The Mullum Trust

Shifting systems — the great powers of small funders

19 December 2023

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For Sue Mathews, tackling the climate crisis is profoundly important and deeply personal. Here she reflects on the power of intervening at a systems level, collaborating for impact and the vital role small funders can play.

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.

Sue Mathews generously shared her story with AEGN CEO Amanda Martin in September 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.

All roads lead to climate change

“It impacts health, it impacts women, it impacts disadvantage. And it can only be solved if we can transform our economy — how we make things, how we do things in this society, how we consume and how we produce the goods that we all live with and among and own. So, it’s absolutely massive. it’s absolutely terrifying and it’s profoundly important.”


“Nobody can do it alone. Even if you’ve got a lot of money, you can’t do it by yourself, or one foundation can’t do it. But if you have good ideas and you can find good organisations and develop collaborations, you can have a big effect.” (Sue cites her Trust’s involvement in an ambitious pilot that paved the way for the establishment of the Australian Government’s Net Zero Authority, and a funder collaboration that powered a successful campaign to halt excessive tree-clearing in Queensland.)

Philanthropy as “risk capital”

“[One of the things] I feel proud of is the number of organisations that we were … early supporters of, and organisations that we introduced to a wider group through the AEGN that have gone on to do really terrific things. Beyond Zero Emissions is certainly one of them, particularly the work they did on the plan for the Northern Territory economy, which was adopted by the Northern Territory Government.”

Maximise your strategic impact

“We want to actually change the system, and by funding an informed, expert advocacy organisation like the Invasive Species Council [for example], we can have a much bigger impact … Often the outcomes of advocacy do take time, and so it might be three or five or even ten years down the track that you’ll see change, but it will be transformational change.”

Build capacity

“Funding projects in certain circumstances can be a burden to a struggling organisation … providing untied core funding can be a lifesaver and a really massive help to build their capacity to do big things.”

Get to know your grantees

“You do need to have confidence in the people who are going to be using the money that you’re giving them and the only way to do that is to get to know them a bit … if you can make time for it, it’s a really valuable thing to do.”

Take risks

“Not every grant works out. There are going to be mixed outcomes. Some bear a lot of fruit, some a bit, and some not very much at all. And you have to be prepared for that. You need to take risks. I think that’s really important and sometimes it is just about trusting your gut, about accepting that change will happen over time.”

There are a lot of good things about being a small funder, because you can be flexible. Everybody who makes the decisions can be reached quickly and easily by email or phone conversation. And you can move fast.

Sue Mathews

Meet More Members

Shifting power

McKinnon Family Foundation

Sue and John McKinnon share why absolute emissions reduction is the focus of their giving and how the concept of “shifting power” guides their work.

A family endeavour

Besen Family Foundation

Debbie Dadon, Besen Family Foundation Chair, reflects on the power of collaboration, women’s leadership and next-generation philanthropy to effect real and lasting change.