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In conversation with Catherine Brown, CEO Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation

Catherine Brown has been CEO of the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation (LMCF) since 2011. She has previously worked in legal and management roles with the MS Society, Wesley Mission and the Brain Foundation Victoria, where she was CEO, and then as an advisor within the not for profit and philanthropic sectors.

Catherine is the author of Great Foundations: a 360° guide to building resilient and effective not-for-profit organisations. She has commenced a PhD by practice related research related to philanthropic foundations and innovation at Swinburne University. Catherine has held Victorian Government Board appointments as Chair or Deputy Chair of organisations in health, women’s affairs and cemetery management.

How does the LMCF operate?

We are essentially a community foundation, set up in 1923 by Sir John Swanson, the Lord Mayor of Melbourne at the time. The initial goal of the foundation was to coordinate fundraising for Melbourne’s hospitals, which were struggling to cope with the influx of people returning from the first world war with injuries and other health issues.

Since then we’ve grown through some very large bequests and people donating to us and setting up sub-funds. We now give out close to $10M in grants annually, run programs like Youth in Philanthropy and the Affordable Housing Challenge and provide donor engagement services.

The LMCF is the largest and oldest community foundation in Australia and our corpus and distributions are growing.

The focus areas of the foundation are education & employment, environment & sustainability, health & resilient communities and homelessness & affordable housing. Within this, we have a focus on the big challenges facing Melbourne.

We look at our funding through a climate lens. How can we maintain a great city as the climate changes and becomes more unstable, and how do we stop climate change getting worse and live more sustainably?

When did you develop an interest in the environment?

My whole family has always been interested in the environment. I spent a lot of time in National Parks as a kid. Dad, who is from Kenya, had a goal to visit every National Park in SE Australia. I was a member of the Junior Field Naturalists.

As a lawyer, the first voluntary work I did was to help the Victorian Environment Defenders Office (now Environmental Justice Australia) to obtain DGR status when they set up in 1994.

Can you tell us a little about your early working life?

I started my career in general and commercial law. I liked my work intellectually, but I didn’t feel I was making enough difference. I wanted to do something with more meaning. Then in my mid-twenties I saw a job advertised at the MS Society. From there I spent the next 11 years in not for profit in-house legal and management roles.

What sparked your interest in philanthropy?

While I was CEO of the Brain foundation (now BrainLink) we received funding from The Myer Foundation for a phone support service. The program was on the edge of falling over, but with the grant we were able to re-design and keep it going. It still exists today. That small grant of $30,000 turned the organisation around as we then obtained more re-current funding and developed new programs. I saw that the right philanthropic funding at the right moment could make a big difference.

How did you start your career in philanthropy?

In 1999, I was approached by Helen Morris, who was then the EO of the Sidney Myer Fund. Helen was working with Baillieu Myer to set up the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal (FRRR).

Baillieu Myer had an idea that rural Australia, which was facing tough times, would benefit from a national foundation with a rural and regional community and economic development focus. I helped to establish FRRR, including setting up the community foundation program, and have stayed in the philanthropic world ever since!

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given on running a community foundation?

The Rural Development and Community Foundations Initiative really shifted my thinking on what community foundations can achieve. It was a capacity building program for rural US community foundations, run by the Aspen Institute and funded by The Ford Foundation. I could see that by connecting the financial and social capital in a community you could make a community more resilient and able to tackle its own local challenges. And it really democratises philanthropy – everyone can give as they can and be a philanthropist though a community foundation. It’s a brilliant model.

What trends do you see in philanthropy?

I think we will see more systems philanthropy, where the funding and institutional support goes to strengthen networks of organisations working on similar issues and supports thinking at a bigger level about how issues can be tackled across sectors. For example, the LMCF has funded the Sustain food network, the Transforming Housing partnership and the Homelessness Service Coordination project (since taken on by the State Government).

Philanthropy can fund network infrastructure and support – the glue that gets people together to make things happen.

Do you think philanthropy will grow?

Most likely, but philanthropy has to be agile and respond to new issues to remain relevant. And we need to get better at explaining the impact of what we’ve funded.  If we don’t we will be gazumped by other models, such as social purpose, for-profit organisations and online fee for service crowdfunding campaigns.

We need to preserve the spirit of altruism in Australia. In theory, with the intergenerational transfer of wealth, philanthropy should grow. But it would be nice to think that culturally the commitment to give back would grow too.

What about funding of the environment?

I think that we will see the proportion of philanthropy going to the environment increase. The need to deal with the big environmental challenges now will become a mainstream understanding. These environmental problems are social problems as well. If you don’t have food security, you don’t have good food and you’re hungry. And this impacts everything – you can’t learn at school if you have poor health.

What led you to add a climate lens to LMCF grantmaking?

It was the insight I gained from attending the COP21 Funder Initiative, which was coordinated by the European Climate Foundation and the US Environmental Grantmakers Network. After hearing so many presentations from health experts, Ministers of Health, farmers, and people from the Tuvalu Islands and Madagascar talking about their lived experience of an increased incidence of malaria and sea level rise, it was clear to me that climate change transcends everything. It was also very inspiring to see foundations and cities around the world doing fantastic things and business getting involved.

What are your thoughts on impact investing?

I am a great believer in the Philanthropy Tool Box. Foundations should use tools beyond granting to make a bigger difference. If there are impact investment opportunities that align with our priorities and have solid potential for both a social/environment and financial return, then I think we should look at them.

Are there any recent LMCF-funded projects that you would like to highlight?

I’m particularly proud of our funding of Environmental Justice Australia to work on the Yarra River Protection Act. The funding enabled them to engage community groups all along the river and ensured the voice of the community was heard while the legislation was developed. The Act combines traditional owner knowledge with modern management practices. It’s an amazing piece of legislation for Australia.

The Foodprint Project is another brilliant project. To understand Melbourne’s food bowl and to know that we can produce around 80% of our fruit and vegetables within the peri urban fringe and 41% of all our food is amazing. It’s something to protect as the populations grows. We need to make sure it is drought proof through recycling water.

Why did you join the AEGN Board?

Ive always thought that the AEGN is a very effective organisation. I think that even more now that I am on the board and can see how much a small team achieves. Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation had lots of practical help from the AEGN when we were working on our first strategy for environmental philanthropy and used the Giving Green Guides. I love the clearinghouse and co-funding. It’s a very engaged group of philanthropists and I think Amanda and Jill have done a great leadership job.

I also joined as I have a lot of experience in not for profit governance and with environmental organisations so I thought I could make a contribution.

What makes you worried? I worry about Melbourne’s food bowl. It’s so fundamental. When you hear about farmers going through extreme droughts in other parts of the world you wonder if that could happen to us. I also worry about the health impacts of climate change.

Favourite plant: I have two, both trees.  An Australian native, the Pincushion Hakea and I also love the Forest Pansy.

Favourite animal: My dogs. I have two Labradors, a black 6 year old and a chocolate brown puppy that is 10 weeks old and brings a lot of joy (and chaos!) to the family.

Most amazing holiday: Cycling in the Loire Valley and more recently cycling the Central Otago trail in New Zealand. When I was in my 20s, trekking in Kashmir and Ladakh before the border area was closed.

If you could invent a technology what would it be: Achieving 100% renewable energy at an affordable price for everyone.

You can read Catherine Brown’s blog here.