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Changemaker  |  Leadership

Raising Funds for Life Saving Research


Monday, 19th February 2018 at 8:44 am
Luke Michael, Journalist
Serena Stewart is the fundraising and marketing manager at Centenary Institute, and has played a key role in generating about $150 million for different philanthropic and not-for-profit organisations. She is this week’s Changemaker.


Monday, 19th February 2018
at 8:44 am
Luke Michael, Journalist


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Raising Funds for Life Saving Research
Monday, 19th February 2018 at 8:44 am

Serena Stewart is the fundraising and marketing manager at Centenary Institute, and has played a key role in generating about $150 million for different philanthropic and not-for-profit organisations. She is this week’s Changemaker.

Stewart came to Australia from the UK with a legal background, and has eight years’ experience working in the philanthropic and not-for-profit sectors.

With experience at The Atlantic Philanthropies, Alzheimer’s Australia NSW (now known as Dementia Australia) and now Centenary Institute, Stewart has helped raise funds supporting capital infrastructure projects, service provision and medical research.

Stewart also manages the marketing at Centenary Institute, coordinating all marketing, fundraising, event planning and PR for the organisation.

In this week’s Changemaker, Stewart explains the challenges of fundraising, details the intersection between fundraising and marketing, and states why everyone benefits from the medical research Centenary Institute undertakes.

How did you become involved in the philanthropic and not-for-profit sectors?

My journey in the not-for-profit and philanthropic sectors has been a slightly interesting trajectory. Having completed a law degree in the UK, I came to Australia with the intention of remaining here only for one year. Shortly after my arrival, I commenced working for a global philanthropic foundation, The Atlantic Philanthropies founded by a gentleman called Chuck Feeney who co-founded Duty Free Shopping to help manage their grants portfolio and assist in building and facilitating a network that sought to elevate domestic philanthropy (The Giving While Living Networks).

Over the course of 20-plus years, Australia’s medical research and higher education sectors were fortunate enough to receive over $500 million in benefactions from The Atlantic Philanthropies. Having not been involved in the medical research sector until this point in time in hindsight this was the turning point of my career as it sparked a passion for, and belief in, science that still exists today.

It was during my time at Atlantic that I was able to witness first-hand just how important medical research is to the overall health and wellbeing of our communities, and its pivotal role in improving human health to help overcome chronic diseases affecting society – diseases that are placing a tremendous social and fiscal burden on our public health system. I became completely inspired and committed to Australia’s best and most talented scientific minds – often called “society’s silent heroes” – who are making the pathway from discovery to healthcare more effective.

This was a key objective of our [the Centenary Institute’s] recent campaign; to celebrate how Australia’s lifesavers not only work on beaches, as many of us see on television, but on benches – striving towards a common goal of understanding the underlying mechanisms and processes of diseases in order to prevent and develop more effective therapeutics and new cures.

It is, therefore, safe to say that my experience in the philanthropic sector drove the decision to transition across to the not-for-profit side; to help raise vital funds to better support these curious and active inventors, who are ensuring that we all not only live longer, but healthier lives, and ensure they receive the recognition they deserve.

You have played a key role in generating about $150 million across three organisations. So what are some of the challenges involved in fundraising?

As many know, the fundraising industry is an extremely competitive space as there are a number of worthwhile causes that require ongoing support. One of the key challenges many face is not only the limited budget available to achieve large goals, but the scrutiny that surrounds the not-for-profit sector with regards to administration costs and how the donations are spent. For not for profits, every dollar counts.  During my eight plus years in the sector, there is no doubt that not for profits are becoming much more savvy and effective in how they are communicating to their donors and supporters, and more efficient and transparent with how donations are spent.

The impact that can be achieved if we collaborate (cross-industry) and work in a more collective fashion can be invaluable. By leveraging support and co-contribution from multiple sources the community, corporate finance and philanthropic sectors, and government and this can act as a hugely powerful tool and help generate significant funds to fully support projects that we can all benefit from. It is not just up to the individual or government to ensure that our nation’s future generations have the chance of longer and healthier lives.

You work across both fundraising and marketing, do these areas intersect and complement each other?

There is no doubt. Although they are very different in nature and what they aim to achieve one being an awareness and brand-building exercise, and the other focused on the generation of revenue they are absolutely integral to each other. The ability to successfully raise funds and ensure a sustainable source of income can certainly be dependent on the organisation’s presence within the market, and having a strong, and trustworthy, brand image that people wish to commit to, and support.

Why is fundraising so vital to the Centenary Institute and the broader not-for-profit sector?

I know only too well how sustained and ongoing funding is imperative for the future planning and the sustainability of vital medical research. It is ongoing funding that ensures that biological scientific discoveries; medical advancements that will shape the future of medicine and – ultimately – save thousands of lives now and in the next generation, [will continue]. Support from the community and philanthropy – additional to support received from the government – is what enables Centenary’s researchers to sustain their vital lifesaving research into chronic diseases that affect so many Australian families, such as cancer, inflammation and cardiovascular diseases. The Centenary Institute, now in its 33rd year, has been fortunate enough to receive the commitment and loyalty of our donors and supporters; they provide a lifeline for the institute.

We all wish and hope that our children, grandchildren, loved ones and future generations will be able to live long and healthy lives, however, a major obstacle remains between this vision and a bright future: illness. Chronic diseases continue to plague the health and quality of life of communities and society as a whole, with each and everyone one of us having lost loved ones due some of the most insidious diseases, such as cancer, inflammation and cardiovascular diseases. This leaves the question of “how can we best address the tremendous social and fiscal burden of disease?” One of the key answers to this is scientific research and fundamental discoveries that deepen our understanding of some of the complex diseases of our time; illnesses that pose as a huge risk not only to Australia’s society, but the global population.

Coming from the funder side of things, I think there’s a lot of pressure on the government to fund a lot of the not-for-profit sector… and federal and state governments do play a role in supporting their communities. However it’s a cross-industry responsibility I feel. We’re all receiving the benefits of many of the not-for-profit causes and the services that they provide.

In regards to medical research, every single one of us will actually be the recipient of more effective drugs and therapies and more effective treatments to help us cure diseases and relieve the burden of chronic disease on future generations. So we all do benefit from a lot of fundraising activities in some capacity. And I think it’s a responsibility for everyone involved.

You said the fundraising landscape has shifted in recent years. Do you see fundraising as becoming more difficult in the future?

I don’t think it will become more difficult. All of my peers working within the not-for-profit sector and especially in a fundraising role will probably agree with me that fundraising has always been a challenging industry. Do I think it will become more challenging? No, I do believe it’s up to the sector to certainly communicate to the broader general public that this is a collaborative and collective effort and I don’t think it will be any more challenging than it is now.

I think a lot of donors or supporters are probably wanting to see more collaborative projects to reduce the administration costs and there’s a lot of discussion around the number of not for profits there are out there. Probably as a result you might see a reduction in the number of not for profits. So I think it is more a case of wanting to collaborate a bit more and maybe start communicating a bit more.

Can you take me through a typical day for you at work?

I’m across the fundraising and the marketing and one of the key elements of my role is relationship building and that’s internal and external. In order to actually adequately promote and achieve the best recognition as possible for our scientists, we need the scientists to actually invest and trust in our ability to communicate these very complex subjects. So trying to bring together the scientists with the fundraising and marketing team, in order to communicate their science out to the general public, that’s an absolute essential part of my role.

So I’ll often sit with the researchers, talk with them about their projects, what their funding needs are and what they require. I also will give my annual kind of updates in regards to fundraising and the strategy and whereabouts we’re up to. And this of course all relates to external stakeholders at the same time. So in essence it’s basically closing the gap and opening up our pathways of communication.

And I also sit on quite a few committees, such as the gender equity committee, the executive committee, the social committee, the leadership committee and the internal communications committee. And we have a team of about seven, including myself, so that’s what a typical day looks like.

How do you find time for yourself amongst all the work that you do, and what do you like to do in your spare time?

I think a lot of my peers in my role know these kind of roles require a lot of hours, and not because we’re made to do it. So the spare time might not be to the same extent as a normal nine to five. But that’s predominantly due to passion and I think we’re all driven to succeed and raise the funds for whichever cause we’re raising funds for.

But aside from that I like to play netball and tennis, and of course I like seeing friends. And I’m English so I quite like the weather.

So I do think downtime is quite important and also downtime and meeting people actually does impact my role [when] I meet people who then want to come on board and support the institute. So I’m kind of always working, but predominantly in my spare time I like seeing friends and playing tennis and netball and that type of thing.

Do you have a favourite saying that guides the work that you do?

One of my most favourite quotes is one made by Winston Churchill. He said: “Healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have” [and] this is true on various levels.    


Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.


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