Cover Story: Lisa George
The long game
The Macquarie Group Foundation is set to give out the largest philanthropic award in its history. Its global head Lisa George spoke to FS Private Wealth about how the company leverages its resources to affect long-lasting change.

The Macquarie Group Foundation is set to give out the largest philanthropic award in its history. Its global head Lisa George spoke to FS Private Wealth about how the company leverages its resources to affect long-lasting change.

Macquarie's philanthropic arm has long offered its top bankers a second job while they build their careers at the bank.

All we did was provide funding. I don't want to overplay our role. We just provided the capital to enable that to happen for her and dozens of other people.
The group's co-founder David Clarke and current chief executive Shemara Wikramanayake have both chaired the board of Macquarie Group Foundation.

Perhaps more noteworthy is that it has poured more than $360 million into philanthropic causes over its 33-year-long history.

And the giving is gathering pace.

Over the past five years the organisation gave, on average $27.3 million each year to community and non-profit organisations.

This makes up more than a third of the foundation's giving across its history.

Macquarie Group Foundation will also commit $50 million to be split among five non-profits ($10 million each) over a five-year period. Winners are expected to be announced in the August.

This substantial increase is Macquarie's way of recognising a significant milestone, the group's fiftieth birthday.

As a result, the foundation could break a $400 million milestone in philanthropic funding by March next year.

The global head of Macquarie Group Foundation, Lisa George, says the award received close to 1000 entries from across the globe and from places where Macquarie doesn't even operate.

As far as philanthropic awards go in Australia, this would reach the upper echelons.

"In Australia it doesn't get any bigger," George says.

"The intent behind it was to give a meaningful amount of money to create lasting change."

The era of a new chair

Currently the foundation's giving is split almost evenly between Australia and overseas. It reflects Macquarie's global footprint and culture, George says.

"We've had it [philanthropic culture] from the very beginning of the company which makes it special and unique in that it's part of our DNA," she says. The program has two main parts: staff giving and grant making.

Freshly appointed Macquarie Group chief executive Shemara Wikramanayake chaired the board for five years, before ceding the role to Macquarie Bank chief executive and managing director Mary Reemst late last year.

The board meets each quarter and there are preparatory meetings in between.

Reemst, George says, is interested in the foundation's not-for-profit partners and is taking a lot of time in meeting them personally.

"She just did a trip overseas for business purposes and took time out to meet our not-for-profit partners as well. She's doing the same in Australia," George says.

"She is fantastic and philanthropic in her own right and wonderful to work with so we are very well supported. And obviously because of Shemara's time at the foundation, we couldn't have a more brilliant supporter of our work as a foundation in the CEO."

Staff giving

Macquarie was among the first of Australian corporates to introduce a staff giving program in the 1990s, incentivising staff to donate to causes they support by matching the amount.

Macquarie staff gave about 60,000 hours to the foundation through voluntary community service last financial year, according to the foundation's annual report.

George says the foundation tries to empower staff to give back to the communities in which they live and work.

It's a feature US companies have offered for many years and Macquarie added the program as it grew internationally.

"As the organisation has grown and evolved, and as we've become a global organsiation, our giving has also diversified globally," George adds.

All up the foundation has given more than $330 million globally over its lifetime. On average, staff contribute about $12 million annually before Macquarie matches it.

In October 2018, the foundation launched a digital platform to facilitate its staff's philanthropic giving. Developed by Canadian software firm Benevity, it is designed to improve the foundation's engagement with Macquarie staff and to measure its activities globally.

"It's a huge effort to gather all these donations and match them," George says.

The platform allows Macquarie staff to make a donation to any charity of their choice, on the condition that they be registered and pass the platform's due diligence. There are some exceptions, like donations to religious or politically-driven organisations which can sometimes operate as non profits.

The foundation searched for about a year and completed an extensive request for proposal (RFP) process to find a technology provider that would help match the donations "in a more streamlined way."

"But also increasingly there's a lot of regulation that requires us to vet charities in a certain way and check all the anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism [alerts] - so we wanted all of those checks to be done on a regular basis and be up to date with the charity," George says.

She saw the Benevity platform as addressing risk management, efficiency and engagement for staff to be able to, with one click, go online give to the charity of their choice "and get it automatically matched by the foundation."

The philanthropic expert says Australians, like the rest of the world, are engaging with most if not all of their services online and charities are no different.

For one week each year, the foundation steps it up another notch. Macquarie double matches any contribution made in its Foundation Week and staff can also fundraise for whatever charity they wish.

"It's staff led, if you want to do a fundraiser or a volunteering event, go for it. We'll give you the framework and some tips but it's not like we organise things centrally - it's very much a bottom up approach where staff organise it and tap into the resources they need," George says.

Top priority

George says the old approach for the foundation's grant-making program was to fund innovative organisations that had Macquarie staff involved, no matter which sector they operated in.

This changed during a regular strategic review of the foundation about two years ago.

"We are now giving much more than we did before which meant [the giving] is becoming more fragmented," George says.

"If we want to have an impact, we need to pick an issue where we can go deep and really try and make a difference."

This wasn't tough to do. Macquarie had almost perfect information on which causes its staff cared the most about from its matching program. It identified disadvantaged young people were an area that resonated with employees.

"And we picked it because we thought we could give money but also importantly that one of the key features of our foundation is to really try to encourage them [staff] to give their time and expertise," she says.

Specifically, George describes as future priority to help 15 to 20-year-old individuals in Australian complete their school education and pursue further education and training.

Measuring the impact

More than a decade ago, the foundation became one of the first to fund a scholarship for children from indigenous communities in Cape York to attend private school in Brisbane.

"Noel Pearson [founder of Cape York Institute of Policy and Leadership] himself was sponsored on scholarship [by a different patron] to study in Brisbane and it was transformative for his life," George says.

"He really wanted to replicate that for the children of the Cape, so high-potential children whose families had wanted them to succeed and to have access to the type of education that people all over the country had access to."

Among the first cohort was a girl from an indigenous community who went on to study law. After her education, she reached out to Macquarie when she was looking for an internship.

Through the Macquarie network, she secured a position at a law firm in Brisbane. She has since worked back in Cape York and pursued a Master's program, George says.

"That is a transformational story. I have got to see her on and off over the years and I have seen her on YouTube speaking. She is the most articulate speaker.

"All we did was provide funding. I don't want to overplay our role. We just provided the capital to enable that to happen for her and dozens of other people."

There's also the long-running Macquarie sports program which reaches about 5000 children per year. Additionally, the foundation has a sprawling art collection that acquires Australian artists working early in their career. The works interpret a common theme of "land and its psyche" and they hang in the company's offices across the globe.

Celebrated local art curators make the acquisition decisions. Nicholas Waterlow curated the collection until he passed away. Afterwards, UNSW associate professor Dr Felicity Fenner took over the job.

Pushing boundaries

George has worked at Macquarie Group Foundation for nine years, or close to one-fifth of the parent $497 billion banking group overall existence. She has led the foundation for seven years.

George holds a master of public policy from Harvard Kennedy School and has a long history of working with philanthropic organisations.

Being part of a larger organisation has given the foundation to evolve and push boundaries, she says. Some of her proudest work includes introducing collaborative funding to the local non-profit sector.

"Several years ago we introduced a stream of funding to incentivise organisations to collaborate- they had to apply together for funding from us. It was a way to get organisations working in similar or different sectors to come together and see what they could achieve," George says.

No place for instant gratification

A recurring theme, hearing George talk is that the foundation takes a long-term view on bringing about positive change.

She cites as an example, the medical research that the foundation has funded in the past.

"We funded a joint collaboration between MS Research Australia and Juvenile Diabetes Research Australia to investigate genetic links between the two diseases which was pretty revolutionary."

The research may not produce hard results for years but it could eventually impact obviously the lives of millions of people around the globe.

Similarly, Schizophrenia's types and treatments are only now starting to be understood, more than a decade since Macquarie funded research in the area.

"If you are trying to impact a social need, sometimes [it can be] an immediate [solution] like providing someone a hot meal and a roof over their head - and you need. But I think [a lot of] what we do is long term  funding," George says.

"Philanthropy is a long game." FS

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