Master of Social Investment and Philanthropy graduate and founder of collective giving organisation, Good Mob

‘Philanthropy is a bit of an addiction once you get involved,’ says Sarah Wickham. ‘I’ve never found a job that stimulates me so much.’

When Sarah, a former president of the Swinburne Philanthropy Alumni Committee who has built a career in the giving sector, talks about philanthropy it doesn’t sound like an obligation borne by society’s wealthiest echelons; instead, it’s a fascinating enterprise that anyone can embark on, and enjoy.

Sarah completed a Master of Social Investment and Philanthropy at Swinburne in 2015. Her enthusiasm for philanthropy is infectious, which is good because she is a woman on a mission to infect people of every age and income bracket with the philanthropy habit.

Sarah Wickham

"If you have $200 a year you can spare, you can be a philanthropist."

‘There’s a perception,’ she says, ‘that to be a philanthropist you need to come from a certain family, or kind of family.’ An extremely rich family? ‘That’s what people often think but if you have $200 a year you can spare, you can be a philanthropist. I’m very interested in growing the diversity of the sector.’

Encouraging philanthropic generosity

Despite being a philanthropy specialist, Sarah sometimes, quite deliberately, doesn’t use the term ‘philanthropy’ because ‘it can scare people — not everyone knows what it means or is comfortable with it’. She deploys it with care when talking about the Good Mob, the social enterprise she developed with fellow Swinburne masters student Bryony Green as a platform for collective giving — a concept that won the pair the Nexus Innovator of the Year Award in 2015.

The Good Mob aims to help existing social and community groups — extended families, such as mothers’ groups or sporting clubs — create ‘giving circles’. Circle members pool their money to reach a sum that can have an impact, and select and support agreed causes. By adopting analytical and selection strategies used by bigger, established philanthropic organisations, giving circles can identify where their money will have most impact, and where they can develop philanthropic relationships over the medium and long term.

Sarah says the concept of giving circles has been tried and tested in the United States for more than 30 years. She and Bryony believed it could work in Australia because they each knew people who wanted to find meaningful ways to give back but did not know where to start. Some were donating to charities but weren’t getting the meaning they wanted. For others, the emergence of online crowdfunding has filled that gap but, as Sarah observes, this is often a one-off burst of generosity that may not offer continuing engagement.

Driven to make a difference

When Sarah was completing the masters program, despite being one of its youngest participants, she knew she wanted to make a career in philanthropy. Making a difference in society had been a driving force since her teen years. As an undergraduate student activist in her home town, Melbourne, and later as a junior government adviser in Canberra, she thought politics might be the route by which she could have an impact.

It was later, while working as a major gift fundraiser in higher education, that she realised she had found her calling. Sarah learned that Swinburne had a postgraduate course that operated on a combined online and on-campus format that could accommodate her work commitments and build her existing skills.

"There’s a really strong bond between people in this sector who studied at Swinburne."

She says spending time at the Hawthorn campus with her fellow students was one of the highlights of the program. Developing networks is a critical element of successful fundraising and Sarah made the most of the opportunities she found at Swinburne. In the year she completed her masters, she became president of the Swinburne Philanthropy Alumni Committee.

‘There’s a really strong bond between people in this sector who studied at Swinburne,’ Sarah says. Philanthropy Australia’s Pat Burke is among the Swinburne alumni Sarah counts as a mentor. Another Swinburne connection is Carolyn Munckton, who helped Sarah secure a sought-after job at one of Australia’s biggest distributors of philanthropic funds – Equity Trustees, which manages more than 500 charitable trusts and foundations. Equity Trustees distributed more than $70 million to a range of charities and causes in 2016 alone.

Sarah’s present position at Equity Trustees as Philanthropy Manager involves her in directing funds to sectors as wide-ranging as the arts and medical research. ‘I am so happy here. There’s such scope and so much depth,’ she says. ‘The diversity is hard to beat.’ The job also has her ideally placed to tackle another myth about philanthropy — that the most appropriate path by which to give money to your preferred causes is via your will.

The joy of giving

Although legacies that take effect after the donor’s death have been and remain a hugely important component of Australia’s philanthropic pool, Sarah is keen to encourage more people who have the means to do so to consider setting up charitable funds while they are still alive.

It’s a practice that has more traction in the United States, which has a broader tradition of philanthropy than Australia. Sarah says this is in part because philanthropy plays a safety-net role in the United States that is not part of the Australian tradition — but it also normalises this type of giving among individuals who would not necessarily class themselves among society’s richest.

Giving during your lifetime, says Sarah, means you can see your gifts in action. ‘It’s so enjoyable,’ she says. ‘People don’t have to miss out on that joy.’ Working with donors who are in it for the long haul means that giving gets a chance to take effect over time, free of the corporate or political risk of funding being withdrawn at a stage when it is still needed. ‘We are not accountable to shareholders, we don’t have to deal with election cycles. We can look at something and set it up for the long term.’

Maintaining a connection with Swinburne

Sarah’s ‘day job’ and her relationship with Swinburne remain closely linked, with Equity Trustees contributing $10,000 each year for participants in the social investment and philanthropy course to direct to a chosen cause. The fact that it is ‘real money’ is vitally important, says Sarah, and it’s not just about identifying worthy causes. It’s about working out whether your gift will make a difference.

"There’s no doubt that my career would not have taken the direction it has without Swinburne."

‘You are going through a genuine, rigorous process. It’s not theoretical. You’re asking: are there other organisations doing this already? Are they doing it better? Why are we the best to do this?’ Sarah says it makes an enormous difference to graduates of the program to be able to tell potential donors that they have been through this process — from the giving side.

In the spirit of continuing to connect and give back, Sarah regularly returns to Swinburne as a guest lecturer for the masters program and to talk to undergraduates about social enterprises.

‘There’s no doubt that my career would not have taken the direction it has without Swinburne,’ says Sarah. ‘The study, the networks, the experience. The Good Mob would not have happened without it. It’s Swinburne born and bred.’

Words by Cathie Gowdie.

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