The Reichstein Foundation Story
Addressing the causes rather than alleviating the symptoms
Jill: The Reichstein Foundation was started by my father in 1970 and is a family foundation, but with a number of activists who have joined as board members. We fund only in Victoria, in three main areas: environmental sustainability, social justice and the law and reducing inequality.
I joined the Foundation in 1973, so it is now my 40th year! I came on as a Board Member and at that stage it was just myself and 4 men who had been chosen by my father. It was very challenging, because I had a totally different agenda about what we should fund. It was a conservative, traditional cheque-book foundation, focused on assisting the leading charities in those days.
To achieve the change I thought was required – to move alleviating the symptoms of disadvantage to addressing the causes – I encouraged new board members when the opportunity arose. Eventually we ended up with a board of all women, all with a background in community development or social activism, and I became the chair. This transition took about 5 years to achieve.
Grantmaking in daily life
Jill: My daughter Lucy has been very involved with the Foundation for a long time, she was about 17 when she first started attending meetings. It feels like my father’s legacy has given us a great gift – we talk about the Foundation on a daily basis. It’s given us a whole different level of energy and values base.
Lucy: It’s been a great bonding experience for both of us. In many respects, joining the board has been a natural progression for me because I grew up living in and around the Foundation. Mum was running the Foundation from home when I was little, and meetings were often around the kitchen table. I felt very embedded in it from a young age.
I became interested in the environment when I was a kid. In many respects I’m a product of my generation. We grew up learning about the environment at school. And I was, of course, also influenced by my parents, who were both very committed to environmental causes. I remember sitting on my dad’s shoulders at anti-logging protests when I was a toddler.
Connecting environmentalism and social justice
Lucy: I went on to study law at university which gave me a strong interest in the law, the criminal justice system and human rights in general. These are now also major focus areas for the Foundation.
Jill: We began granting in the environmental space when we started working with grass-roots organisations that needed support to run campaigns around healthy environments. We became involved with the Environmental Defenders Office. The EDO is an independent community legal service that assists the public to take on cases related to environmental and planning law. I think we were their first funder. Their work struck a chord with us – as protecting the environment and social justice go hand in hand.
Climate change funding
Jill: Our main environmental funding areas have been Indigenous land management, climate change and energy.
We’ve funded a lot of work around climate change over the years, including the Climate Action Network and the Al Gore Training Program. It grew out of his documentary film An Inconvenient Truth, which was used as a vehicle to train up 250 ambassadors across Australia. By accepting the training they had to commit to doing at least 12 workshops through their own networks to spread the message about climate change. It was a very powerful and successful grassroots attempt to build a strong base of awareness of climate change. We gave them two grants of $25,000, alongside many other partners. In light of the subsequent work done across Australia around climate change, it was not a lot of money but it was a good investment.
Lucy: All of those people who were trained went on to be force multipliers, so there was a lot of “bang for the buck” in that project.
Indigenous land management
Jill: In the Indigenous land management area we worked with the Yorta Yorta for a period of 10 years, firstly to make sure that the river red gum forests along the Murray became national parks. Once that was achieved we worked to ensure the Yorta Yorta were co-managers of that land with the Government. Over that decade our funding for the campaign was $120,000, but we brought a lot of other donors to the table so Reichstein’s total funding influence was closer to $500,000.
Our initial grant was to support someone to write a play about the fact that the Yorta Yorta were unsuccessful in their land rights claim. After that was completed, Friends of the Earth came to us to ask if we would support them in working with the next generation of young Yorta Yorta people to develop their skills, so they could take up the fight and campaign for their land to become a national park.
This project has had some outstanding outcomes because it crossed a number of different areas that we support – advocacy, campaign strategies, Indigenous land management, and conservation of the environment – and had a fantastic successful outcome. When I asked Wayne Atkinson (Yorta Yorta elder and Senior Fellow in Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne) what he thought the outcome of the project was, he said that Yorta Yorta people now walked down the streets of Shepparton with their heads held high because they are now working in the National Park, and they feel fulfilled in being part of conserving the red gums on the Murray.
I found that an incredibly moving statement. Although it was an environment/Indigenous land management project, it has had significant outcomes on many levels. It is representative of the way that Reichstein likes to fund.
Funding approach – rigour and social change
Jill: However once again we are challenged, in that now both state governments, NSW and Victoria, are threatening to log some of those forests, so there is another campaign there for us to consider. We’ve always been committed to grass-roots, advocacy and campaign strategies. We feel there is a better outcome working in this way. But it is always a challenge to ensure you are funding the pathfinders and not fighting rearguard battles.
Lucy: We only have modest funds, so we try to be rigorous in our approach to grant-making. We undertake due diligence before making a grant, and undertake an evaluation at the conclusion of the project. We recognise that social change projects often take years to reach their full impact. It’s important to stay the distance.
Jill: One of the key strategies at Reichstein is developing relationships with individual donors, which allows us to have a larger granting capacity. It also means that many of them have been able to piggy back on our research into projects, so they can have confidence that there will be a positive outcome at the end of the process.
On a much larger scale, the AEGN has been extremely effective in building a network of donors. For a lot of small donors who don’t have research staff it enables them to learn about these huge and difficult environmental issues, to visit projects and grassroots organisations, and to co-fund with other donors. We can definitely say that the Network has led to increased grants to the environment with major benefits in terms of conservation, biodiversity and action on climate change.
Lucy: It also gives people the tools and training they need to fund in this area. There’s a real passion and momentum amongst young people around supporting environmental causes. I’m certainly optimistic about the power of philanthropy to help build a healthier and more sustainable environment.
We need to ensure that the Foundation carries on being responsive to the issues of the day. I suspect that means we’ll continue to fund the environment because it is massively important for our generation and future generations to come.