It would be fair to say that the McKinnon Family Foundation is never far from the front lines of the issues it seeks to change.
Established in 2006 by Sydney-based John and Sue McKinnon, the Foundation’s mission is squarely focused on supporting the environment, alleviating poverty and developing social enterprise.
For the McKinnon’s, philanthropy is not just about the money. John and Sue bring every resource at their disposal to the change equation: time, talent, treasure and ties. Rejecting formulaic responses, they favour instead a “big picture chessboard strategy”.
The beauty of a conversation with a changemaker as impassioned, experienced and unapologetic as Sue McKinnon is that it will almost always venture down unexpected pathways (spoiler alert: medieval choir ahead) and deliver tangential surprises. Forget the script; come along for the ride.
What are you hearing from your environmental grantees about the impact of COVID-19 and the fires?
I take issue with the premise of this question because for us, and for many other AEGN members, we are in the thick of it and seeing what’s going on. We’re not waiting to hear about it second hand from NGOs.
I’m not the only member who’s engaged with grassroots organisations – there are quite a few of us who respond when asked by calling a politician, or use their shares for shareholder activism, or attend briefings on legal cases, or are members of local community action groups.
That circles around to the first question, about how we’re responding.
How are you responding to COVID-19 and the bushfires?
The bushfires presented a hard link with climate change. But even as that was happening the far right was off the mark very quickly with a line straight from the NRA playbook telling people, ‘You can’t talk about climate change when people are dying’.
The economic disruption caused by the bushfires was both regional and national, but the pandemic has multiplied that by a huge factor and on a global scale.
We are looking around at the opportunities, asking to see the strategies, looking at holes that need to be plugged. But meanwhile, the mining groups and the lobby groups don’t miss a beat, they’re not sitting around wondering what to do, because they know how disaster capitalism works.
I don’t think enough progressive groups appreciate the speed that’s necessary and how important it is to be on the front foot and getting out there – we don’t have the luxury of time. The risk is that the forces aligned with the Government are off the mark quicker than us and they have the advantage of incumbency. They don’t see these crises as a human tragedy but an economic opportunity.
With our foundation, we don’t think so much in terms of only supporting environmental organisations for better environmental outcomes but asking how those outcomes can be achieved and which are the best organisations to do that. We do not fund any service delivery with the organisations we support, but we do fund research that can be used in getting better outcomes for climate change and that research may or may not be performed by ENGOs. We also fund strategic litigation, and community organising and campaigns of all sorts.
Our funding levels change in response to the opportunities presenting themselves, we use a big picture chessboard strategy.
We are looking around at the opportunities, asking to see the strategies, looking at holes that need to be plugged.
This question feels like a decided change of pace, but do you have a recommended book or movie to enjoy in isolation?
Honestly, any spare time has been gobbled up by taking on extra projects. I do like to read but at the moment my reading is limited to budgets and reports and that sort of thing.
Do you have any down time?
While I work I listen to ABC Classic FM most of the time while I’m working to try and add some serenity to life. I love sacred choral music – I sing in a medieval choir, but that’s not happening at the moment with COVID-19 obviously.
Wait, you sing in a medieval choir? How did you find about it?
The choir happens to meet in my suburb! We do medieval and baroque music and it’s run by an opera singer who lives on the outskirts of Sydney too. It also happens to be one of the choirs that dresses up and I love dressing up.
What I really like about the choir is that when you’re singing you have to leave everything else behind – you can’t go over things in your mind, you have to concentrate.
Final question: What’s one thing you hope we’ll do differently on the other side of COVID-19?
I know the popular answer would be, ‘Let’s be more aware of nature’, but my biggest hope is that people might wake up a little bit more to see just how much politics and decisions at a federal level affect their lives. That we begin to understand these politicians ought to be our servants not our masters. And that’s uncomfortable because the more you know about what is actually going on in politics behind the scenes, the more horrible it is. I understand why people don’t want to go there.
One other thing I hope for is a greater appreciation for the value of local community. Standing together and getting engaged in federal politics – that’d be good to see.
And singing more in community choirs!