Former Journo ‘Hooked’ on Raising Medical Funds
14 October 2013 at 8:50 am
Former journalist Astrid Sweres made the leap into the fundraising world for Not for Profits nine years ago and got “hooked”. In that time she has raised more than $65 million for medical research and is this week’s Changemaker.
Before entering the Not for Profit sector, Sweres led a varied career, managing sales for Parfums Chanel and publicity for SBS.
She also worked as a television presenter, ran a community arts centre and festival in Britain, worked as a journalist with mainstream and trade press.
However an introduction to Sue James, then the General Manager of Fundraising and Marketing at the Monash Institute of Medical Research, led her into fundraising work at the institute.
For the past five years, Sweres has worked at Melbourne’s Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health and has raised funds to support research into the brain. She is also an outspoken Patient Advocate to the medical profession about women’s vulval health after battling with lichen sclerosus for more than 15 years.
What drew you to the Not for Profit sector?
I was working as a freelance journalist and science communicator, and a colleague introduced me to Sue James, then General Manager, Fundraising and Marketing at the
Monash Institute of Medical Research, who was looking for a new team member. I did not even know there was such a thing as a professional fundraiser at that time! Sue opened my eyes to the possibilities of getting back into working as part of a team and I was hooked … nine years and much specialised training later, here I am at the Florey.
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
Most people do not realise that scientists need to apply for their salaries every year, and often they miss out. Not only that, such funding does not cover the actual costs of their research. Imagine if everyone had to live with that level of constant lack of security!
My role is to engage the community and institutional funders to support our scientists and their work, and to build for future sustainability. Unfortunately, scientific research is not a sexy sell for most people.
Neuroscience can be very hard for people to understand and relate to, but I absolutely love making neuroscience come alive for our supporters. I do this by keeping up-to-date with our many different research projects, researching and writing all our philanthropic grant submissions, chatting with our supporters at functions and generally opening people’s eyes to what they can achieve by supporting research into the brain.
The most rewarding thing for me is to work with a young scientist to apply for some funding and then being successful on their behalf – that is truly like Christmas every time!
What has been the most challenging part of your work? And how do you overcome that?
Since I joined the Florey five years ago, we have worked through three amalgamations, each of which has brought wonderful new supporters and colleagues into our fold, but also created a lot of workplace stress with rebrands, staff changes, increased workloads etc.
The stress I have experienced through trying to navigate these changes as practically and humanely as I can has clearly shown me that politics is not my preferred career.
My way of coping with stress is to bottle it for controlled release at a suitable time, and for me that usually involves a combination of solitude and a good book.
My husband and I also enjoy getting away to see bands – he is a passionate roots and blues fan of encyclopaedic knowledge, and I just enjoy the vibe!
The Neil Young and Crazy Horse concert in March was a highlight this year; the rain sheeted down on the audience, all of whom were out in the open, and also the band on stage, but the pulsating wall of sound was absolutely hypnotic.
Thank goodness there were no electrical explosions! We are planning a visit to the Byron Bay R&B Festival next year.
I consider my greatest achievement to be … Like most people who have lived a full life, I find it hard to answer that.
As a passionate feminist, I consider the fact that I have single-handedly raised a family of fabulous people, studied for a degree and then built a challenging career in my forties as a personal achievement.
However, I’m also proud of having contributed to raising more than $65 million for medical research which might help bring a cure for disease a little closer.
I’m always being asked … When are you getting off that computer?
School taught me … As a little migrant child of the late 1950s, school taught me to be self-sufficient and to believe in myself – or die!
What does a typical day for you involve?
Early morning: leave husband to have peaceful lie-in and steal into kitchen to prepare solitary tea and toast, consumed on the back terrace listening to the beautiful birds in our garden.
Drive to Parkville along Eastern Freeway, accompanied by ABC Radio National. Arrive at the Kenneth Myer Building in Royal Parade and grab a coffee at Dr Dax Kitchen on my way up to the fifth floor.
Turn on computer, check emails and daily planner, then start with the day’s duties – these will be a mix of thinking/creating and responding to external requests of a highly varied nature, but always deadline driven!
They will include scientists for advice on funding, colleagues for input into admin issues, community fundraisers needing a chat about their events, supporters needing information, and many more.
Morning tea in lunchroom, chatting with scientific colleagues from all over the building. Lunch at desk because I’m “in the zone…” Afternoon meeting to fine-tune an event, followed by working with the team in whatever way I can to help make it a success.
I make it a point to leave the office before 5pm wherever possible to avoid the peak hour traffic, and because I think work-life balance is vital. Working extremely long hours seems admirable, but is probably not very efficient.
What (or who) inspires you?
I am inspired by my parents who survived a horrific war that took away their youth and an invasion which took away their opportunities for higher education and just having fun.
Emigration was a new start, but it is very, very hard to create a new life when you have three young children to support. They ultimately brought up four children with total love and devotion, and we have all raised high-achieving families of our own. My very happy and stable childhood nurtures me every day of my life.