Easy and accessible philanthropy? Look no further. Maree Sidey is leading Australian Communities Foundation into its next chapter as an agent for positive social change.
“Philanthropy can be quite a lonely journey,” says Australian Communities Foundation (ACF) CEO, Maree Sidey. “I think one of the things that makes community foundations different is that donors aren’t on their own, they’re operating as part of a collective.”
The spirit of community underpins every aspect of ACF’s work. It helps attract givers at all levels, from fledgling donors to families to everyday folk with a few dollars and a social conscience.
Sidey says that bringing people together is central to the experience of a community foundation.
“A community foundation is a safe place where donors can talk with others about their philanthropy,” Sidey explains.
“That’s really important because sometimes donors don’t feel that they can discuss their giving with their peers or colleagues or even their family. So many of our donors breathe a sigh of relief when they realise they can talk about their philanthropy without the fear of being judged.”
What is a community foundation?
While community foundations have individual remits, with some being place-based while others are issue-based, ACF says all community foundations share five common traits:
1 – They seek to improve the quality of life for all people within their community
2 – They are independent from control or influence of other organisations or government
3 – They are governed by a board of citizens broadly reflective of the communities they serve
4 – They make grants to other nonprofit and community groups to address disadvantage and a wide variety of emerging and changing needs in the community
5 – They provide services to donors to help them achieve their philanthropic goals.
Community foundations might be bastions of grassroots philanthropy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the numbers are small. ACF alone has close to 300 funds and its corpus sits at around $60 million. In 2015, ACF made 515 grants totalling $7.6 million.
“We grant 11 times a year—there’s no cap on our grant making,” Sidey says.
“Some donors won’t grant at all in a particular year, others will grant every month. That’s another nice thing about community foundations—because you’re with a group of donors, the corpus has to give away 4 per cent a year, but last year we gave away 12 per cent. Within the investment pool there are funds that are in a growth phase and others that are in a granting phase and we can accommodate both.”
“Often our donors are people who have been exploring philanthropy, and maybe they’ve been thinking about starting a PAF, but don’t really want that level of administration,” Sidey says.
“The majority of our donors are average Australians who find themselves in the fortunate position of having a bit more money than what they need to live on.
“They’re thoughtful people from different backgrounds, but what binds them all is a common interest in making a difference either in their local community or the wider Australian community—their philanthropy is an expression of that.”
Young professionals feature predominantly amongst the ACF donor group and Sidey is acutely aware of the challenges of engaging next generation givers.
“Our younger donors want to give differently,” she says. “The traditional model of endowment funds isn’t necessarily how millennials want to give—they’re much more focused on the idea of collective giving.
“If community foundations are to remain viable we have to start thinking about how we build that engagement into our DNA. At ACF, I’m determined we’re going to crack it.”
ACF’s fastest growing product is the Gumnut Account, which is “pocket philanthropy” at its finest.
“The Gumnut Accounts go right to the heart of ACF’s mission to make philanthropy accessible,” Sidey explains. “We think philanthropy should be for everybody.”
All it takes to open a Gumnut Account is $500 each quarter ($2,000 per year). As the tax-deductible donations continue to accumulate, so too does the habit of regular giving towards a lasting endowment fund.
“They’re set and forget essentially,” Sidey says.
When the account reaches $20,000 the Gumnut becomes a named fund and granting can begin.
“Gumnut Accounts are a great way for someone who maybe hasn’t thought much about having a structured approach to philanthropy before, but is ready to make a start.”
ACF is embarking upon a bold transition that will see it pivot from a national community foundation with a geographic focus, to one that is issue-based. It has four target areas in its sights: the environment, refugee and asylum seekers, empowering Indigenous communities and safeguarding Australian democracy.
“This is really about how we represent that active citizenship space,” Sidey explains.
“These are really tricky and contentious issues but again, part of the beauty of a community foundation is that we don’t need to feel concerned about potentially conservative trustees of long established foundations.
“Ultimately, if we’re not going to go there, who else is going to go there? Our donors are looking to us to play leadership roles in these spaces.”
“Philanthropy really comes back to who you are, and what you believe in, and what your values are,” Sidey says with conviction.
“Every time I meet one of our donors I get inspired all over again.”
Images courtesy of Australian Communities Foundation