Westpac Social Change Scholar Jeremy Forbes.

Westpac Social Change Fellow Jeremy Forbes

As a young tradie, Jeremy Forbes struggled with the culture of bullying and harassment. For many years he bottled up his feelings because in that macho world that’s just what you did. Then, many years later at a wake for a man who had suicided, the conversation among the tradies made Jeremy feel ill. They were talking about who would be next. Jeremy encouraged his mates to come to him if they needed to talk – he would listen, no judgement. But he wanted to go a step further and put tradies in touch with support services. He founded HALT (Hope, Assistance, Local Tradies) and held his first event in a hardware store. His vision is to expand HALT across Australia so that every tradie has the tools to get help without feelings of shame and guilt.

This is where the Westpac Bicentennial Foundation came in. Jeremy was one of their 2016 Social Change Fellows, the recipient of a $50,000 grant with carte blanche to create his own program to facilitate his quest to bring about social change.

With the tagline “Proudly supporting the people solving Australia’s biggest problems”, Westpac launched the Westpac Bicentennial Foundation in 2014 with a $100 million gift to fund 100 scholarships a year, forever.

Westpac Social Change Fellow Sarah Yates

Westpac Social Change Fellow Sarah Yates’ life radically changed after her husband, a police detective, was diagnosed with workplace-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in 2008. She is the founder and CEO of Alongside, a not-for-profit offering PTSD support.

As it approached its 200th anniversary in 2017, the Foundation was a way for Westpac to give back to Australia, says Westpac Bicentennial Foundation CEO, Susan Bannigan.

Scholarships or grants are handed out in five categories: Asian Exchange, Young Technologists, Future Leaders, Research Fellowship, and the Social Change Fellowship. Collectively, the recipients of these grants and scholarships are called Westpac Scholars.

A noteworthy aspect of the Social Change Fellowship is that the grant funds the person, not the cause or the project. This philosophy was born of Bannigan’s experience at the Westpac Foundation, which was established to address issues of social disadvantage by investing in social enterprises.

“I could see that some of the things that we were looking to tackle were not necessarily changing. I saw a gap in the investment in the people leading those initiatives,” says Bannigan.

The Bicentennial Foundation took this lesson and decided to back people and their ideas. This, of course, has led to a very diverse range of candidates, even more so given the Foundation seeks people from all walks of life, not just the non-profit sector. “There are teachers, there are  occupational therapists and architects, there are people from industry who are doing great things for the community, and that’s what we are looking for,” says Bannigan.

Westpac Social Change Scholar Jordan O'Reilly

Westpac Social Change Fellow Jordan O’Reilly is the co-founder and CEO of Hireup, an online platform revolutionising the way Australians with disability find, hire and manage their own home care and support workers.

While their backgrounds and interests vary, the unifying factor is that all applicants for the Social Change Fellowship must be already tackling a social issue. Other criteria include generosity of spirit, demonstrating attributes of leadership, resilience, valuing diversity and collaboration, and the ability to communicate and inspire.

In keeping with the idea that the Foundation is backing the person not the project, Fellows are given the freedom to fail, or at least change course. A Fellow may discover that her original idea to address a certain issue is not working and in the process discover a new way to make an impact, explains Bannigan. It’s all part of the journey.

That journey is also supported by a network of alumni. “When they become a Westpac Scholar they are invited into the Westpac 100 community and that community gives them access to networks and lifelong, professional development,” says Bannigan.

Bannigan believes that investing in the Scholars’ individual capabilities and bringing them together to learn from, inspire and collaborate with each other is the way to effect real change.

Collaboration is at the heart of the Westpac Bicentennial Foundation. “We don’t just give money. We know that if we can collaborate with others we can be far more impactful,” says Bannigan. Twenty universities from across Australia have partnered with the Foundation to deliver the scholarships and develop bespoke programs to support Scholars and alumni.

Westpac Social Change Fellow Julia Suh

Westpac Social Change Fellow Julia Suh is an urban strategist and the founder of Urban Toolbox: a human-centred design consultancy that transforms valuable urban spaces for the common good.

It is early to be measuring impact, especially in categories where Scholars are still undertaking degrees, but there is one area that is already having a real impact. “The investment we are putting into leadership is coming across as one of the strongest benefits of our program. Scholars tell us that the dollars have been great, but it is the leadership program that has been transformational,” says Bannigan.

“It’s very much our philanthropic philosophy that you can have so much more impact if you think about what you are trying to do and make your money work harder, which is what we are doing by leveraging the assets of the Westpac Group and the universities,” says Bannigan.

The power of collaboration has been the Foundation’s most valuable lesson so far. “I love seeing the great philanthropy coming from the Tuckwell’s and the Forrester’s, to see the scale and the public nature of that philanthropy in terms of encouraging others to consider giving in that way, but I think there is opportunity for the industry to work differently in the world of philanthropy for long-term, sustainable change in Australia. Collaborating for impact; I think there is real opportunity in that space.”

The hope is for a lasting legacy driven by the Foundation’s alumni. “When someone is described as a Westpac Scholar, you’ll know exactly the kind person he or she is in terms of the generosity of spirit, leadership and the true determination to make a difference.”

So far the signs are good. In a recent survey, 100 per cent of Westpac Scholars said they would recommend the program and third party advocacy has been strong.

Susan Bannigan talks passionately about the people the Foundation is supporting and what they may achieve. Even a cursory look at the profiles of Westpac Scholars confirms she has good reason to be excited.

Applications for the Westpac Bicentennial Foundation Social Change Fellowship close on 16 August 2017. 

To find out more, visit the website.