Louise Walsh began her working life as a mergers and acquisitions lawyer but then moved into sponsorship and fundraising, where she held several roles. She is a former CEO of Philanthropy Australia and now CEO of the Future Generation Investment Companies, set up by renowned fund manager Geoff Wilson to create investment and social returns for shareholders and generate donations for non-profits.

How long have you worked in philanthropy?

I probably got into it seriously in the late ’90s when I started as the head of development at Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and I’ve been really seriously at it since 2003, when David Gonski got me started at Artsupport Australia. I developed a real passion for growing philanthropy. David and I have really shared that passion and that drive to see if we can move the dial, with more Australians donating. I think there are 37 per cent of Australians who earn a million dollars or more who don’t claim any sort of deduction for charitable giving. That makes me stroppy, angry, makes me want to do something about it. There is also the joy it does bring people who have seen the light. They have had an amazing experience with a non-profit or an arts organisation, and the relationship works. I love the challenge of trying to get more Australians doing it. I prefer people to be giving a smaller sum of money to fewer non-profits or charities or arts organisations, but developing a deeper relationship.

Is there a trend of non-profits wanting directors to donate a significant amount or they will not be invited to join the board?

I don’t think it’s that widespread. At the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, I think to be on that board now you have to be either giving or getting (others to donate) $50,000 a year. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that; it’s a very high-profile, prestigious board. Obviously it’s not going to be for a more grassroots organisation. The challenge is having the right diversity and having two or three people on the board who might be able to help with fundraising. (MSO’s managing director Sophie Galaise says board members are under no obligation to make a contribution but all choose to do so.)

What is the best attribute for fundraising?

Whether you’re on a board or a staff member, you’ve got to understand relationship building. It’s not a transaction, and sometimes a lot of non-profits treat major donors or potential donors as a transaction. They think it’s about one meeting, asking for the money and off they go. There are a lot of non-profits that are not very good at major donor fundraising. It’s a bit of a problem in Australia because some of them are not that skilled up. It’s a science.

Who gets it right?

The Australian Ballet is a good example. One advantage is that they’ve got subscribers, so they have people who are loyal followers. If you treat those people well, build a stronger relationship with them so they’re not just a ticket buyer, you’ve got a damn good chance of convincing them to become a donor. But other organisations have equivalents – in medical research it’s the researchers. I say to (non-profits), look, you’ve got to try to develop something that’s the equivalent of the Australian Ballet, a donor getting close to the artistic director or ballerina or whatever.

Who’s donating in Australia?

More and more money is coming from individuals. Trying to chase the corporate dollar is damn difficult. It’s less difficult if you’ve got a high-profile, well-connected board, (but) the stronger and the bigger potential is with individual clients. If you look at even back in the ’80s or the ’90s, everyone was chasing corporates and there were very few organisations that were really strong in private individual giving, but I think a lot of non-profits have woken up to the fact that everyone’s chasing the corporate dollar, so there’s a lot more competition. A lot more resources in non-profits are now being devoted to individual donors.

What’s the biggest mistake people make?

I don’t know if you call it a mistake, but not devoting enough staff resources to that area, because all non-profits are conscious of costs. You do have to spend money to make money. But even if you actually make the decision as a non-profit that you do want to invest in better staff, it’s actually quite hard to find good people to fill these fundraising-related roles.

Who is really good at it?

Kenneth Watkins (director of philanthropy) at the Australian Ballet. He is the consummate expert in this space. He’s an ex-dancer. He’s lived and breathed the ballet for more than 20 years; he’s worked there. Breakfast, lunch and dinner you know are all about the ballet. You can run into him at a restaurant and the odds are he’s not having dinner with a friend or family, it’s a donor. At a board level, Gonski would have to be very, very high on the list. If we had 200 of him you’d probably change the culture of giving. I’m not saying he’s the only one, but he is one of the best in the business.

Universities seem to attract a lot of money.

One of the advantages that universities have is that most wealthy people have had a higher education, so they’ve been through the system. The other thing is that universities are so diverse. They get someone in, they start to talk about what their interests are. They have such a diversity of what they can offer a potential donor that it’s much easier to find a fit.

How do the investment companies work?

The model is we donate 1 per cent of our assets to charity. We’ve got a group of fund managers for both companies managing the money that we’ve given them, pro bono. So investors are not paying any fees, but we’re donating 1 per cent of our assets to charity. One company supports kids at risk charities and the second supports youth mental health. This year we’ll give away $7 million and within 10 years it’ll be $30 million. I have about 12,000 shareholders and 50 per cent of those are self-managed super funds. They might be investing $40,000 to $50,000. Thirty per cent of the shareholders are ultra-high net worth individuals. A lot are foundations. The two companies exist because they’re providing investment returns for investors, but there’s also a social return so it’s really an example of impact investing. All shareholders vote on where the 1 per cent donation goes. Every August we send information on our charities or our non-profits plus a voting form to every single shareholder – it doesn’t matter whether you own 50 shares or 50,000 or five – and you can vote.

What needs to change to encourage philanthropy?

A lot of people say to me the tax system’s not as good (as it could be), but … I think it’s about a change of mindset. Government funding is not a growth industry; there have to be more sources of income, and I do think there’s a lot more potential in private giving. We haven’t even scratched the surface. There are a lot of people out there who haven’t found a connection with the right non-profit. We’ve got to get back to non-profits and actually work harder and better at making the connection.

Geoff Wilson will speak at the SOHN Hearts and Minds Investment Leaders Conference on November 17 at the Sydney Opera House

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