In today’s world, natural disasters, the impact of climate change, global health emergencies and economic hardship occur at a rate we struggle to keep pace with. Fortunately, there are nonprofit organisations ready to respond and equipped with increasingly sophisticated crisis management tools alongside long-term programs that address the root cause of community issues.

For one organisation, this responsiveness, coupled with long-term vision, has been at the core of their work for 100 years. In 2023, Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation (LMCF) will celebrate its centenary. Established in 1923, the foundation has evolved over time but always stayed true to its vision of inspiring philanthropy and sustained social impact for Greater Melbourne.

We spoke to the foundation’s CEO, Dr Catherine Brown OAM, who shares insights from a time of deep reflection and ambitious aspirations for the future.

Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation: What was and what is

Concerned for the wave of wounded returning from WWI amid a post-war economic downturn and lack of government funding for hospitals, the then-Lord Mayor, Sir John Swanson, believed Melbourne needed better health services accessible to all. In 1921 he formed a committee comprising of business leaders, health executives and government representatives to plan for a public fund that would collect donations and provide grants to support hospital maintenance. In 1923, Sir John launched ‘The Lord Mayor’s Fund for Metropolitan Hospitals and Charities’ and in 1930, the ‘The Lord Mayor’s Fund’ became an incorporated entity under an act of parliament. LMCF has since updated its act in 1996 and again in 2017.

The foundation was an early player in Melbourne’s philanthropic landscape; the Sidney Myer Fund was founded in 1934, The Myer Foundation in 1959 and the Ian Potter Foundation in 1964.

The Lord Mayor’s Fund quickly became a trusted recipient of gifts-in-wills, including from the William Angliss Charitable Fund in 1962 and the Collier Charitable Fund in 1954. The former fund continues to support LMCF’s Youth in Philanthropy program, and the latter has assisted many LMCF initiatives, most recently, its pandemic response.

In the early years, the foundation received substantial media support, with (previous iterations of) the Herald Sun and The Age frequently sharing the organisation’s fundraising appeals.

In the late 1920s an initiative named the Lord Mayor’s Radio Fund, in partnership with 3LO (the ABC), organised mass community sing-alongs in Melbourne Town Hall. The events, which ran for eight years, raised funds for hospital radio equipment, enabling patients to listen to the wireless.

The 3LO Lord Mayor’s Radio Fund community sing-alongs were held at the Melbourne Town Hall during the 1930s.

LMCF were also early leaders in providing donors with advice about who to donate to (‘donor-advised giving’), a service they continue today.

For the past 11 years, LMCF has operated under Catherine’s lead, with the CEO first learning about philanthropy from her father Dr Kester Brown AM, the former Head of Anaesthetics at the Royal Children’s Hospital. Dame Elisabeth Murdoch AC was a wonderful philanthropist who was connected to the hospital and was much admired by Catherine’s father.

Leaving an early career in commercial law, Catherine took on legal guidance and government relations at MS Society and her nonprofit journey began. Next was Head of Legal, Fundraising and Property at Wesley Mission, followed by the position of CEO at Brain Foundation Victoria. In 1999 Catherine began working with The Myer Foundation and Sydney Myer Fund as a consultant to help establish the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal (FRRR). It was through this role that she began working with community foundations and many other foundations as an advisor. In 2011 she became CEO of LMCF.

The very definition of ‘community’

LMCF is a community foundation; a long-term fund to which people donate and leave bequests to build social and financial capital that ensures a community is ready to respond to the challenges and crises that come its way. “It’s extra insurance for a community,” explains Catherine.

“If I could do anything from the centenary, it would be to educate Australians about community foundations – about how powerful they are and that everyone can be involved. You do not have to be Bill Gates – you can give to your community, at any level, through a community foundation.”

The world’s first community foundation – the Cleveland Foundation in Ohio, USA – was established in 1914, only nine years before LMCF. So, the foundation began as an early adopter, and it would continue as a trailblazer.

A history of ‘firsts’

“It was gutsy of Sir John Swanson to set up a community fund and talk about hospitals in the way he did,” says Catherine, referring to the founder’s rejection of a healthcare system unsupported by government and inaccessible to the poor. “Bravery is in our DNA,” she continues. So too is gutsy grantmaking.

What began with public hospitals morphed into first and early funding for emerging health issues. Areas of support included HIV/AIDS and Anorexia Nervosa before they were widely acknowledged medical conditions. Over time, as public hospitals became government funded and Medicare was introduced in the 1970s, the foundation’s funding balance between healthcare (75%) and charities (25%) began to tip the other way.

Today, LMCF is enthusiastic about being first or early funders for a vast range of for-purpose projects. In fact, first funding accounts for 73% of the foundation’s granting and often leads to scaling-up funding or is a catalyst for other funders to add their support. The Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA), Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) and social enterprise Lively received seed funding from LMCF and all three share attributes the foundation holds in high regard: they are clear about the outcomes they want to achieve, they have the capacity needed to make their mission a reality and they fit with LMCF’s areas of impact.

The focus

Climate and environment

“It’s an interesting area when you think that the register for environmental organisations was only set up in 1994,” says Catherine on the topic of funding for climate and environment.

That is not to say that funding environmental disasters is a recent phenomenon for LMCF; in 1926 they supported bushfire relief, in 1939 they assisted the Black Friday bushfire response and, in more recent times, they have provided funding following the 2009 and 2020 bushfires. But it would be the establishment of the Eldon & Anne Foote Trust in 2000, and the receipt of the Eldon Foote Bequest in 2004 (the largest bequest ever received by the Foundation) that enabled LMCF to expand their grant strategy to include two of Eldon’s interests: the environment and the arts.

Over the past 20 years, climate change has become an increasingly pressing issue for LMCF and, in 2015, Catherine was invited through the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network to a funders initiative at COP 21, the United Nation’s eleventh convention on climate change and setting of the historic Paris Agreement.

“We were briefed every day by different groups of people affected by climate change – doctors, health ministers, farmers, young people, Indigenous groups,” says Catherine. “It was fascinating, and it was tough; I felt we’d been insulated in Australia, and we hadn’t fully understood the issue. So, when I came back, I asked the Board if we could put a climate lens over everything we do.”

What does the climate lens look like? “If we fund housing, it’s not enough that we just fund affordable housing,” explains Catherine. “We’ve also got to think ‘is it located near public transport, green space and services and is it designed to high-efficiency energy standards, is it climate safe for heatwaves?’

“If we’re funding jobs, we want them to be part of the low-carbon green economy. Jobs that will keep going, not jobs that will pass.

“And then of course, we’re funding in mitigation – reducing emissions.”

The climate lens led to $4 million in grants in FY2021/22. Whilst much of this was allocated to projects that were purely environmental, it also went to connected initiatives such as safe housing and sustainable food.

An area of innovation is the exploration of the health impacts of climate change, as reflected in funding for CAHA and DEA. LMCF funded a hotspots project that uses Monash University’s heat vulnerability index to identify hotter Melbourne suburbs (which typically have the added challenge of being socio-economically disadvantaged) to prepare its residents, including the elderly and vulnerable, for heatwaves.

Next is a climate resilient neighbourhood initiative that will help communities across Melbourne prepare for shocks and challenges; an exercise that is relevant for climate impact, but also pandemics. Jesuit Social Services are close partners on this work in the west of Melbourne.

Affordable housing

In 2020 LMCF won a Philanthropy Australia Better Philanthropy award for its Affordable Housing Challenge, which aimed to unlock underutilised land across Melbourne. Putting $1 million on the table, LMCF invited local governments to submit suitable sites for the construction of community housing. The City of Darebin’s Preston site took out top spot and Housing Choices Australia is now in the process of developing 40 affordable housing units. A similar project with the City of Melbourne is next.

$50,000 grants for feasibility studies are enabling other owners of land, such as large charities or faith-based organisations, to explore and validate the potential redevelopment of their real estate for good.

Economic opportunity and inclusion

With a focus on employment for people experiencing barriers in mainstream job markets, LMCF is passionate about funding social enterprise, a sector that employs 206,000 people, annually contributes $21.3 billion to the Australian economy and accounts for 1% of GDP. Most recently they provided funding to Australian Spatial Analytics, a Brisbane-headquartered organisation that employs neurodiverse adults in professional data services. The support helped establish a base in Melbourne, partnering with philanthropist Naomi Milgrom who provided the business premises.

Dr Catherine Brown OAM (middle) with the foundation’s program manager for Inclusive, Sustainable Economy and Jobs, Stephen Torsi (far right), with members of the Australian Spatial Analytics team at the launch of the Melbourne office.

The Regen Melbourne network is another example. As a founding partner, LMCF is helping a growing network of individuals and organisations working towards a thriving and regenerative Melbourne that exists within its ecological boundaries.

Capacity building

Catherine describes LMCF’s role during Melbourne’s recent lockdown years, as “catalysts, collaborators and convenors”. Proving they are far more than just grant administrators, the foundation collaborated on initiatives to support the NFP sector, including the Infoxchange Digital Transformation Hub, Justice Connect’s suite of nonprofit legal resources and The Xfactor Collective Foundation wellbeing hub, which will launch later this year.

Gender lens

LMCF exists to create a better future for all Melburnians, but with gender equality still far from reach, they have a vested interest in how projects will impact women and girls. A current area of focus is the fact that older women are the fastest growing group of people facing homelessness. In response, the foundation has provided funding to Social Enterprise Finance Australia (SEFA) to research what the vulnerable cohort want and need from affordable housing.

Another example is LMCF’s support for Tradeswomen Australia – a nonprofit organisation working to increase the representation of women in skilled trade roles.

With the guidance of Australians Investing in Women (AIIW), the foundation has embedded their gender lens into their grant application process. Not every project has to be focused on women and girls, but all applicants are asked if and how their project benefits them.

Fund-seeking food for thought

First off, it is important to remember that LMCF itself is a charity, reliant upon donations, bequests, the Charitable Fund Accounts it manages (and gifts it receives to those accounts) and collaborative initiatives such as its giving circles.

“If I could do anything from the centenary, it would be to educate Australians about community foundations – about how powerful they are and that everyone can be involved. You do not have to be Bill Gates – you can give to your community, at any level, through a community foundation,” explains Catherine.

“We have been supported by many generations of inspiring donors. We are extremely grateful to our donors as we couldn’t have achieved what we have without their support. Bequests both large and small have been massively important to growing the funds held for the community.”

Next, she shares her thoughts for those seeking support from funders such as LMCF.

“Look at philanthropy as a partner in developing ideas and supporting innovation, not just a grants administrator,” recommends Catherine, who acknowledges “there’s a lot to learn in both directions.”

“Be brave and think about how your work connects to economic inclusion, climate change and the future we want.”

Catherine reminds us that the pandemic gave the community a front row view of the extent to which the nonprofit sector is crisis-ready, innovation-focused and always there to support those falling through the cracks.

“There were so many organisations that delivered services in innovative ways,” she shares, citing the example of Infoxchange’s Ask Izzy website and Justice Connect’s Dear Landlord program, with both initiatives receiving LMCF funding. The Moving Feast collaboration led by STREAT with Good Cycles and many other food charities was also a standout.

So be proud, loud and clear about the issues your organisation addresses, the solutions it brings and the support it needs. Because it is time for the for-purpose sector to be recognised for the linchpin it is.

“I’d love the for-purpose sector, including philanthropy, to be recognised properly as the third pillar alongside government and business going forward,” shares Catherine.

The future

A big move

LMCF does not sit still and in mid-2023 it will quite literally be on the move as it relocates close to Melbourne’s iconic Queen Victoria Market.

With the lease coming to an end on their current Collins Street locale, Catherine and the team seized the opportunity to co-locate as part of a community of nonprofits. The foundation will share space with organisations such as Good Cycles, the Digital Transformation Hub and Regen Melbourne. The premises will be enriched with collaboration spaces, shared offices, a small terrace and all the energetic inspiration Melbourne’s largest market has to offer.

“We’re trying to incubate new solutions and new collaborations,” says Catherine. “I feel we’re really going to be at home there near the bustling markets, the city library, the social enterprise precinct, affordable housing and the heart of the city.”

The next 100 years

“I see a lot of the issues we’ve been working on converging,” shares Catherine when considering the future and how she thinks the community perceive it. “The notion that economic inequality means a less stable society, and that people with disadvantage are less able to cope with climate change and so on. There’s a lot of interconnected issues and I think people want a very inclusive and sustainable Melbourne and Australia.

“I don’t think we [the community] feel comfortable with increasing wealth inequality and the younger generation having difficulty getting into housing. And I don’t think we feel at all confident that we feel ready for the impacts of climate change.

“We have such a multicultural society that has been relatively stable so far – all that gets put at risk if we don’t plan now. Where all need a shared vision so that we can have a more sustainable future”.

You can be sure that the team at LMCF are already hard at work finding the answers to this challenge, powered by community input and partnerships with innovative and resourceful social enterprises, nonprofits, government organisations and philanthropists. It is a dream team, bolstered by a 100-year history of courageous solutions to some of society’s most profound issues.

And, whilst many challenges lie ahead for Melbourne and beyond, let us look to the work of Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation and their partners to inspire us to think big, collaborate, be inclusive and consider the planet and its people in all that we do.

To learn more about Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation, click here.

Learn more about community foundations in Australia by visiting https://www.cfaustralia.org.au/