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Philanthropy for humanity

28 June 2021 at 5:08 pm
Maggie Coggan
As the CEO of Philanthropy Australia, Jack Heath is using his skills to transform philanthropy in Australia into a force to change lives. He’s this week’s Changemaker.  

Maggie Coggan | 28 June 2021 at 5:08 pm


Philanthropy for humanity
28 June 2021 at 5:08 pm

As the CEO of Philanthropy Australia, Jack Heath is using his skills to transform philanthropy in Australia into a force to change lives. He’s this week’s Changemaker.  

Jack Heath first entered the charity space after his young cousin, Jack, committed suicide. Determined to make a difference to youth mental health, he set up and led ReachOut in Australia, Ireland and America for over 15 years, before serving as the CEO of SANE Australia for eight years.   

At the start of this year, he stepped up to a new challenge, leading Australia’s peak body for philanthropy, Philanthropy Australia.  

His appointment follows a challenging 2020, when Australian philanthropy pivoted and jumped into action to help charities stay afloat amid (what felt like) never-ending disasters. 

Read more: Predictions for 2021 Philanthropy

As the CEO of Philanthropy Australia, Heath is using his experience of being on the other side of philanthropic funding to create a sector that is big-hearted, clear-headed and joyful – one that works to change the lives of Australians everywhere. 

In this week’s Changemaker, Heath discusses the importance of knowing when to walk away, finding balance in the busyness, and managing challenges.         

You’ve been involved in the mental health space for some time, what drew you to the role at Philanthropy Australia?

After about eight years at SANE Australia, it became clear to me that what I’d set out to achieve at the organisation was pretty close to completion, and I knew it was time for me to pass the baton over to someone else. I wasn’t quite sure what I would be doing next, but I knew I didn’t really want to go and work for another mental health organisation because I felt that between ReachOut and SANE, I’d given everything that was relevant to me to them.

I then saw an ad for the Philanthropy Australia job on LinkedIn. I thought it could be interesting because I had spent 25 years seeking funding from philanthropists in Australia and around the world. I knew just how important that funding had been to me in terms of starting and building organisations, but most importantly having a direct impact on the lives of people you’re there to serve. So I wanted to be involved in growing that funding pie and giving philanthropists and foundations a bit more of the fundee perspective. Research shows that those who are giving away the dollars have a much more positive picture of the relationship than those receiving the dollars. What that suggests is that there’s a bit of a disconnect. So, having spent time on the “fundee” side of the fence gives me the perspective to help inform how we do better philanthropy in Australia.

How important is it for leaders to pass the baton onto the next person and not outstay their time at the organisation?

I think it varies. For some people it’s right that they stay there for 40 years. It’s just about them doing as much as they can in that period of time. For me though, that ongoing change is about how do you have that succession piece? When I first arrived at SANE, I was asked to do my vision piece for where I saw the organisation being in five or 10 years. Once it became clear to me that what I had articulated back then was achieved, it was time to do something else. 

What are some of the challenges you’ve come up against at Philanthropy Australia, and how do you manage them?

It’s something that I’ve been thinking about quite a lot because if I think back to when I was at ReachOut, if I was going through any difficult times, either personally or in the work context, I could say [to myself], “well, today there’s seven or eight young people who will attempt suicide in Australia, so I’m there for them”. While it’s very clear what we do at Philanthropy Australia – which is [thinking about] how we have more and better philanthropy – the thing I’m working through at the moment is who do we serve? We’re a membership based organisation, so obviously you’ve got to be there to represent the interests of the members. But I think that who we serve is actually humanity, and people will make their contributions towards humanity in different ways. The challenge around that is once you cast it as wide as humanity, it’s harder for you to just put yourself in the shoes of humanity as a whole. 

When managing challenges at a personal level, I do have spiritual practice. I meditate in the morning and in the evenings. I do this to try and keep grounded and keep my motivation right, because motivation can always get a bit mixed. And then the last thing [I do] is seek counsel from friends or colleagues. There might be things that I don’t have clarity on or I might feel confused, so I always go and seek out others who might have a different perspective to me, because it’s important to not assume that I’ve got the answers all the time. It’s easy for me to say all these things when I’m so far off having all the answers to the challenges I am facing, but I think building in these processes is critical. 

When you’re not at Philanthropy Australia, how do you like to spend your time? 

I’m involved with a Buddhist centre. It’s based down on the south coast of New South Wales. That’s a really critical part of my life. And then it’s spending time with my wife and family. I’m definitely not as social as I used to be and I must confess that when you’re in CEO roles, you tend to spend a lot of your day, even on weekends, thinking about the organisation and how you can improve things. So I do have a pretty strong work focus, but trying to get that time, that separation, and that balance becomes really critical.

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

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

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