Economic Inclusion: A Holistic Approach

Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation’s early beginnings focussed on fundraising for Melbourne’s public hospitals and charities. Over the past 100 years, it’s become a leading Australian philanthropic organisation recognised for its innovative approach to grantmaking to tackle disadvantage.

Lord Mayor's Charitable Foundation has supported the Aboriginal-led organisation, Willum Warrain, to realise the potential of their Bush Nursery and consolidate it as a viable social enterprise that both supports the resilience of their community and of the wider community.

“Our job has always been to view the world through a lens of overcoming disadvantage,” says Foundation CEO Dr Catherine Brown OAM. “We’re here to support the most disadvantaged people, whatever they’re facing. We must be innovative and focussed about our grantmaking to find pathways to opportunities.”
Economic inclusion has been a core part of the Foundation’s work from its very beginning 100 years ago, when poverty and illness were rife in the city and hospitals were unable to cope with demand. The Lord Mayor’s Fund for Metropolitan Hospitals and Charities, as it was then known, was formed to ensure equitable access to healthcare and the regular maintenance of hospitals.
An early brochure promoting the scheme made an emotive case: ‘It is an attempt to make each citizen feel that it is a duty and a privilege to contribute to the relief of our sick and suffering … those who are in the enjoyment of good health should think of those who are not.’
The Foundation’s history is testament to Melburnians’ belief in this principle. Though the country’s economic ebbs and flows have always had a direct impact on its fundraising, the generosity of Melburnians has endured. In the 1930s, for instance, the effects of the Great Depression hit Australia hard. But by 1937, the Fund had raised £1 million (over $50 million today), a significant portion of which was donated by people who were not necessarily wealthy and would have been hit hard by the Depression. This trend has continued throughout the Foundation’s 100 years: in 1989, the Hospitals and Charities Sunday Appeal (administered by the Foundation) saw community members donate more than any other year that decade, despite the recession.
How those funds are allocated has evolved over the century. In its first fifty years, the Foundation primarily funded healthcare, supporting those in immediate need. But with the advent of public healthcare in the 1970s, the Foundation’s aims broadened to a more preventative approach.
The minutes from a 1968 executive meeting allude to this shift, declaring ‘Numerous new charities [have] begun in the field of preventative services … [These have] relieved the work of the hospitals.’
Today, the Foundation works across numerous impact areas and is more proactive in its grantmaking, but the principles remain the same. It strives to ensure Melbourne has an inclusive economy, the strength to withstand economic and environmental shocks, and that it works for all.
Stephen Torsi, the Foundation’s Program Manager for Inclusive, Sustainable Economy and Jobs impact area, says that the Foundation’s role today is far more complex and analytical than its fundraising origins. He says it’s about looking at root causes, rather than just treating the symptoms. “It’s a mix of research, looking at the gaps, looking at policy, and looking at how philanthropy is approaching those issues,” says Stephen.
The Foundation’s support for the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) is a good example of this systemic approach. ACOSS’s campaign to raise the Newstart and Youth Allowances has had a huge impact on the way welfare is discussed in Australia.
‘Raising the rate is the first step to getting a roof over every head, a meal on every table,’ reads ACOSS’s campaign literature. ‘Raising the rate would improve social and economic participation. Every dollar would be spent in local communities.’
“It’s an ongoing campaign, a long-term way of achieving change,” says Stephen. “It’s moving things beyond the ‘dole bludger’ narrative. Looking at who is actually on welfare payments ­including a significant number of older women. There are a whole range of reasons people are on welfare. Our approach is beyond the chequebook style of philanthropy.”
And it’s not all long-term thinking. The Foundation also gets hands-on, supporting meaningful grassroots enterprises. Foodbank Australia, the largest hunger-relief charity in Australia, supports over half a million Victorians seeking emergency food assistance. The Foundation works with Foodbank providing financial help, education and training.
Food security is a big part of helping people out of poverty. The Feed Melbourne Appeal, launched in 2009 and co-ordinated by the Foundation for six years in partnership with FareShare and Leader Community Newspapers, seeks to ensure otherwise wasted food is distributed to those in need.
The Foundation also supports Foodprint, a University of Melbourne-based research project mapping the city’s food bowl. As the city grows, we will have higher demand but less land for food growth. FoodPrint is making the future of food in Melbourne local, sustainable and scalable. In 2015 Melbourne's food bowl produced enough fresh fruit and vegetables to meet around 41 per cent of the city's food needs, however, by 2050 that figure could plummet to 18 per cent.
Today, sustainability is a huge part of the Foundation’s approach. Social enterprises are businesses that not only stand on their own two feet in the marketplace but create valuable opportunities for those in need.
STREAT, for example, helps young people facing disadvantage get work in the food industry; Good Cycles helps establish careers in bike repairs, bike-share operations and other transport services; Green Collect looks for the best recycling outcomes for discarded home and office items, saving them from landfill; Lively Community supports young people into roles caring for older people in the community;  and Sweet Justice helps people emerging from the justice system fill the skills gap in beekeeping. The Foundation supports these organisations directly, including through innovation grants, and has also funded Griffith University’s Australian Social Enterprise National Strategy, which explores where social enterprises can have the greatest impact.
All of these enterprises identify a gap in the economy and help those in need take advantage of it. Catherine says it’s important that these enterprises are both environmentally and economically sustainable.
“There’s no point in funding social enterprise or job programs in industries that are dying,” says Dr Catherine Brown OAM. “They need to be jobs of the future. They need to be in the green or clean economy or the caring economy, or the digital economy. These opportunities have longevity.”
Stephen agrees that a huge shift is coming, and the Foundation needs to be ahead of it. “We can’t maintain economic systems on how we used to,” he says. “It must be grounded in ecology, and it has to be embedded in our planetary boundaries. So the next economy will have to be something different. We don’t know what that is yet.”
It’s not just about making a greener future. It’s also an opportunity to help people who are excluded from the workforce.
Stephen says that we know the care sector will keep growing, so there’s an opportunity to create pathways into those jobs. In 2020, the Foundation started supporting pathways for women into trades through the Tradeswomen Australia Community Foundation. According to ABS data from the 2021 census, women are vastly underrepresented in trades such as plumbing, carpentry and stonemasonry, making up an average of just one per cent of those workforces.
“Here’s an enormous opportunity, because there’s an enormous skills gap too,” says Stephen. “We can effect change in those sectors and increase representation. A lot of the women the program will help are from refugee or migrant backgrounds too.”
While the Foundation has always been about supporting those in need, the last few decades have seen a more holistic approach to tackling those needs.
“I think it goes to the heart of what charity is,” says Catherine. “It’s about helping those in need overcome disadvantage. You want to help people move into the mainstream, help people get a job, have a place to live, be able to live life. It is about a hand up not a handout.”
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