For the past 10 years, I have had the pleasure of working with women and men with deep passion, deep compassion and big ideas.
This includes hosting philanthropist extraordinaire Abigail Disney in Australia some eight years ago, strategising with women such as national advocate for teen mothers Bernadette Black and numerous women like grassroots social entrepreneur Dr Robbie Van Hemert on the Liverpool Plains creating projects that build empathy for our majestic food sources.
They are brave and bold women. They have big ideas. But despite being sometimes overwhelmed by the gravity of their missions, they know there is no turning back. They know they have been tasked with a great responsibility, so off they go.
Today, I want to commemorate a great woman who I recently shared the stage with at the Generosity Forum in Melbourne. She is astounded to think I would recognise her as a great woman. But once I tell you the story, I’m sure you will concur.
When I first met Lyn Biner, I’m not sure if I was more distracted by the eclectic retro artworks adorning her apartment walls, floor and roof … or the spectacular hair do that would rival any Absolutely Fabulous episode.
I had come to her apartment at the suggestion of her financial advisor (my brother) to hear about an idea she had. A philanthropic idea. My brother thought I could point her in the right direction.
I look back now and see she was nervous. I didn’t realise at the time. How incredibly brave we all are to speak, to utter these very concepts that keep us awake at night. And to trust a stranger with our ‘crazy’ thoughts, no less.
“Do you think I could do something in philanthropy around the topic of pets?” she near whispered.
Having just finished working with Andrew Forrest’s Walk Free Foundation on global sex trafficking atrocities, and another project around climate change, I had to repeat the words in my own head. Pets. Yes, she said pets. Four-legged creatures. Right. Got it.
“My cats are my everything” she continued, “and I just can’t imagine how it would be for people who either can’t have a pet in their life, or who have trouble looking after their pet.”
That was enough to get the mind wandering into the space of philanthropy and pets. If philanthropy is ultimately the love of mankind, here was a 70-something woman in her Elwood apartment who could recognise a very simple gesture, an over-looked part of our lives that brings people closer to themselves and closer to their own humanity. Through the love for and love received by a beautiful animal. It’s no accident we are globally obsessed with pets on YouTube. It is innate.
In front of me was a cat lover, but also a highly intelligent woman. A sharp thinker. A woman who drives the English language like a Ferrari. Whose emails in the night I couldn’t wait to read over breakfast. Well read and even more importantly, well equipped for the task ahead, bringing more than 20+ years of social work experience with her.
Within minutes, we were joining the dots between social inclusion, social participation, community connectedness, mental health, ageing population with animal welfare, animal rights and high euthanasia rates. We talked about the role of pets, the discard of pets, the ridiculous high costs to have pets. The regard of pets as a public nuisance, an animal ‘management’ issue, a curfew issue and much more. Ultimately, we arrived at the complete absence of the respect for the bond between human and animals. Where had the love gone?
That injustice and the spark between us inspired the next 2.5-year road trip together. Thelma and Louise meets the world of pets and philanthropy. We were in it together because there was no roadmap, no sector affinity group, no other funders looking at this except us. We were either completely mad, or we had arrived very early to the party.
We set out to map the landscape and learnt everything there was to know about the Human-Animal Bond; companion pets, therapy pets, pets in aged care, pets to support PTSD, pets and homelessness, the challenges with in-home pet care models, the barriers to pet ownerships, the horror of pet surrender and relinquishment, family violence and the risk to pets and victims, the rise of the pet-sharing paradigm, the challenge between philosophy/policy/practice in the institutional context, the responses we need to trial, the possible solutions.
The magnitude of the task might have been too much for some philanthropists, but not for Lyn. Press on, she said, again and again.
We came to discover that there was indeed no ‘category’ for this. The funding community either funded ‘human welfare’ or ‘animal welfare’. Black and white. The part in the middle – the bond – certainly appears to be the next classification we need to create. How can there be true representation in the absence of classification.
This is where philanthropy had the opportunity to lead from the front, Lyn would affirm. Build it and they will come. Lyn’s mandate and mantra became ‘Pets Regardless’. It guided the development of her principles, philosophies and practices that will set the bedrock of her private ancillary fund, the Smallest of Wishes Foundation.
Press on, we did, and on and on.
Finding her tribe
We held onto the coat tails of the social pioneers in this space. And we have proudly built partnerships with some of the most awe-inspiring social entrepreneurs. Women and men of great heart and smarts who genuinely and willingly enveloped Lyn and her vision.
Vickie Davy and John Bishop from PetRescue, Dr Alicia Kennedy from Cherished Pets (the first B Corp community veterinary practice in the world) and Jennifer Hunt from Pet Medical Crisis Fund. Exquisite human beings.
They are grassroots agents for change. They represent 80% of the social entrepreneurs and for-purpose organisations in our country, working across their respective social missions day in, day out. They equally feel completely daunted by the task ahead. But they also know there is no going back.
Lyn walking on the dance floor with them gave them a buzz like no other. The dance floor didn’t feel so empty all of a sudden. Here was a woman with heart and smarts who would back their vision. Who would say – you go for it. I have your back. I believe in what you believe in. I am inspired that you can work at this issue day in, day out. I wish I had more to give, but let’s build it and build a movement and more will come.
In the case of these organisations, Lyn is supporting Pet Medical Crisis Fund in a mission grant to help the founder map its next chapter as a vital discretionary fund for pet health emergencies for low-income pet owners. With Cherished Pets, Lyn asked the founder for their priority advocacy project, which has seen the creation of a cross-sector working party to create systems and practice change for pets whose owners are in institutional care. And with PetRescue, Lyn has supported two public campaigns including a new national seniors adoption program, as well as supporting the pilot of a helpdesk/helpline service for pet owners.
Our collective greatness realised
There is nothing more humbling on this planet for Lyn, for the pioneers she is supporting, and for me than to see our individual and collective greatness soar when we come together. It is what we are all here to do. It is a fundamental human right to be philanthropists, to be social change-makers, to love humanity, and show up for the task in the many hats that we wear.
Next for Lyn is to invite her grandchildren, grand nieces and grand nephews into the fold. To help them connect with their own humanity through the Smallest of Wishes Foundation. I’m sure this too will unfold many more years of immense joy and satisfaction.
Happy International Women’s Day from Lyn and myself. We encourage you to be bold and brave with your ideas. To embrace the unknown. To dig deep and deeper. And we hope you find your Thelma and Louise moment in philanthropy too.
Julia Keady has been part of the Australian philanthropy community for 10 years. She runs The Xfactor Collective, which is a growing community of practitioners who support the social change-maker community. She is philanthropy advisor and coach within the Collective, and also a writer, speaker, facilitater and presenter. www.xfactorcollective.com