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5 min read

‘It’s not about big dollars’: Phillip and Mercedes Slater on their giving journey

Phillip and Mercedes Slater began their giving journey by “just writing cheques for the same charities” and donating clothes to opportunity shops – that is, until they discovered structured giving.  

With the support of Australian Communities Foundation, Phillip and Mercedes became more strategic around their giving and established a Named Fund: the Initiate Action Community Fund, named after their ethos and “mindset of getting stuff done and making a change in the world,” Phillip explains. 

Eleven years since the Fund’s inception, the couple have well and truly found their footing, giving to a range of causes, including supporting health and wellbeing, homelessness and housing, and Indigenous communities.

In this recent conversation, Phillip and Mercedes Slater reflect on how their giving has changed over time, share the advice they’d give to people starting their giving journeys, and discuss what they wish more people knew about philanthropy. 

Watch: Phillip and Mercedes Slater discuss their giving journey with Australian Communities Foundation.

How did you get started with structured giving?

Phillip: We were looking at estate planning. We wanted – after our ultimate demise – whatever assets we had to go on and do something. So, the idea was, ‘what if we set something up now that provides a home for whatever assets are going into it?’ 

Mercedes: We didn’t know what our intent was, we only had a vague idea. When we joined, the team helped us play in the sandbox for a while and work out our interests. Over time, we developed a strategy; we like to measure and build capacity.  

How have your giving interest areas evolved over time?

P: We started out with themes around education and women and girls. Our backstory is that we were the first people in both of our families to go to university.

M: Education is a powerful tool. If you don’t have a lot of education, you struggle. So, we were looking at helping kids finish high school. 

Hopefully we can help lift someone up and then that person might lift someone else

P: Our ethos evolved; we now look at how we can build capacity for individuals to do more on their own. So, for people who might be reliant on others or on the social systems, how can we help? We support organisations that are doing things to help people be more independent in their lives.  

What is it that you enjoy most about giving?

P: It’s the satisfaction of seeing or knowing the change that’s happened. It’s about being able to say to ourselves ‘we’ve done something good here’.  

M: Everyone should have an opportunity to be the best they can be. You can actually see people’s lives improve. It sounds like a cliche, but everyone has a right to feel fulfilled and happy. 

What are some of the best things that have come from being part of a giving community like the one at Australian Communities Foundation? 

M: Learning Circles have been very helpful – like-minded people get together and one would have an idea, and then the other would share something that worked for them. You learn through that.

P: It’s the cliche of community – being able to join in those forums and hear about issues where otherwise we would’ve had to try and research and find experts … but you can come along and hear someone talking about various issues and get that information.  

Our ethos evolved; we now look at how we can build capacity for individuals to do more on their own

One of the things we’ve always taken advantage of at Australian Communities Foundation is the resources.  We’ve made sure the team understand our ethos and what drives us, the sort of things we’re looking for. The team will come to us and say, ‘hey, have you heard about this?’, then they help make a connection. It’s helpful for us to be able to meet the right sorts of organisations.

How has Australian Communities Foundation supported your way of giving?

P: We don’t have to deal with any red tape. It also separates when you make a donation and when you grant to an organisation. This means that you can put money into the fund when you’ve got some cash, and then find the right opportunity later.  

That changes the equation for us in terms of being able to look for things. We can say, ‘here’s an organisation that needs some help’ and we can commit to three years of help because we know the fund can grant, and it doesn’t matter what happens to us in the meantime. That’s part of the administrative benefit – we don’t have to try and manage the cash flow around giving. 

What’s something you wish more people knew about philanthropy?

P: I think that most people think about philanthropy as being for the very wealthy in society.  

M: [But] you don’t have to come in with a million dollars. It’s not about big dollars.

P: You can start a Gumnut with as little as $2,000 and then incrementally increase that until you get to a Named Fund. A lot of families can afford that. Regular people like us can afford to make something happen. You just take a little time to build it up. It compounds and before you know it, you’ve got something worthwhile. 

When all’s said and done, what do you hope your giving has achieved?

M: To make people’s lives better. Sometimes it only takes a little bit of money to improve someone’s life or someone’s environment. Hopefully, with our small contributions, we can help lift someone up and then that person might lift someone else. That’s what it is. 

What advice would you give to people starting their philanthropic journeys?

P: The advice we’d give to anybody is to just start and make some small grants and see how it works, and see where your passion leads you.

Sometimes it only takes a little bit of money to improve someone’s life or someone’s environment

M: If you wait for things to be perfect… that perfection doesn’t exist. You just have to get into the sandpit, get a bit dirty, make some mistakes, and keep going.

P: It’s all a learning journey. You’ll get in and not know how it works or whether that’s the right sort of organisation or how you’re going to choose an organisation. You really can’t learn it until you’re doing it. Our advice would be to just start giving, whether you start with a Gumnut or move on to something bigger.

To learn more about Named Funds, click here.

To support the Initiate Action Community Fund, click here.