At an exclusive client event in Perth in November 2019, grantmaking specialist Fiona Higgins discussed the ripple effect of philanthropy with the inspiring Annie Fogarty AM, executive chairperson of the Fogarty Foundation and recently announced 2020 WA Australian of the Year.  

An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

Q. Annie, did you have any formative educational experiences that might have shaped your philanthropic journey?

First of all, we migrated here from South Africa when I was four years old, so I’m very conscious about how fortunate I am that my parents made that decision and this is where I ended up. I had a great education as a child and went to government schools which were all terrific. I was also very fortunate to go to university at a time when tertiary education was still free.

Quite often we take for granted our own education, I think, when you have your own children you realize how important education is. We wanted to make the most of educational opportunities for our children, while also realising that they would have lots of opportunities that others weren’t going to have.

When the kids were just starting school we talked about what I could do work-wise and what we could do as a family. That’s when we decided to start the Fogarty Foundation, in the year 2000.

Right from the beginning, we both knew that education was where we wanted to focus. Brett has four sisters who are teachers, so he had a good background there! But his work had also taken him to developing countries, where he saw the direct impact of education (or lack of it).

There’s actually no better avenue than education to help build strong communities – both to enable individuals to reach their full potential, but also for society as a whole. If we’re well-educated, then the economy is going to be more prosperous, which means there’ll be less call on health and welfare services, and we’ll also have a more cohesive society that can support the people who need it – so that’s why we’ve chosen education.

Q. Does the work of the Fogarty Foundation extend its work overseas, or is it concentrated in Australia?

We focus exclusively on Australia and, in particular, on Western Australia. We are not a large foundation, so we decided that we needed to be really focused. We also wanted to build a great education community here in WA, that our children could grow into and enjoy, and that we could be involved in our local community.

Q. The Fogarty Foundation’s 2019 annual report demonstrates that it’s doing a lot. What quantum is involved in your philanthropy?

It’s grown over time; we’ve been going now for 19 years, and my husband’s very good at the investing! There was the initial money we put into the Foundation as the corpus, and we contribute a further million dollars a year approximately, which includes dividends and the profits from the investments, as well as an additional amount each year that Brett and I put in. We also attract leverage funds from program partners – so there are other organisations and individuals supporting The Fogarty Foundation’s programs, which equates to nearly another million dollars.

Q. Your daughter is now the Executive Officer of the Foundation. Is the plan to continue to involve your family into the future?

Well, the foundation will exist in perpetuity if our children want to keep it going. We have two children aged 27 and 29 and it’s certainly been very much a family foundation so far. It’s been the mainstay of conversations around the dinner table over many years with our kids. It’s also been a great way for them to see and understand other parts of our society that they wouldn’t ordinarily have been exposed to.

From quite an early age our daughter, Cait wanted to get involved in the work of the foundation. She trained as a teacher then did a Master of Commerce, but she still wanted to contribute to education so she came and joined the Fogarty EDvance program, which works with school leaders in disadvantaged communities to help build their capacity to make a difference in their schools.

Cait worked in that role for nearly three years, and now she’s the executive officer for the foundation. She’s also been a trustee for 10 years. Our 27-year-old son has always found the work of the foundation interesting too and he’s come along to events, but he hasn’t been as actively involved. One of the things we’re looking to focus on in the coming year is enterprise – specifically, how we can help develop and enable enterprising skills in young people at school – so our son’s going to bring some of his expertise to that work, to help us develop our enterprise programs.

‘It’s the best thing our family does together’

We have no grandchildren yet, but we definitely hope that our children are going to continue to be involved. It’s not something that we want to burden them with though, because at the moment it is a big financial contribution from Brett and myself, and it is a very large time commitment too.

Of course in the future, our children might decide to do something else, or they might take the foundation and run with it entirely differently, but hopefully we’ve instilled in them how fantastic the foundation is. I’m sure we all agree that it is the best thing our family does together. We’ve had some great family holidays together, we’ve got a farm that we all enjoy, but you know, the foundation is the thing that really joins us together.

Q. What was the very first program you funded in education?

It was in the drugs and alcohol education space because both are a big part of dysfunction in our community. I spent nearly a year just talking to people, finding out what was out there in terms of education and support services; I’d often come home to Brett a little overwhelmed and say, ‘I hadn’t realised that there are so many people in need in our community.’

Then I began meeting people who were doing a lot of great stuff in both prevention and intervention in drug awareness and education, including state government-funded programs, and we started identifying the gaps. After a lot of research, our foundation began supporting Local Drug Action Groups, a grassroots network comprised of concerned parents, teachers, police force and other community members.

Specifically, we initiated a leadership program to support young people in their communities to run events like skateboarding comps, graffiti workshops and blue light discos, because we know that drug and alcohol abuse often starts when kids are bored. That was our very first funded program, and we helped shape it right from the beginning. We worked with them closely on that program for 10 years.

Q. That’s a significant investment. Do you always make multi-year commitments?

Yes, we do. With some exceptions, the majority of what we do is for a number of years because in our experience, particularly in the community sector where things are so complex, three years is a minimum investment. But then, we’ve also found it very difficult to stop at just three years, so quite often our commitments have turned into five or six years – or even 17 years! That’s very different to when we first started out on our philanthropic journey when foundations were mostly doing one-off giving. I think there’s been a shift towards taking a longer view, and not just on the funding side; there’s been a shift towards more involved giving, too.

Q. How do you go about leveraging your foundation’s impact to create a ‘ripple effect’ in education?

We’ve always considered how can we focus on something and then leverage the most impact. Initially, we thought that if we could raise the status of teachers and improve the quality of teaching, we would definitely create a ripple effect by helping thousands of young people. So, in 2002 we started working with the School of Education at UWA through a range of scholarships. The shape of that program has changed over the years, but we’re still there. Then we began working with the School of Education at Edith Cowan University, where we’ve had the Fogarty Learning Centre since 2003, which offers scholarships for teachers to go back and do postgraduate studies.

Our next initiative came out of Brett’s thinking because we knew that a lot of WA’s best and brightest students were being offered scholarships to go to Melbourne and ANU universities, or even the likes of Oxford and Cambridge. A lot of our really bright young people were being recruited elsewhere, and a whole lot of talent and future leadership for WA was being lost. So we approached UWA and said, ‘Why don’t we partner with you and provide scholarships for young people to stay?’

That’s how Fogarty Scholars started, which gives talented students comprehensive scholarships to study and stay at UWA. We were especially interested in looking at regional students because Brett is from Collie – his sister was the first person from Collie to go to university – so he knew firsthand how important it is for regional students to be able to stay at a college and have a supportive group of other people around them.

While Fogarty Scholars was always designed to provide financial support, we also run a leadership program that provides scholars with opportunities to meet community and business leaders and to become part of a cohort of young people who are going to inspire and support each other into the future. We now have 65 scholars studying at UWA and 83 alumni, so a total of 148 scholars. We know that many of them have started social enterprises while they’re at university – initiatives like Teach Learn Grow or BibliU which employ others or offer internships.  That’s exactly what we hoped for in terms of the ripple effect – that we would help these scholars who would, in turn, go on to help many others.

One of our most exciting current programs is Coder Dojos WA which responds to the reality that computer programming and coding is a really important skill that every young person should have. At the time we initiated it, coding wasn’t being taught in WA schools and we looked around the world and identified a model called Coder Dojo (‘dojo’  being a Japanese term for ‘temple of learning’). These are free, fun, out-of-school learning clubs that are run by volunteers, where young people can teach themselves how to code. Of course, kids can also teach themselves how to do that through online coding courses, but this model actively brings people together. The volunteers meet with and motivate the kids, supporting them to navigate the self-directed learning, collaboration and peer-to-peer communication necessary for problem-solving and critical thinking. Coder Dojos is cultivating those kinds of 21st-century capabilities that young people need.

After the first two clubs were seeded by us, it turned out there was a huge appetite for them. There have now been over 120 Coder Dojos in WA, which is more than any other region in the world, each creating its own ripple effect too.

Q. How do you work with government to achieve scale?

Our approach to initiating programs has always been to identify needs, see who we can talk to, and then identify what we can do to address the gaps together – including with governments. Obviously, the Department of Education is the biggest provider of education in WA, along with Catholic education and independent schools. Our experience with government has been mostly positive, although initially they weren’t that used to approaches by philanthropy. I remember in one of my first meetings with a Minister, he said to me, ‘Oh, no one’s ever actually asked ‘what can we do for you?’ rather than, ‘what can you do for me?’’

What philanthropy can do best, I think, as an independent player in a particular sector, is bring together people who mightn’t otherwise do that, because we don’t have a particular agenda. That’s certainly what happened when we initiated the Fogarty EDvance program which was created in response to the fact that there is a significant minority of Australian students who are not even achieving minimal educational outcomes. They’re finishing school illiterate and innumerate, and the vast majority of these students attend schools in low socio-economic communities. Meanwhile, the Department of Education is large and cannot be agile; they’ve got to cater for 1000 schools and that’s a lot to deal with.

So we looked at other programs that had been tried in Australia, but nothing had made a shift-change for students in low socio-economic communities. After about 18 months of research, we got everyone around the table – the education department, schools and universities, people in the not-for-profit sector, people from business and management consultants – to consider what kind of major school improvements might make a difference in these disadvantaged postcodes. We looked at the system and said, ‘If this was a business, how would we improve it?’

We could do that, I think, because we’re weren’t a business. We weren’t a government or government organization. We were a philanthropic foundation, able to bring something new and different. So we spent 18 months working with this group of people and I travelled overseas to the UK and to the US to see models of dealing with educational disadvantage and school leadership development, including input from Harvard University. I brought all that information back and we formed what is now the Fogarty EDvance program.

It’s been running for seven years now and we’re working with 83 schools across three different cohorts. Our Cohort 3 school improvement report card has just come out. While obviously there’s always individual variation in schools, 100% of the schools we’ve worked with have made some improvements in learning culture and educational attainment and 60% have made significant improvements. The EDvance program has supported over 450 school leaders, impacting over 40,000 school students across our State. And we’re always feeding back to government what’s working in the program and what isn’t, to help with continuous improvement of the education system itself – and that feels like quite a significant ripple effect for philanthropy.

Q. Any hot tips for new philanthropists?

Be strategic with your funding. Focus on something you’re passionate about; don’t hang too many baubles on your Christmas tree!

Get to know your sector. Choose something you think might satisfy you, then talk to people and organisations already working in that area.

Don’t be afraid to start small. We started out supporting just one organisation, and then in the next year, we supported two or three. As we got to know the education sector better, we gained more confidence and it grew from there. When we’re testing a model we’re supporting, we start small. We basically say, ‘Okay, we’re a little niche organization, we can work with 15 schools this year and maybe 30 schools next year, but we’re just going to work with a small group.’ And if something isn’t working well, we can change it, so we’ve iterated every year. We can take those risks because we’re small and nimble, and there’s a lot of real positives in that.

Collaborate with others. That can make the whole experience more enjoyable because you’re not out there on your own, you’re always discussing the key issues and you can achieve greater impact. Then if you feel strongly about an issue collectively, you can lobby government and talk about what you’re doing – you can go in, see ministers and have a say. Governments are there to listen and you can be much more powerful and have your voice heard when you’re part of a group.

Get involved, if you can. We always like to be involved in the organisations we fund, at least partly. We want to see how the program is going. We want to learn from it. We want to have some say in how it goes. Sometimes that can be a formal thing, like being on an advisory group that brings different perspectives to the work, or often it will take the form of visiting an organisation’s work in the field. Whatever your focus area is in philanthropy, make sure you actually touch what you do. I’m in a fortunate position to be involved in the Foundation’s work full-time, but you can always get in involved in some way. You can say to the organisations you support, ‘Well, I’m here and I’m not just going to give you some money – I’d like to offer my other talents as well.’ That’s most likely going to lead to more satisfying philanthropy for you, and a greater impact in the community too.

Building good relationships is key to impact. Some funders use certain criteria for assessing their funding partners, but I always think you should be able to get a feel for an organisation if you’ve heard good things about them. You can cross-reference it by going and speaking with them, talking to them about how they actually go about doing what they do. And you can get a feel for how effective they are. I must admit, we’re not overly focused on a particular assessment framework. For us, getting to know the people is the most important thing.

Scalability matters. Apart from being WA-based and education focused, our partners need to be able to demonstrate a ripple effect in their work. We’re interested in supporting individual programs for a particular cohort only when the model can then be taken out to other schools and scaled out. That’s a really important criterion for us.

Sustainability counts too. Many people want to do great things in the community, they’ve got big ideas and lots of enthusiasm. But if they don’t have budget and a business model that works, where will they be after the first three years of our funding? We often ask, what are your other funding sources? And we talk to a lot of young social entrepreneurs who say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to be sustainable. I’m going to get some government funding from somewhere, or some philanthropic money.’ At which point we usually say, ‘Well, that’s not actually sustainable, you can’t always rely on other people’s funding.’ So, having good intentions is one thing, but having a pragmatic plan of how they’re going to achieve true sustainability is really important.

Say ‘no’ well. The hardest thing in philanthropy is definitely saying no, because there are so many great programs out there, but it’s much easier once you’re quite clear in your mind about what you want to do and what you think is going to be effective. It’s a lot easier to say, ‘I’m sorry, that’s not aligned with what we want to do at the moment – it’s a great program, but we can’t help you.’ If we’ve been involved with a charity for quite some time, we sometimes give them suggestions about where else they might go for funding and what else they might do. And when you get clear about your area of impact, you’re actually never overwhelmed by requests – we have on our website exactly what we’re doing, so we can very clearly say, ‘Well, no, that doesn’t fit our criteria, we’re not going to help you.’

Q. Any spectacular philanthropic fails?

I would say that nothing we have done has been a failure, but some initiatives have been more successful than others. Overall, our forays into educational research have been the most underwhelming. A lot of money can go into research, so if we do support any research, we insist that it’s got to be applied in schools. And then there have been some things which we thought might perhaps develop into a scalable model down the track, which they haven’t necessarily done so – but they’ve definitely helped a small group of people.

Measuring impact is obviously very important but, particularly in the community sector, it can be really difficult. You can get a lot of qualitative feedback on things, but not necessarily quantitative. And for some initiatives, you’re just not going to be able to get any clear, reliable measures at all. We always ask our funding partners to report back to us on developments, and we really encourage them to write up all of it; the negative things, the positives, the learnings, both for us to know and for them to reflect back on. There’s a tendency in the sector to only include the positive in reportage to funders, but we genuinely believe that we can all learn more from identifying what we have failed at, and considering how we can improve it.

Q. What are you reading right now?

Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson. It’s a fictionalised twist on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with the new version being a transgender male having a homosexual relationship with a man. And then there’s an overlay of artificial intelligence, and the question of whether anything that is almost-human can suffer, so that’s a really interesting read which I’m about halfway through. The other book I’m reading is Melinda Gates’ The Moment of Lift, which is really great. I usually have a few different books on the go.

I would love to write myself one day, particularly about how I believe schools can be at the centre of our community. In years gone by the church was quite a hub within our community, but it doesn’t have quite as much influence now. I think schools have that ability instead. It takes a village to raise a child, but we’ve lost our village in a lot of places – so how can we build that village? I would love to write something about that and, given it’s the Fogarty Foundation’s 20th anniversary next year, I’m hoping to put something together on that theme in 2020.

Annie Fogarty AM