One of the 12 Bank Australia customer grants awarded in 2018 went to the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland to purchase 1000 Birdwing Butterfly vines. Image by Ian Gynther.

One of the 12 Bank Australia customer grants awarded in 2018 went to the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland to purchase 1000 Birdwing Butterfly vines. Image by Ian Gynther.

Bank Australia has donated a total of $110,000 to 12 of its community group customers to support programs in areas such as community climate action, promoting wildlife conservation and growing community connections, through its 2018 Customer Grants program.

In addition, the Bank Australia has announced its Impact Fund will be scaling up investment by entering into longer-term partnerships to grow the scale and impact of some of the programs it has funded in previous annual grants rounds.

Bank Australia chief strategy officer Rowan Dowland says because the bank is customer-owned, it reinvests profits instead of paying a dividend to shareholders. This includes providing customers with better rates and lower fees, as well as by creating mutual prosperity through the Bank Australia Impact Fund.

“Bank Australia is Australia’s first customer-owned bank. Our history dates back 60 years, and encompasses 62 credit unions and cooperatives that merged together over that period to become Bank Australia,” Dowland says.

“Each customer has a share in the bank, and a vote at our annual general meeting. We still retain the principles and values of a credit union that was established by and run for the benefit of our customers.

“Our customer ownership model means that we operate for our customers and are solely focussed on their interests – offering competitive rates and fees, reinvesting profits into better customer service, and having a positive social, environmental and cultural impact in the community we serve.”

How Bank Australia’s Impact Fund is structured

The Impact Fund was launched in 2016 as an extension of the bank’s previous Community Investment Program, which focussed on supporting initiatives that would create a more sustainable environment, strengthen the community sector and create resilient and inclusive communities.

“The purpose of the Impact Fund is to benefit people, the planet and create mutual prosperity. The guiding principle behind this is that stronger communities and environment increases social capital, and overall prosperity for all Australians. Over time, our investment strategy has changed in response to the views of our customers,” Dowland says.

“Our Impact Fund is a line item in our annual budget where we allocate and annually disburse 4% of our annual after-tax profits into partnerships and grants. In 2017, we invested 4.11% of our after tax profits, totalling $969,000, through 25 partnerships and 10 customer grants.

“Over the past few years we’ve seen significant growth in our customer base, and the value of our assets, as more Australians choose to bank responsibly. As we grow we’ll continue to allocate 4% of our profits each year.”

There are two ways money from the Impact Fund is invested in community groups: through longer-term partnerships and community grants.

“We typically pursue longer-term investments of two to three years that can sustain and grow an organisation’s capacity, and support a wide range of initiatives, including volunteer and not for profit programs, leadership scholarships, community sector conferences, events and issues research,” Dowland says.

“In 2016 we introduced an open grants round component to invite applications for funding from any of the bank’s community customers.

“Through the Impact Fund we also support an annual customer grants round, which provides grants of up to $10,000 to our community customers, like social enterprises, community groups and not for profits who bank with us. These grants support smaller programs and projects that our customers want to pursue.

“The annual open grants round constitutes approximately 10% of the Impact Fund’s annual budget. In 2018, we’re delighted to be support 12 programs, including conservation of the breeding habitat of the vulnerable Richmond birdwing butterfly, promoting social inclusion in community housing through roller discos, and supporting community climate action.

“This year we’re also exploring ways that we can expand some projects we funded through previous customer grants round through partnerships that help organisations scale and grow their impact.”

For its partnerships, Bank Australia currently focuses on eight customer priority areas: renewable energy, environmental conservation, disability inclusion, financial inclusion, family and gendered violence, refugees and people seeking asylum, reconciliation and educational disadvantage.

“We proactively seek out organisations and programs that we believe will help create impact in the areas that our customers care about. We’ll often begin with a conversation with a potential Impact Fund partner and work to develop a proposal and enter into long-term partnership that provides funding certainty for their program,” Dowland says.

“We require all our Impact Fund partners and grant recipients to provide updates and report on the progress and final outcomes of their programs so that we can measure the impact, and ensure that funds from the Impact Fund are being disbursed responsibly.”

How customer feedback drives Bank Australia’s giving strategy

Dowland says Bank Australia does a lot of work listening to what its customers want – through focus groups, bi-annual surveys and general feedback – and this plays a major role in shaping its giving strategy.

“With our Impact Fund, we use a customer insights survey to check in with customers and find out the issues that are important to them, and what they would like us to do about them. We use this data so guide where we focus money from the Impact Fund,” Dowland says.

“We survey customers every two years to find out what issues are important to them, and make decisions about where we invest money from the Impact Fund based on the key areas that matter to them. We also ask a customer to be part of the evaluation committee that makes the final decision on the recipients of our annual customer grants program.”

An example of an area that was highlighted by customers as being important is financial inclusion. This is the ability for people to access basic financial products and services and address financial disadvantage and poverty.

“Over the past three years we’ve partnered with The Big Issue through the Impact Fund, to support the important work they do working with Australian who are vulnerable or homeless, to earn an income and connect with the community,” Dowland says.

Another key area of support, driven by customer feedback, is environmental conservation.

“One of our longer term Impact Fund investments is our Conservation Reserve – a world first for a bank. Ten years ago we purchased the first of three properties which cover 927 hectares of biodiverse woodland and grassland in Victoria’s Wimmera region,” Dowland says.

“We’ve placed a covenant on it, meaning the reserve is protected from development forever, and we partnered with Trust for Nature, and Greening Australia to revegetate and restore the area’s ecosystem, and protect the 13 threatened species that live there.

“The reserve also serves as an important part of our commitment to Reconciliation, and we work with local traditional owners to celebrate and share their culture and traditions with the bank’s customers, staff, and locals who live near the reserve.”
In 2016, the bank’s customer values survey highlighted that providing a humane response to the refugee crisis was a key area of concern, and this has also shaped the Impact Fund’s partnerships.

“In response we added this area to the Impact Fund, and made a number of investments including a partnership with Human Rights Watch to support research into refugee issues. We also support the Brotherhood of St Laurence’s Given the Chance program and have created traineeships at Bank Australia for people with a refugee or asylum seeker background,” Dowland says.

Advice to other philanthropists

Dowland’s advice to other values-based businesses is that creating a positive community impact should be a key part of their mission.

“We encourage more businesses to adopt a values-based approach and embed broader community impact into their everyday operations, as well as their community giving and investments, and put people before profit,” he says.

“We also encourage more community, not-for-profit and social sector organisations to create and pursue opportunities to deepen their connections to their donors to maximise the value, and impact, of these partnerships.”

2018 community grant recipients

Some examples of projects Bank Australia is supporting through its 2018 community grants program include:
○ Helping the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland plant a corridor of Birdwing Butterfly vine to conserve one of Australia’s largest and most vulnerable butterflies
○ Supporting the Belgium Avenue Neighbourhood House to host Underground Roller Discos that connect community housing residents in Collingwood
○ Rescuing household goods from landfill and donating them to families escaping family violence through the Bower Reuse and Repair Centre in NSW
○ Providing training and skills to community organisers to take action on climate change in their local communities in NSW and Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, through programs run by the Nature Conservation Council of NSW and Climate for Change
○ Sharing of local indigenous knowledge and culture with kids at the James Cook University Early Learning Centres in Queensland by planting bush tucker gardens

You can find more information about the Impact Fund on the Bank Australia website.