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6 min read

Taking innovation to transformation: Ellen Koshland

Profile of Nicole Richards
Written by Nicole RichardsPosted on 13/10/2022

Ellen Koshland has been hailed as one of Australia’s most visionary philanthropists.

Her unwavering commitment to equity in education compelled her to establish the Small Change Foundation in 1989 (later renamed the Education Foundation), which raised more than $10 million to fund 500+ innovative education programs across Australia. 

Ellen joined the Board at the Foundation for Young Australians in 2008 and served as a director there for five years. Believing that important new ideas in education needed greater national attention, Ellen founded the Australian Learning Lecture, a 10-year initiative to demonstrate that new ideas in learning can better equip students for our changing world.  

She is a founding patron of the Stella Prize, a major literary prize established in 2012 to profile and celebrate Australian women’s writing.  

As one of Australian Communities Foundation’s largest fundholders, Ellen is also a passionate funder for the environment. 

The throughline that connects each of Ellen’s philanthropic passions is a pronounced sense of activism which she attributes to her American family and her grandfather and philanthropic role model, Daniel E. Koshland, Snr. 

Before she left the US, Ellen was introduced to the Robin Hood Was Right movement, which she describes as the catalyst of the ‘don’t do charity, do venture philanthropy’ approach which brought advocacy and under-funded causes into sharp focus. It also sparked a connection with esteemed Australian philanthropist, Jill Reichstein, OAM. 

“When I came to Australia in 1973 it was a big adjustment,” Ellen says. “I felt like an outsider for quite a while and it wasn’t until Jill said to me, ‘Ellen, you’re not doing anything. Why don’t you do something?’ that I realised that even though I was an immigrant, I could still take action here. That was the prompt that got my philanthropy started here in Australia.”  

Almost 50 years later, Ellen Koshland’s giving continues to blaze a trail through some of Australia’s most challenging social and environmental landscapes. 

In this recent conversation, Ellen shared her thoughts on the importance of philanthropy, the causes that matter most to her, the benefits of giving through a community foundation, and the advice she’d offer to new givers.  

Can you share a little of your background and how you got involved in giving?  

I come from a family that had been involved in philanthropy for a long time. My grandfather, Daniel E. Koshland, Snr was always a central figure in our life. He was CEO of the Levi Strauss Company, then director and honorary chair of the board. Levi Strauss began in those years to focus on being a good employer as well as a good corporate citizen.  

In 1948 my grandfather also created one of the first community foundations in the world, the San Francisco Foundation. He was brave in everything he did: fighting for better race relations and championing planned parenthood, even way back then.  

He was a modest man but also canny. Something he said that’s always stayed with me was, “Ellen, it’s important to always give of yourself not just your money”.  I really feel it’s one of best tips I’ve ever been given. 

That’s why I have maintained strong connections with the organisations and initiatives I support, like the Stella Prize, and I’m still very strongly involved in education. I may not want to go to the AGMs but I keep a very close eye on things and I always ask, ‘What is the thing that’s most difficult for you and also the hardest thing to get money for?’ – that was another lesson from my grandfather actually.  

In the early 1950s, when Planned Parenthood was just beginning, they came to him and asked for support and he said, ‘Yes, I will give to you, but I want you to forget I said that. You go organise a lunch for some important people and then you ask me the same question then. It will have more power if I say yes in front of these other people who might also get involved.’  

That’s a great part of philanthropy, offering other people the opportunity to be involved, and it was certainly the case when I was helping Stella get there at the beginning. If people don’t want to do it that’s fine, but you offer them the opportunity. 

That’s a great part of philanthropy, offering other people the opportunity to be involved

Education is very important to me. I had worked in Headstart, the US program, to bring all kids up to speed before they get to school and when my children started school, I was appalled to hear that teachers weren’t being supported in the great ideas they had. To me, public education wasn’t being supported by the community and that was really the prompt for me starting the Small Change Foundation.  

I believe deeply that every child has a talent and that they deserve the opportunity to develop that talent. School is a collective institution of importance and public education is an important representation of that. So, I started out by working with teachers and then became interested at a systems level. All facets count.  

Why is philanthropy important to you?  

It’s important because it’s about building a better community.  

I absolutely think we need philanthropy and it’s a dimension that really needs to function well to have an active civic society. Philanthropy can pull levers because it can be a neutral, non-political catalyst acting as a hub. I think it needs more than ever to be strong – to think more boldly and contribute insight.  

Philanthropy can take risks which governments can’t, particularly in short-term election cycles, and I think that post-pandemic we need to be connecting people and rebuilding but also allowing for new forms of philanthropic support and stronger philanthropic voices driving understanding.  

Is there a particular grant you’ve made that is dearest to your heart?  

I don’t think I can choose just one because all of them are special to me. 

The Stella Prize was wonderful because it was a landscape changer almost immediately, but I’d equally say I’ve fought for 30 years to try and change equity in education, and although I do not think we have yet succeeded, it is just as central in my heart as it ever was.  

We need philanthropy and it’s a dimension that really needs to function well to have an active civic society

Sometimes you fight and you don’t win, and you just have to keep fighting. That said, I’m very proud of the Beyond ATAR: A Proposal for Change report which presented ways to measure student capabilities other than a score. This is important because presently we put so much emphasis on a single score. We really aren’t doing well internationally in terms of fostering critical thinking, problem solving or communication skills because schools are driven to focus on a test score.  

It’s important to say I was a small part of these initiatives. There was a superb staff and board team at Stella, and for many of the organisations in education it has taken many extraordinary people working together to carry out the work we did.   

What do you value most about giving through a community foundation?  

I think the growth of community foundations is one of the greatest developments in philanthropy and I wish I had more time to be part of it.  

When I started in philanthropy all those years ago, it felt as though it was all quite competitive. Everyone was trying to get money from this and that and on to the next thing. In contrast, now you have the collaborative and collective nature of community foundations.  

I love that organisations like Australian Communities Foundation and the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network work closely together and learn from each other. When that level of collaboration happens, it doesn’t matter as a philanthropist how much money you have – you can still make a contribution that’s invaluable and I think that’s a wonderful development and one of the biggest benefits of giving through a community foundation.  

What would you like to see philanthropy do more of?  

I really feel that philanthropy needs a stronger voice and presence that helps tell the story of what philanthropy can bring to the table when it comes to problem solving the big, tough questions.  

Of course, it is good to get more people involved in giving, but it’s also about creating understanding, creating desire for civic participation, even if it isn’t about giving money. Getting people thinking about, ‘What is a way that one could go about something differently?’ Otherwise, how can you hope to understand communities you don’t know? 

I think the growth of community foundations is one of the greatest developments in philanthropy

A good example is Environment Victoria, an organisation I admire a great deal. They were working to secure a better plan for the Murray-Darling Basin and the state minister told them she wanted to hear from the local people themselves.  So, Environment Victoria took it up and went to the region and built a coalition between farmers, fishers, irrigation people etcetera and helped find the voices who could speak to the media. They’ve also connected up across three different states, helping to get regional people together. 

Philanthropy is playing a really important role in supporting this work to enable different voices to be heard and different coalitions to be built.   

The other thing I’d say is that I really believe in second-stage funding. It’s great to get something going at the beginning but sometimes the funding that comes in the later stage is even more important. So many non-profits come up against things they could have never imagined and it’s hard to grow, particularly when funders aren’t as excited when they don’t think they’re playing a part in starting it. 

If you could offer any advice to anyone who’s just getting started with their giving, what would it be?  

I’d say think about an opportunity or a problem that you believe needs solving and go and talk to people. Learn. Ask questions and get involved. It’s a wonderful way to start.  

I’ve worked with some of the most amazing people over the years to try and solve big problems and it’s always been a very special experience.