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What have we learnt after 135 years of philanthropy?

22 September 2021 at 5:08 pm
Stacey Thomas
The Wyatt Trust is marking 135 years of philanthropy in Australia this year. Here CEO Stacey Thomas reflects on what has and hasn’t changed in that time and outlines three key learnings.

Stacey Thomas | 22 September 2021 at 5:08 pm


What have we learnt after 135 years of philanthropy?
22 September 2021 at 5:08 pm

The Wyatt Trust is marking 135 years of philanthropy in Australia this year. Here CEO Stacey Thomas reflects on what has and hasn’t changed in that time and outlines three key learnings.

When Dr William Wyatt, one of the earliest settlers in what was to become South Australia, left his estate for the establishment of a philanthropic foundation, his priority was to help those in “poor or reduced circumstances”. Now in its 135th year of operation, The Wyatt Trust continues to provide assistance, and while the times have changed, the needs of those experiencing poverty have not.

Dr William Wyatt headshot

Dr William Wyatt. Photo: Supplied by The Wyatt Trust.

At Wyatt we are asking, what is our role in solving a wicked problem like entrenched poverty, and is this even possible? Of course, wicked problems cannot be solved by single organisations and by their very definition, such problems change, morph and can be contradictory. Here are three learnings about our role in this after 135 years:

What is old, is new

We assist individuals experiencing financial hardship, many of whom are receiving government income support. But we can’t give financial support directly to individuals because this will be considered assessable income which will impact benefits. 

So, government income support isn’t enough to live on, but by providing more, people will ultimately get less. And guess what? Going through our history, this first became a problem for Wyatt in 1909 when the federal pension was introduced. 

In over 100 years, we have not been able to find a solution with the federal government to supplement the income of those in serious financial hardship.

Choice matters

Since inception, Wyatt has provided assistance valued at over $62 million. Some of this has been through housing subsidies, grants and the provision of goods. 

What we know, from the people we are here to serve, is that the more choice and independence they have in finding a solution that works for them, the better they feel. It is not, and should not, be our choice on what makes life better for someone experiencing poverty. 

Social impact investments and enterprises have been around for a long time

In our earliest days, Wyatt owned properties and used the rent received to pay annuities to people in need, which today could be considered a social enterprise. Over time this changed to developing our own social housing stock for low-income residents, which is now the kind of opportunity we invest in. Names may be different, but these concepts were developed a long time ago.

Read more: Look how far we’ve come – Impact investing

Trying to unpick 135 years of history and philanthropy’s contributions towards solving wicked problems has led me to the conclusion that we need to be willing to be equally nuanced. 

Whether that is directly via our operations, or through a network of partnerships, it cannot be done alone. Developing a revolving fund of no-interest loans to assist with the costs of home ownership, or costing the value of financial counselling and advocating for the sector are examples of complex, high-impact work we’ve undertaken that relied on deep understanding and compassion from the frontline workers we call our partners.

Philanthropy needs to work with and advocate to government, provide choice and agency to the people we support, all while remaining adaptable and willing to change. We need to continue to consider how best our investments support impact and look at the roles of other providers such as social enterprises and businesses. 

True philanthropy is more than simply making grants. 

Our hope is that in the next 135 years, not only will we have been able to untangle some of this complexity, but we will have advanced and demonstrated collaborative action that eradicates poverty.

Stacey Thomas  |  @ProBonoNews

Stacey Thomas is the CEO of The Wyatt Trust, one of Australia’s oldest philanthropic foundations.

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