Helen Macpherson Smith Trust

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In conversation with Frances Awcock AM, retiring Trustee 2007-2016

Image Fran Awcock at her farewell dinner

More than 2600 grant applications crossed Fran Awcock’s desk during her nine years as a Trustee of the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust (HMSTrust). They came from high profile organisations and small community groups, seeking anything from a few thousand dollars to more than a million. But Fran’s decision-making focus always came back to one consideration: who were the individuals the grants would assist?

“Those individuals were my motivation and my inspiration, because I think that’s the purpose of philanthropy. You have a community which consists of individual men, women and children, and that community is better off because of the money you have been able to put in.

“We know that governments can never do all that is expected of them. So we need people with generous hearts, we need people doing good works. Without philanthropy I think we’d be a morally bankrupt nation,” she says.

Philanthropy began at school

Fran’s exposure to philanthropy began in her boarding school days in NSW, where she was encouraged to donate from her pocket money and to participate in charity fundraising events. At university she was a member of Abschol, a committee that supported university scholarships for Aboriginal students.

Some years later, having completed a Bachelor of Arts and a Diploma in Librarianship, she had her first taste of philanthropy from the other side of the table. As Executive Director of the National Book Council, she wanted to launch a nationwide ‘Reading 1990’ program during UNESCO’s International Year of Reading.

A paper manufacturer donated $120,000 worth of paper, and eminent Australians including Prime Minister Bob Hawke featured on monthly posters, reading to their children or grandchildren. Free posters were distributed to every public library in Australia, creating huge demand from people who wanted to buy them.

“I realised the importance of working with others to achieve a result – if you haven’t got the money you have to find it from somewhere. The Council was quite a poor organisation, so that gave us a real boost.”

Some years later, as Chief Executive Officer and State Librarian at the State Library of Victoria, Fran was overseeing the development of new library spaces. It was at this time she met Darvell Hutchinson AM, then Chairman of HMSTrust. The Trust was keen to make a gift to the State Library and, following a $300,000 grant in 1998, the library’s new genealogy centre was created in Helen Macpherson Smith’s name.

At the time, the Trust had only two trustees: Darvell Hutchinson and London-based Keith Smith, a relative of Helen Macpherson Smith. The pair came to realise they needed a second Melbourne-based trustee, and Fran’s ongoing contact with Darvell resulted in her being offered the role in 2007.

The Trust’s funds were growing, thanks to its successful investment strategy, as were the demands on its tiny staff and trustees. Over the next few years, three more trustees were appointed.

“Fran has been a wonderful trustee and a source of support and counsel for me, which I greatly appreciate.”
Dr Philip Moors, Chairman.

“We were able to bring in new expertise and spread the responsibility, and develop more in-house skills in investment, finance and grant making. We couldn’t have found better people,” Fran says, referring to Dr Philip Moors AO (former Director and CEO of the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, and now HMSTrust Chairman); former Federal Cabinet Minister, the Hon Rod Kemp; and former Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Winsome McCaughey AO.”

“Fran’s appointment as the first female Trustee was very appropriate, given that we have a female benefactor,” Philip says. “At the time of Helen’s benefaction, female philanthropy was very uncommon. Darvell and Keith recognised the significance of their decision, and made a very wise choice in selecting Fran.

“We now have three female and three male Trustees, which brings balance to the board. It’s important because it broadens and deepens our thinking. Men and women also bring slightly different perspectives on the community and how we can best help.”

The expanded board set about reviewing and redefining the Trust’s purpose, strategy, policy and procedures, and in 2013 appointed Lin Bender AM as Chief Executive.

“The reviews had sharpened our awareness of the critical role of a CEO who has emotional intelligence and a willingness to be involved with all the people we engage with across all our fields. Lin leads us brilliantly,” Fran says.

The most memorable grants

$53 million has been granted during Fran’s tenure, but a few grants stand out.

Victoria’s 2009 bushfires shocked the State and, once the government’s commitment was made clear, HMSTrust decided to allocate $2 million to bushfire recovery programs. Nearly $1 million went to the Sustainable Gardening Australia Foundation for the establishment of five community gardens that could help rebuild communities in fire-ravaged areas.

“I’m not a gardener, but I see what happens when people love gardens and love producing things. Community gardens really do bring people together,” Fran says.  The project continues to benefit Victoria, with hundreds of copies of its 88-page Community Gardens Manual distributed via the HMSTrust website.

Other projects which hold special meaning include the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s employment pathways program, the Australian National Academy of Music project to improve health and wellbeing amongst elite student musicians, the Hutchinson Indigenous Fellowship (named after Darvell Hutchinson) and the Monash University capacity-building grant that led to the internationally acclaimed inhaled oxytocin project to reduce deaths from post-partum haemorrhage.

“The Trust’s grant-making decisions have always benefited from Fran’s compassion, insight and common sense. It has been a privilege for all Trustees to serve with her in delivering Helen’s benefaction.”
Dr Philip Moors, Chairman.

However it’s the Macpherson Smith Rural Foundation (MSRF), which Fran singles out as “one of the best things I’ve ever been associated with”.

MSRF supports and encourages young country people who are destined to become future rural leaders, particularly through the scholarship program which is the foundation of MSRF’s other programs.

Three annual scholarships worth $45,000 each are awarded to outstanding students who otherwise could not afford to leave home and attend university. About 200 applications are received each year, and Fran finds it “heartbreaking” that only three scholarships can be awarded.

Applications are whittled down to 20, then 10, then about six have personal interviews.

“Of those 20, we could give 20 scholarships if we had the funds. There is such desperate need in the country, and nearly every single family we deal with has been affected by years of drought in some way. It’s appalling.”

Fran observes that these young people are outstanding students who are often school captains and Duke of Edinburgh award recipients, but also work on their family farms, have after-school jobs and fund-raise for their schools and communities.

“One of our judges said he just about had to get the tissue box out when he finished reading the applications. The students accept tragic circumstances, but they don’t write from self-pity.”

The 10 short-listed students each participate in mentoring and leadership development programs, and some of those who don’t win a scholarship may also be invited to participate in the two programs.

MSRF has developed a handbook to guide students and their mentors, and the Foundation is now considering employing a researcher to mine information from the hundreds of applications on file.

Ultimately, this could be used to make a case to government for better funding for rural students who must leave cash-strapped homes and pay for accommodation as well as university fees.

HMSTrust and the MSRF both seek to award funds in areas where there is a long term benefit, and there is an expectation that scholarship winners are committed to return to work in rural Victoria during their career.

Collaboration a welcome trend

Unlike some foundations and trusts, HMSTrust will fund pilot projects, feasibility studies, staff wages and external assistance for the development of business plans and marketing plans, providing the recipient has a coherent, long term strategy.

In some cases, similar organisations seek funding for similar projects, and HMSTrust will often suggest collaboration as a way of sharing scarce resources or jointly applying for grants.

Making choices between similar organisations has been Fran’s most challenging area of work.

“Many problems in society are deeply entrenched and common to many groups, so you have multiple organisations dealing with them. And that’s the challenge for philanthropy. How can we help bring it all together so that our grants are more effective? Collaboration makes sense to me, and it is now a welcome trend in philanthropy.”

Lin Bender, Chief Executive of HMSTrust agrees.

“Fran has made a very significant contribution, including in this important area of collaboration. Her leadership skills in the not-for-profit sector, her understanding of funding, her deep empathy for people and her creative thinking have made her an exemplar trustee.”

Fran acknowledges that her professional experience as a successful grant seeker has helped inform her role as a trustee.

“I learned of the hope one has in applying for grants. That taught me the importance of discussing those hopes and aspirations, and of not being afraid of talking about money and your organisation’s need for it.

“Equally, the donor wants to see your sense of commitment and belief in your cause. They want to know why this money would be worth receiving, that the organisation has the capacity to deliver the project, that the risk is low, and that you have measures of success.”

After her last HMSTrust board meeting in November, Fran intends to keep brain and body in “reasonable shape”, enjoy the companionship of family and friends, keep abreast of current affairs, read and enjoy fewer formal responsibilities.

She has “never lived a planned life”, and while no voluntary roles are on the near horizon, she will watch HMSTrust from the sidelines with “great pride and affection”.

“Although we will very much miss Fran’s insightful and pragmatic contributions as a trustee,
I know that Fran will remain a close friend of the Trust.”
Lin Bender, Chief Executive.

Fran’s top tips…

Tips to grantseekers:

  1. Understand the motives and background of the potential donor.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask for money.
  3. Demonstrate a strong commitment to your cause; put your heart and soul into your application.
  4. Write clearly, persuasively, and concisely; be objective, emphasise long term outcomes.
  5. Use plain English, avoid jargon and keep acronyms to a minimum.

Qualities of a good trustee:

  1. Confront your own biases: you may be asked to fund something which doesn’t reflect your personal values.
  2. Listen to those who know more than you do.
  3. Find the best way to contribute your own knowledge and experience.
  4. Don’t just be a decision maker: watch for new ideas and opportunities.
  5. Be objective but caring in your decision making.

Fran Awcock was in conversation with writer Pam Kershaw, November 2016.