For decades, philanthropy skewed to a demographic that was older, white and male. The twin forces of democratisation and the surge in next-generation giving are helping to change that.
EastWeb, established by philanthropic champions Marion and Michael Webster in 1999 and re-energised with a targeted focus in 2004, operates as a sub-fund of the Australian Communities Foundation, making small grants to help Indigenous, asylum seeker and refugee communities combat disadvantage and marginalisation while promoting social justice and self-determination.
While EastWeb’s approach to philanthropy may sound familiar, its practice is distinctly different: every person who sits on the EastWeb board is under the age of 35.
“Being on the Eastweb board is a very rare opportunity for young people to develop experience as board members gain practical skills and confidence, and an accessible entry into philanthropy—an area that does not seem to readily involve young people,” explains current EastWeb board member, Retta Berryman.
“The other thing that sets us apart is that the activities undertaken through EastWeb are actively managed and supported by this board of young people with the mindset that we are more than simply a grant-making body: our granting model is structured to facilitate high engagement with our grant recipients.
“We aim to provide in-kind support and/or link young people with skills, expertise and resources, where this can benefit the projects.”
Access and opportunity have long been hurdles for newcomers looking to better understand philanthropy.
Sarah Thompson, Philanthropy Manager at Australian Communities Foundation, says the access to board-level discussions and decision-making roles provided by EastWeb is invaluable. She speaks from personal experience, having started her own journey in philanthropy as an EastWeb board member.
“Over the years, EastWeb has not only developed a pathway for young people to come into more formal roles in philanthropy, it has also delivered over 107 grants and $360,000 to grass roots, community led projects,” Thompson says.
In a recent conversation with Generosity editor, Nicole Richards, Retta Berryman reflected on her experience as an EastWeb board member.
NR: How and why did you get involved with EastWeb? Where would you like this journey to take you?
RB: I first heard about the work of EastWeb from a colleague who was a board member at the time, who spoke very highly of the energetic board and the exciting opportunity to be involved in getting small projects with big potential off the ground.
I suppose, initially, I came to EastWeb from a social justice angle. I had previously worked for some years in the community legal sector and had seen first-hand the difficulties faced by Victoria’s most marginalised communities, for whom having to engage with social and public services is an essential, but potentially disempowering experience.
While broad policy initiatives no doubt have their place, the needs and voices of individual communities, or sub-groups within communities, are often overlooked. I was very keen to hear ideas from people seeking to create small scale social change within their communities, and to see what difference a small grant could have in enabling that change.
Soon after joining the board, however, I also began to gain an appreciation of Victoria’s philanthropic sector—an area with which I had, up until this point, been unfamiliar and largely unaware of.
I think that there is a general hesitance in Australia for young people to look beyond the labels of ‘charity’ or ‘philanthropy’ due to a perception that they are interests only available to wealthy people, or older people.
My time with EastWeb has shown me that many people, from students right through to experienced philanthropists, share the same motivating passion, namely a commitment to social justice and a desire to bring about social change. With EastWeb, we have an opportunity to give of our time, energy, experience and skills to contribute to those goals, even if we are not in a position to donate financial resources.
I think there is also an exciting shift happening with different models of giving becoming more prevalent, such as giving circles etc.
During my remaining time with EastWeb, I’m keen to continue with my colleagues on the board, to work on expanding our network of volunteers, partners and supporters and to build on EastWeb’s successful legacy.
After I cease being a young(ish!) person and move on from EastWeb, I hope to use the skills and experience I have developed to continue to be involved in social justice and philanthropy in some capacity.
One thing that I have learnt through this experience, and by encountering some great people doing pretty inspiring things, is that there is not just one model or correct way to make a difference, but also a commitment and willingness to have a go.
How does EastWeb go about building the capacity of its board members?
Our board runs according to a pretty structured governance model, with a broad strategic plan and set policies and procedures for members.
We have a horizontal board structure, but in order to create a space for young people to develop new skills and competencies that will strengthen their contribution to the community in future roles, longer serving board members informally mentor or ‘buddy’ new members.
We share meeting and administration roles around, to ensure that everyone gets an opportunity to develop skills such as chairing a meeting and taking minutes. Board members are encouraged to participate at a level at which they are comfortable, and to contribute their views, particularly when we are assessing grant applications.
Board members can also undertake professional development activities in keeping with EastWeb’s commitment to developing skills in a range of areas and building the capacity of the board and the community more generally. This can be formal training (such as attending seminars) or informal PD or training from our networks.
We’re lucky to have had the support, encouragement and guidance from people who are very experienced in this area. Recent examples include our friends at ACF who have assisted us with events and fundraising advice, Marion Webster who has delivered us some targeted training, and John Spierings and Clare Land at the Reichstein Foundation who spoke with us about the recent work in the smaller grants space and provided advice on broadening our networks
Where do the young people who get involved come from and do they tend to stay involved in the social sector after their time at EastWeb has finished?
Since 2005, over 40 young people have been involved with the EastWeb board. They’ve come from a variety of backgrounds: university students across many disciplines (law, social work, community development, public health, communications) to young professionals working in the community, government and corporate sectors.
Currently, there are six members on the board who volunteer their time outside of work, study and family commitments, ranging in age between early twenties and early thirties: Chris Simpson, Alaa Farrar, May-Fei Lee, Andrew Downes, Patrick Malone and myself.
From what we’ve seen, many EastWeb alumni remain involved in social justice in some capacity after they finish with EastWeb. For example, my former colleague who introduced me to EastWeb, Susanna Ritchie, plays a central role in the leadership of Amnesty International Australia as a company director.
What’s been the most valuable lesson you’ve learned about grant making/philanthropy since you’ve been involved at EastWeb?
The most valuable lesson I have learned is the potency of collective effort. I have been quite stunned by the number of likeminded people who are quietly, creatively and collectively going about making change every day.
It has also been surprising and wonderful to realise how generous people who work in this space are to share their knowledge, experience and resources with others who are just starting out, because they know we are all working towards a common goal.
What has your position at EastWeb meant to you personally?
Being involved with EastWeb has been an immensely rewarding experience. Working alongside other young people from a variety of backgrounds who are passionate about social justice to support start-up community projects is a great deal of fun.
It’s also an inclusive environment where we can develop skills, make new connections, test out ideas, and have a go building something meaningful which will hopefully have lasting effects.
Learn more about EastWeb’s work supporting communities and strengthening voices here.