Lord Mayor's Charitable Foundation

Building capacity, embracing innovation

2 January 2024

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Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation CEO Dr Catherine Brown outlines how the foundation is building an inclusive, climate-resilient city in partnership with the charitable sector, “the unsung heroine of Australia”.

Part of the AEGN’s mission is to deepen members’ understanding of the many ways their philanthropy can support the environment — ultimately to maximise their impact. To this end, we produce a regular podcast series where members share stories of effective leadership for our planet, climate and future.

Dr Catherine Brown generously shared her story with AEGN CEO Amanda Martin in December 2023. Key take-aways from their conversation follow.

To listen to the episode and access a full transcript and show notes, head to our podcast page.

Applying a climate lens

After attending COP21 (where the Paris Agreement was signed), Catherine understood that “climate change was going to affect everything we do, and I said to the board, ‘Let’s just put a climate lens over everything.’ That was in our February 2016 strategy day, and since then, that’s really how we’ve worked”.

Building the charitable sector’s capacity

“The charitable sector is the unsung hero or heroine of Australia … [and] employs 10 per cent of people in Australia, yet is really under-recognised. Each organisation will have times when they need to build their leadership ability, build their strategic ability, build their internal operational capability … organisations need support to be most effective and philanthropy should be supporting that as part of its strategy.”

Achieving systems level change

“A big impact is if you can achieve policy change in the right direction.” Catherine cites several examples here, including the foundation’s support for Renew, whose campaign helped to secure stronger national housing energy efficiency standards, and the Climate and Health Alliance — “We would not have a national climate and health strategy if it wasn’t for them.”

Philanthropy as risk capital

“Philanthropy is the risk capital for the not-for-profit sector … We’re not here to do what government could do. And business and government have very different risk appetites to philanthropy. So, I’m happy if we’ve been first funders of many projects, which we have been. If we’re doing seed funding, testing new ideas, that is actually kickstarting new things, that is really a critical role for us … if we’re not doing that, we’re wasting philanthropy in a way.”

Measuring outcomes

“Some things make a massive difference, more than you ever expect, and then other things don’t, but we always know that they’ve made some impact. And if something fails, I don’t see that as terrible, I see that as learning. As long as they’ve reported back and we’ve had a discussion about what they learned, that’s still meaningful.”

Advice for not-for-profits

“Not-for-profits need to be clear on what their goals are — what their theory of change is, what they’re working towards and present that in a very clear, reasonably professional way — and not too long. And then not turn themselves inside out trying to fit into some sort of funding guidelines, but try and see where they fit, who they match, so that they’re really trying to find investment in their solution.”

The power of networks

“Networks, including the AEGN, they are like effectiveness maximisers … networks increase the capability of foundations incredibly, just the learning, the co-funding opportunities that emerge, and being across issues as they come forward … I find that networks, particularly between other foundations — and this includes around the world — it just lifts you to another level, really gets you out of just sitting in your bubble … All boats rise.”

Networks, including the AEGN, they are like effectiveness maximisers … networks increase the capability of foundations incredibly, just the learning, the co-funding opportunities that emerge, and being across issues as they come forward.

Dr Catherine Brown

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