Close Search
Changemaker  |  Careers

Girls to the front...of philanthropy

7 October 2019 at 8:30 am
Maggie Coggan
As the CEO of the Australian Women Donors Network, Julie Reilly is paving a future where girls and women are at the forefront of philanthropy and social investment. She’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Maggie Coggan | 7 October 2019 at 8:30 am


Girls to the front...of philanthropy
7 October 2019 at 8:30 am

As the CEO of the Australian Women Donors Network, Julie Reilly is paving a future where girls and women are at the forefront of philanthropy and social investment. She’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Raised by a single mother who was unable to take out a home loan or access superannuation, Reilly was made aware of the hardships women faced in society from a young age.   

But it was these formative experiences that instilled a strong sense of social justice in Reilly and led her to become involved in the charitable and philanthropic sectors. 

With a career spanning across the business, media and tertiary education industries for over 25 years, she has used her knowledge of the various sectors to inform her leadership today. 

Since taking on the role of CEO at the Australian Women Donors Network in 2012, Reilly has fought to bring attention to the social disadvantage of women and girls around the globe and encourage the funding of projects that invest in and put girls and women at the centre of the conversation. 

She was recognised for her work in Pro Bono Australia’s 2016 Impact 25 Awards, and in 2017 was named in the Herald Sun’s 50 Women in Victoria You Should Know. 

In this week’s Changemaker, Reilly talks about her challenges as a leader, taking the next step in the fight for gender equality and what energises her as a leader. 

Why were you drawn to working in philanthropy with a specific focus on funding programs that benefit women and girls?

I grew up the youngest of four girls in a single parent family, and the position of women in society was a thread that ran through my childhood and definitely shaped my worldview. I could see that being a woman impacted your economic security, safety, access to education and career opportunities, and I saw the impact of some public policies that had clearly not applied a gender lens. For instance, despite the fact that my mother was heading the household she was prevented from accessing finance as a single woman and couldn’t get a home loan, which meant that homeownership was off the menu. She also wasn’t entitled to superannuation.

It’s those personal, early experiences that engendered a really strong sense of social justice and a desire to be a positive force rather than a neutral one in the world. I had that really deep appreciation of the importance of philanthropy and of charitable support that growing up in a single-parent family provides. 

Julie Reilly

When I reflect on my career, which has been quite a broad portfolio – working in everything from government, media, the tertiary sector, major events, media, NFPs – this particular role brings together so many of the skills and so much of the passion that I’ve developed in those different roles. When I worked as a television producer, one of the things I was really drawn to was seeing these incredibly impressive individuals and organisations that were doing great work to make society better. That was a really defining force when I took a mid-career review to reflect and decide what I wanted to do with the next phase of my career, and philanthropy provided that sweet spot of combining purpose and passion.

What are some of the main challenges that you face leading an organisation such as the Australian Women Donors Network?

We’ve got a really big ambition and a very small team. Gender equality is a long game and so you have to have an enormous amount of energy and conviction, and happily, I have that. On any given day, you might wear six different corporate hats that would be specialist roles in any other situation. That’s strategy, HR or marketing, and communications, website development and fundraising, it’s all of those things. 

Philanthropy is also a very broad church and so having an effective strategy to influence a sector that is so diverse is one of the challenges. It’s also a big challenge to get your foot in the door to have a conversation with different groups about putting a gender lens on issues.  Once you have a conversation, and once they better appreciate what we’re trying to do, they’re almost always receptive and understanding and prepared to make a change. If you’re convinced that you don’t have a problem you think you are doing the best job you can possibly do, then you’re not always open to learning how you might enhance your impact.

What changes have you seen in philanthropy and its attitude to women and girls since you started working in the space? 

We’ve seen some fantastic leaders step into the philanthropy space. We’ve seen the growth of the Women Moving Millions movement, which is a global movement where philanthropists pledge a minimum of $1 million over a 10 year period. Women and girls are much more central to the conversation and I think there is no question that the awareness of women and girls as a key focus in philanthropy has grown. 

So there are some really positive changes, but what we’re not seeing or what we need to see more of is the conversion of that awareness into changed behavior. It can take time to change your systems, to change questions in your grantmaking process, or to more evenly influence the composition of your board and make sure that women are represented, but one of the things we need to see more of is the actual behaviour change, that is to say moving from intention to action. 

What’s another thing you want to see more of?  

What we haven’t seen enough of in the space is a change to data. Australian philanthropy is making a huge effort to improve data collection but there is a significant gender gap that needs to be closed. And what I would say is in the vernacular of the sector, what matters gets measured – well, women and girls matter, and investment in them should be measured. 

Launching the Gender-wise Toolkit

What do you love most about your job?

There is so much I love. There’s never a day when I wake up and think, “Ugh I don’t want to go into work”. I consider it a real privilege to work in this space and to work in an area that I’m passionate about and feel well equipped to influence. 

I love so many of the extraordinary women’s organisations in Victoria and the rest of Australia where we’re trying to grow the share of the philanthropic pie that benefits the women they are working to support. I feel enormous love and respect and gratitude for our supporters, especially the people who fund the work and enable us to do what we’re doing. I love that they get it and see the importance of it.

That is not to say there aren’t days I feel overwhelmed but more often I just want to get the job done. 

How important has it been for you to invest in your own leadership? 

A few years ago I did Mim Bartlett’s Change-up course with a fabulous group of women who subsequently have become a support network and collective mentoring group. Although it’s often hard in small, lean NFP organisations to prioritise professional development, I found investing in my own leadership to be extremely beneficial in building my capacity to manage the challenges of the role and play to my strengths.

Reilly on a panel for Poverty Week

How would you say that this experience has changed you and your outlook on the world? 

It has strengthened my belief in the good in the world. I think it strengthened my connection to people who actively want to invest both their wealth and their hearts into improving things, particularly improving the lives of women and girls. It’s really strengthened my resolve. I would say it has also frustrated me that there are those who have the means to really make a significant difference and for a variety of reasons are yet to embrace a gender lens approach.

Do you think that will change? 

I am confident it will. You’ve got this cohort of people coming through the corporate world, who are also entrepreneurial and will end up on philanthropic boards. This generation is schooled in unconscious bias, in diversity and inclusion practices and will bring that into their philanthropy. 

I can also see with the new generation of philanthropists that gender equality is absolutely at the forefront. Research in America that I looked at during my Churchill Fellowship shows that family foundations and new generation funders are much more likely to value gender equality, to adopt a gender lens and fund for women and girls, and so I think that can only grow. And women’s economic power is growing and their ability to make money gives them more power philanthropically.

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

PB Careers
Get your biweekly dose of news, opinion and analysis to keep you up to date with what’s happening and why it matters for you, sent every Tuesday and Thursday morning.

Got a story to share?

Got a news tip or article idea for Pro Bono News? Or perhaps you would like to write an article and join a growing community of sector leaders sharing their thoughts and analysis with Pro Bono News readers? Get in touch at or download our contributor guidelines.
Most Viewed



Get more stories like this


Your email address will not be published.


Explaining your resume gap

Jonathan Alley

Friday, 20th May 2022 at 7:50 am

Care with upstanding courage

Jonathan Alley

Friday, 20th May 2022 at 7:45 am

pba inverse logo
Subscribe Twitter Facebook