charity as we had no children,” explains Cowled. “After Ron died, I began the process immediately.”

After viewing a television interview with former Queensland Premier, The Honourable Mike Ahern, on establishing philanthropic trusts shortly after Macnamara’s passing in 2005, Cowled set the wheels in motion.

“Two weeks after Ron’s death, my solicitor had vetted and approved the QCF Trust Deed and the Macow Fund, which is short for Macnamara and Cowled, which became a sub fund of QCF,” Cowled explains.

Growing the vision … and the giving

Cowled has extended her philanthropic vision through The Macow Fund, the Cowled Foundation and other forms of philanthropic support over the last five years. Since 2009, she has pledged nearly $1.5 million to the Queensland University of Technology, which will support a range of educational scholarships and earned Cowled the QCF award.

“I was honoured to be named Philanthropist of the Year 2011 by QCF,” said Cowled. “It makes me feel humble knowing how much I gain in return for what I am able to do.

“I would recommend to people of even modest means the pleasure of helping others. It would be of great benefit to the recipients, but the giver also gets great bounty for their efforts.”

Part of the $1.5 million pledge has been funded by the sale of an 838sqm parcel of vacant land in Noosaville. The auctioning agent has two children who are both classical dancers, so he agreed with Cowled to take no commission on the sale, ensuring all $850,000 from the sale went to QUT.

Cowled’s pledge to QUT will create scholarships for socially and economically disadvantaged students through the perpetual Laurie Cowled Learning Potential Fund; offer a masters level nursing scholarship via an annual Ron Macnamara Rural Nursing Scholarship; support young rural women through the Cowled Fostering Executive Women Award, which includes a trip to the Harvard Business School; while the Laurie Cowled Indigenous Scholarship will offer an annual scholarship for gifted Indigenous students undertaking business studies.

She has also supported the University of Technology Sydney through a $200,000 gift towards indigenous education, and provided Neuroscience Research Australia with a PhD scholarship for brain research.

With Cowled as a mentor, the wonderful web of giving looks set to grow.

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