Community Giving: Melbourne’s Generous History

The Foundation has never just been about wealthy donors and big cheques – the community has always had a collective and essential part to play.

The Flower Day Appeal ran for almost 50 years to the mid 1970s and raised tens of thousands of dollars for the Lord Mayor’s Fund, which was distributed as grants to public hospitals and charities.

In the 1920s, representatives in many Melbourne workplaces carried a little brown book of lined paper, scrawled with the donations collected from colleagues. 

This was the Lord Mayor’s Fund’s Voluntary Industrial Contribution Scheme. This early success story is an example of how the Foundation has always worked to engage everyday Melbournians. Early reports show the variety of donors – from workplaces such as Carlton & United Breweries, National Bank, Myer, the Italian Club, Foy & Gibson, Fairfield Canoe Club, the night staff at The Sun newspaper, and Richmond Swimming Club – right down to one Mrs MC Williams, who donated 2 shillings (about $8 today). As a 1920s flyer for the workplace collection scheme implores its readers, 'Do not leave it to others! They may leave it to you!’

Along with the regular faith-based Saturday and Sunday appeals, which had been in operation since the 1870s but grew significantly with the Foundation’s inception, these workplace whip-rounds demonstrate that giving has always been in the blood of everyday Melburnians – and how small donations can build something great.

‘The Foundation started as a way to centralise charitable collections,’ says Rikki Andrews, general manager of fund development. ‘It gave people the confidence that their money would be safe and secure and going to the hospitals.’

Melburnians have always given generously, and the Foundation has played a part in galvanising the support of community.

The successful annual Flower Day Appeal, for example, saw the streets awash with colour once a year as volunteers sold bunches of flowers to raise funds. Flower Days ran from the 1920s well into the 1970s and, while enormously successful as fundraising ventures, had the added benefit of functioning as a marketing exercise, putting the Foundation in the public eye.

In the twenty-first century, things have changed, but community giving is still alive and well. ‘When people think of charity, they think of high net-worth professionals,’ says the Foundation’s CEO Catherine Brown. ‘But it’s more diverse than that. Everyone can be a philanthropist.’ Donations often come from doctors, lawyers and successful businesspeople and those on more modest incomes. And the Foundation’s methods of engaging the public have become more sophisticated.

‘Community giving is still really important,’ says Rikki. ‘It’s important to remind people that wherever they’ve come from, sharing a small amount can have an unimaginable impact on someone else. And you never know when that might be you.’ 

To establish giving in our culture, Rikki says, it’s important to start giving at an early age.

Established in 2002, the Foundation’s Youth in Philanthropy program now operates in twenty Victorian schools, involving over 150 students each year. In each school, a committee of around six to eight students are brought together and given the tools and the knowledge to distribute $10,000 of the Foundation’s money to three charities and not-for-profits. ‘It’s real money, real people, a real process – the same thing that our program managers do every day,’ says Suzanne Doig, who is senior manager of communications at the Foundation, and a longstanding mentor in the program. 

‘The students get real applications, and they have to assess them and work out how they’re going to allocate the money,’ Suzanne says. She’s a coach at eight schools, and says that this largely student-led process is eye-opening for the kids involved. ‘A lot of the kids get really emotional, really invested. Some will come through and say, '$10, 000 divided by three? Done. But then they look in more detail and meet the people involved. They see it’s not that easy.’

‘Students will see the applications and instantly decide who they’ll give the money to based on first impressions,’ says Wendy Lewis, another longstanding mentor in the program. ‘But I tell them, you’ll meet some of the people involved and you won’t be so sure. And they always do change their minds, because it’s all about the people, not what’s written on a piece of paper. It’s a great learning experience, and it opens their minds to a whole lot of other things.’

‘We want them to walk away knowing that they can be young changemakers,’ agrees Suzanne. ‘They don’t have to wait until they’re older. They can make a positive change at any age.’  

Throughout its history, the Foundation has had many ways of recognising those who make giving part of their routine. For example, in 1998, the Caring Society was established to recognise those who have pledged an annual donation. The Swanson Society acknowledges those leaving a gift in their will. Community funds and giving circles are becoming increasingly popular, as are charitable funds accounts, giving accounts which may be set up in the name of a family, for a specific charitable goal, or in memory of a loved one. Rikki also cites small community funds, which are set up through the Foundation and offer a focused fund for a small community or cause. It’s a way for people to donate and see the benefits every day. The Frankston Community Fund, for example, is worth $1 million. This may seem like a modest amount, but when around $40,000 goes into the community each year, the benefits are tangible in food banks, neighbourhood houses, and social enterprise programs. 

And giving circles such as the Melbourne Women’s Fund and Impact100 bring together groups of people to make manageable donations of $1000 a year, and to discuss and understand where that money can be most beneficial.

‘It really democratises philanthropy,’ says Catherine. ‘Lots of people can give $1000 a year, and put it all together and you have $100,000, and suddenly you can make a real impact.’

Catherine says things like giving circles are as much about community as they are about money. ‘The idea is that we’re building social and financial capital,’ says Catherine. ‘We’re raising funds, but also building networks and capabilities.’ And when crisis hits, as all Melburnians are aware, a connected community is a strong community.

But, Rikki says, there is always more that can be done. Looking at the numbers proportionately, the donations of many Melburnians on modest or comfortable incomes often outstrip the donations of the wealthy few.

‘We really need to raise the bar in Australia,’ she says. ‘People with more money, those in the top tax bracket, need to wrap their heads around giving more.’

Catherine calls for more engagement with the wider community. ‘People should look to their communities, and ask what sort of Melbourne do I want?’ She says. ‘What can I do to address homelessness, to address climate change?’

Rikki agrees: ‘The opportunity is there for everyone to give, in whatever capacity they can, to make Melbourne a better place.’

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