Miss Betty Amsden AO

For our last blog, we spoke with Joe Golding, CEO of Advancement Resources, about the importance of understanding and engaging with donor priorities.

This time, Nick Modrzewski and I chat with Betty Amsden AO to hear a donor’s perspective on some of Joe’s ideas:

FRANKIE: What values underpin your giving?

BETTY:  For me it’s all about youth.  They are the future.  Not you or me.  There are some tremendous young people, but what concerns me is the isolation – of the young from the old and of the young from each other.

I believe that young people have got to the stage where they want everything NOW, and they don’t think they should have to work to find out what they want.  They forge ahead and don’t think they have anything to learn from the experience of the older generation.  Maybe that’s always been the case, but today society separates the generations in a way that locks the elderly out.  Yet there’s an enormous contribution they could make.

So I like to give to causes that help young people to be all they can be, and part of that is to teach them the power of philanthropy to bring people together.

FRANKIE: It seems to me that your generation grew up with a sense of responsibility and a desire to give back.  I wonder if the next generation has lost that mentality.

NICK: Yet at the same time there are more charities and innovative non-profits than ever before.  There’s a different sense of giving back.

BETTY: Well, I was born into a time when things weren’t easy to get.  Despite that – perhaps because of it – my parents instilled two things into me: the harder you work, the luckier you’ll get and always give to those less fortunate than yourself.  I started my philanthropic career when I retired, so I’ve worked hard in order to give away what I’ve earned!  But the philosophy came from my parents.

That said, there must be a shift going on.  People are now getting asked to give in new ways, such as dividends or property and not just cash.  New causes are gaining popularity, like the environment.  So there’s more choice in giving like there is in everything else.  Now, I’ve met some wonderful young people through my work – for example at the Foundation for Young Australians.  Everyone involved there is an inspiration.  But there is not enough of that sort of good work happening to get the young really involved in making a stronger community.

FRANKIE: I heard a story the other day about one of the larger philanthropic families.  After donating wheelchairs, to Scope I think,, the father called up to ask if he could bring down a couple members of the family to see the impact of their gifts.  About twenty of them came along – all generations – to see what they’d given to and how it was used and what the impact was.  That was a brilliant way to inculcate the importance of giving in the whole family.

BETTY: Yes, wonderful story.  Here’s another example – I went to a Guide Dogs and Kids in Philanthropy (KIP) event at the NAB bank where they allowed their staff with children to hear what The Guide Dogs do.  They asked me to speak to the children about how philanthropy works.  I had two ten cent pieces in my pocket, so I said: “this ten cents I give away, and the other ten I invest in order to make more money that I can give away.  But remember, you only give what you can afford and always invest in the future”.  And apparently afterwards, one of the little girls went up to the KIP staff member and said: “I found five cents the other day, do you think I can give it to the Guide Dogs?”  You see – it’s there!  The kids only need to hear the stories.

NICK: Would you say the main thing you get back is that sense of a personal connection?

BETTY: Yes absolutely.  A lot of donors don’t get involved with the projects they support.  But I’ve found that if you do, it makes a big difference – then the kids get to know you!  When I go into the Arts Centre they all know me.  It’s a nice feeling!  They are just as good in Front of House as they are upstairs.  I don’t expect anything and that’s the joy – I’ve got more than I ever expected.  I’ve never had so many cards in the mail, from kids who’ve been involved in my program.  They’ll do anything for you.  I feel like a grandmother, actually!

FRANKIE: If I were CEO of a non-profit for children and we’d never done any fundraising before, where would I start if I wanted to build a relationship with you as a donor?

BETTY:  Train your staff!  Pick them wisely.  The best fundraisers ask but they don’t ask.  You don’t realise they are asking.  There are so few people who really know how to do it well.  They have these philanthropy courses but they don’t teach people to nurture the donors and get to know them.  Not to overly look after people but gradually let donors become a part of the organisation.  In fact, everyone in the organisation should be briefed on philanthropy, even the staff at the front desk.  Ultimately it’s all about the individual.  Some donors, you need to play up to them: others, like me, you can just tell me what you want!  You need to know the nature of the person and also do a lot of homework.

FRANKIE: I’ve long believed that the biggest catalyst for driving more philanthropy is good fundraising.  The best gifts – and the biggest – have been made because of some “agency” working with the donor in the background.  Successful fundraisers do something akin to ‘shepherding’ donors – never applying too much pressure but actually never quite letting the donor out of their sight.

BETTY: That’s it.

NICK: In terms of your giving trajectory, when you first gave to The Arts Centre it was in small amounts, until you eventually made the landmark $5m pledge in 2009.  What made you increase your giving?

BETTY: It was through various staff at various times.  I knew nothing about the arts when I retired until Sue Nattrass, then CEO of the Arts Centre, invited me to a play.  I went along and I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t until 18 months later that the Patrons’ Manager, Dinny Downie, asked me in for coffee.  At that point I joined as a member, but gradually I became interested in different things.

Dinny was great: she didn’t cut any ice with anyone, she just went straight into it, but she got away with it because she knew what she was talking about.  Then Susanne Williamson spotted that I love children and families so she introduced me to Emer Harrington who’s responsible for the community programming.  Out of that conversation came the Betty Amsden Community Program each January for the last 3 years.  Nobody rushed me to the point.  They let me get to know the organisation better and showed me the impact my giving could have.

FRANKIE:  Finally, how do you go about balancing the institutional priorities with your own passions and interests?

BETTY:  Well, for example, one of the Arts Centre’s goals is to be relevant to the entire Victorian community.  And one of my personal goals is for families – and children in particular – to participate in the arts.  So there’s a natural marriage of intentions.

Blog postscript: Miss Amsden sadly passed away in February 2017.