“You don’t have to have millions of dollars to have strategic, long-term impact,” says the Melliodora Fund’s Bruce McGregor.
“Even as a smaller funder you can be useful, effective and strategic if you cooperate. That’s ultimately what community organising is all about – you get together and get organised.”
For Bruce and Ann McGregor, collaboration has been one of the most valuable lessons they’ve learned about philanthropy since establishing the Melliodora Fund, a sub-fund of Australian Communities Foundation, in 2008.
Last month, the Melliodora Fund was one of seven Australian Communities Foundation sub-funds, along with ten other funders, recognised for their commitment to the environment at the 2019 Australian Philanthropy Awards.
Receiving the Environmental Philanthropy Award for the group’s collective support of The Change Agency’s Community Organising Fellowship was “very pleasing” Ann says, but she and Bruce both believe that the biggest wins are yet to come.
“The Award was not just for us – there have been 17 funders supporting the Fellowship since 2014 so that’s a long-term group of funders who are building the capacity of campaigning for environmental justice,” Ann explains.
“It’s about creating a ripple effect.”
The Community Organising Fellowship is a six-month program featuring a structured curriculum, mentoring and residential workshops to up-skill community leaders and change makers and boost their ability to influence decision makers. Twenty-five community leaders take part in the Fellowship each year.
“Every year these 25 leaders go out and train many others, so it’s very strategic capacity building that supports community development and campaigns,” Ann says.
“While the Fellowship has tended to focus on climate change as an issue, the skills are very transferable and people from other environmental and community causes have also been part of the training.
“We know that community organising has worked for everything from the suffragette movement to trade union and workers’ rights so it’s a pretty well-developed and effective idea.”
The McGregors have been supporting environmental causes for more than 30 years, so it comes as no surprise that the Melliodora Fund is “all about environmental funding” as Bruce explains.
Ann and Bruce both trace their life-long environmentalism back to their respective childhoods in rural Victoria.
“We both grew up in country Victoria and we both had parents who enjoyed nature,” Ann says, adding that their upbringing also influenced their chosen fields of study: agricultural science (Bruce) and environmental planning (Ann).
“We’ve always been passionate about the environment and the natural world. These are now under severe threat and need all the help we can give. Climate change is the biggest IQ test for humanity and at the moment we’re not passing,” Ann continues.
“The big question is, are we intelligent enough and rational enough to look at the science and evidence and take the action needed to address this existential threat to humanity and the planet? It’s easy to despair but you just have to keep going.”
Beyond their long-term financial support of environmental causes, the McGregors are also seasoned activists and campaigners.
“We’ve been married more than 40 years and we’ve been involved in environmental causes all that time,” Bruce says.
“We know what it’s like to be activists and how you get treated by those in power – it’s not always good, especially if you’re a woman. We certainly appreciate all the hard work all the environmental organisations and their volunteers do.”
Having been at the front line of many campaigns over the years, the McGregors are staunch supporters of advocacy as a tool for effecting change.
“We’re advocates for advocacy,” Ann says emphatically.
“With any movement for change you can’t just pay someone to live in Canberra and talk to the MPs,” Ann continues, “you’ve got to show there’s a lot of community support and that’s what these fellowships help to do.”
“I think that philanthropy’s understanding of the importance of advocacy is beginning to change, especially with the help of groups like the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network (AEGN) which has been quite effective in making the case for advocacy.”
Working alongside like-minded funders at Australian Communities Foundation and AEGN have been powerful and rewarding experiences for the McGregors, who are keen supporters of co-funding and collaboration.
“One of the things we like most about being part of the Australian Communities Foundation is that you find out about different projects and the co-funding opportunities, which is the perfect way to start collaborative funding. ACF is the hub and as donors you can tap into it and get together, form donor circles, and learn from all the newsletters and events.
“Co-funding is essential for smaller funders to have any impact,” Ann says.
“You can’t do much with $5,000 or $10,000 here or there – you really have to get together with other funders to get the scale and impact.”
“Co-funding is also an opportunity to spread your risk,” Bruce adds.
“If you take an investment approach and think in terms of your ‘portfolio’ and that some projects are riskier than others, then getting a number of smaller funders to put in small amounts reduces their individual risk rather than having one funder take on that entire risk.”
“Sometimes you can spend a lot of time worrying about trying to find the best project to support, especially when you’re just starting out with your giving,” Bruce says.
“I think it’s really important to just get started; start contributing to projects that interest you. Start with the issues that interest you, dip your toe in the water.”
“And stick with it!” Ann chimes in. “Meet the people and the organisations that are doing good work and know that they need ongoing support. You can’t solve these problems overnight.”