On her passing, Helen Macpherson Smith left £275,000, the majority of her wealth, to establish a perpetual philanthropic trust – the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust (HMSTrust), to benefit Victorian charitable institutions. The terms of the will are very specific and the role of the trustees brings significant responsibilities at common law, with the will as the cornerstone document and legislation defining the boundaries.
The trustees are responsible for managing the investment of the corpus to ensure the Trust’s capacity to sustain its grantmaking in perpetuity, and that the distribution of grants will benefit Victorian communities as defined by HMSTrust’s vision for a ‘strong, just and sustainable Victoria’. HMSTrust distributes between $4 and $5 million each year and, since its establishment in 1951, it has approved 4,687 grants for a total of $117 million.
HMSTrust has a small team of six staff, including investment and finance. We are all mindful that our funding enables good people to do good work, and that the solutions need to come from the community and funding follows.
There has been extraordinary growth from the original bequest of £275,000 ($550,000) in 1951 with $144 million income generated to date, a $110 million corpus invested for the future and $117 million granted.
HMSTrust has traditionally funded across general program streams, and in 2014 a clearly defined grants strategy and structure were introduced, graphically represented by the Trust’s distinctive grants matrix. We review our grantmaking strategy every three years to ensure that we remain flexible and responsive to rapidly-changing social, economic and environmental conditions. The current grants policy was reviewed and modified in June 2017, and further refines our focus areas in response to wide sector consultation.
HMSTrust Grants Matrix
Applicants are required to match at least three of the five key objectives that run through our programs. These objectives have had a significant impact on the funding requests we receive. Capacity building is one of the five key objectives and we are increasingly receiving strong applications for initiatives that aim to build greater effectiveness and efficiencies in the delivery of services that match our areas of interest. Strong organisations are better able to deliver strong results, and importantly, better able to deliver sustainable services. A highly successful one-off grant to Gallery Kaiela of $30,000, is showcased as a case study on our website. HMSTrust funded Gallery Kaiela to work with Social Ventures Australia and the Melbourne Business School, to develop a 10-year strategic plan and marketing audit that led the Gallery to successfully secure, for the first time, multi-year funding from both the federal and state governments.
Collaboration and partnership
Another key objective that we strongly endorse is collaboration and partnership. With increasing need across sectors and decreasing resources for service providers, we all have to work smarter, avoid duplication and strengthen impact. Tackling complex social problems requires new ways of thinking and doing. We are increasingly making grants to organisations that have secured strategic collaborative partnerships with a range of stakeholder organisations across sectors and governments.
An example of strategic collaboration and partnership strengthening an initiative is the grant to the Western Bulldogs Community Foundation for its Sons of the West – Regional Pilot in Maryborough, which is also featured as a case study on our website. The strength of this request is underpinned by the partnerships that were secured in advance of the application to HMSTrust: Maryborough District Health Service, Sports Central, beyondblue, Heart Foundation, Cancer Council, EJ Whitten Foundation, White Ribbon and MOVE, Western Bulldogs Football Club, Victoria University, Federation University and University of Melbourne. Of special interest is the organisation’s commitment to independent evaluation, which will support its drive for sustained funding. This grant also addressed the Trust’s objective to strengthen rural and regional Victoria.
Fewer and higher quality applications
The simple matrix structure of five programs, with their respective focus areas and key objectives, has resulted in fewer and higher quality applications. Since the introduction of the matrix model in 2014, the number of applications received has decreased by over 50% and the approval rate of applications has increased from an average 30% to%.
This drop in paper churn has enabled us to introduce our open door policy. We now have more time to engage more deeply in the sectors we fund, and this provides the opportunity for grantseekers to discuss their applications with staff in advance. The benefits are mutual. Every meeting helps build staff knowledge across our areas of interest, and provides grantseekers with valuable advice plus a better understanding of the application and decision-making processes. Often, a grantseeker will decide that the project is not ready for funding, or that it is a poor match to our funding criteria and better suited to a different funding source. In some instances, a grantseeker will inquire about a multi-year grant, and leave the meeting with the understanding that they are better directed to apply for a one-off grant.
We fund in three levels: one-off grants up to $30,000; multi-year grants $31,000-$90,000; and impact grants $91,000-$200,000. From time to time, trustees may consider a lead grant over $200,000, by invitation. In FY2017 we approved 73 grants for a total of $4.3m.
We pride ourselves on our transparency. Our website includes detailed funding criteria and guidelines complete with sample application forms. We also feature a searchable grants database listing all 4,695 approved grants. The database is searchable by program, date approved, grant level and/or organisation name. We also feature over 70 case studies that are searchable by program and/or grant level. These case studies are selected for their strong match to our funding criteria, and provide insight into what constitutes a successful application.
When it comes to giving advice to grantseekeers, our most important piece of advice is to understand that all funders are different. A testamentary trust like HMSTrust has very specific legal obligations that define who we fund and what we fund. We all have specific areas of interest, grant levels, and timeframes that will directly impact on noprofits projects, so they need to understand that to find their strongest match.
Lin Bender AM has had an extensive career in the nonprofit sector, delivering strategic development and implementation in governance, revenue generation, marketing, and stakeholder relations for major organisations and government. Lin joined the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust as CEO in 2013.