Three years into the role of Chief Executive Officer at Australia’s oldest charitable trust, The Wyatt Trust, Stacey Thomas is the type of leader who pays homage to the past while always looking towards the future. It’s a trait that has helped Wyatt break new ground through a range of significant, and often sector-leading, initiatives.
These have included a Truth-telling project to examine Wyatt’s history through a First Nations lens; a Climate Statement of accountability; the expansion of impact investing; establishing Inparrila, South Australia’s first philanthropic co-working hub; embedding lived experience by co-designing a grant program with single parents and women over 50; and seeding the establishment of Foundation SA, Australia’s first new community foundation in five years.
A respected leader in Australia’s philanthropic sector, Stacey’s professional experience is paired with a pronounced sense of personal compassion. In addition to her role at Wyatt, Stacey is also Chief Executive Officer at Foundation SA and a director at two of the sector’s peak bodies: Philanthropy Australia and Community Foundations Australia.
In this recent conversation, Stacey reflects on lessons learned during her 15 years in philanthropy, her personal giving journey, the magic ingredients of great grant making and more.
Was a career in the for-purpose sector something that you’d always aspired to? How did you get to be where you are?
ST: I’ve always been very drawn professionally, and in voluntary roles, to helping other people. At uni I did a Bachelor of Psychology and worked in mental health and suicide intervention, but I realised I couldn’t do that as a career because I would take on too much and to do that work for 40 years wasn’t going to be sustainable for me.
I stumbled across philanthropy when I was searching for ideas about career paths that had the potential to help people. I liked what I found so ended up going back to uni and luckily, managed to get into the Social Investment and Philanthropy course. I say lucky because I was the first non-grantmaker to get a spot and it was just an incredible experience to learn from an amazing network of philanthropy professionals. So that’s what got me into this line of work.
From there I started with the Trust Company which has since merged with Perpetual, then I worked at the Telstra Foundation, then the Myer Family Company. This was all great experience that helped me cut my teeth and understand where I wanted to be.
Fay Fuller was an interesting foundation in that our founder was still alive but left the direction of the organisation to the board and staff. That meant we were very much able to craft a strategy that would benefit South Australians without having a lot of preconceived notions about what that would look like. That led to the development of Our Town, an 10-year, $15 million mental health initiative in partnership with The Australian Centre for Social Innovation and Clear Horizon. It was something Australia hadn’t seen before in terms of its design and style of grant making.
Then of course, I joined Wyatt, which is one of those places that if you’re in the South Australian philanthropic sector, everyone knows about. I’d had a close working relationship with them while I was at Fay Fuller and I was always very drawn to the organisation’s values and the social justice elements. I was also very drawn to the professional challenge of grant making in an individual context while trying to address systemic change.
What brought you to Adelaide and what do you love most about South Australia?
I was born and raised in country Victoria and spent all of my time there and in Melbourne until I met a wonderful South Australian man, Luke, who is now my husband, and we moved over here nine years ago.
What I love most about living here is the wonderful lifestyle not only for us, but for our two children. It feels like there are more hours in the day here and being able to spend that time as a family doing the things we enjoy, makes it a great place to be. We love it.
Can we talk a little about your personal philanthropy and the causes that matter most to you?
Definitely for my husband, Luke, and I it’s about supporting social justice and trying to make a small contribution to big issues because they’re the issues that are important to our society. We’re both very values-aligned with our giving and we’re lucky enough to both have values-aligned work.
As our children get older, we’re watching them develop their own passions about what they want to give to. When we last let them make a giving decision on behalf of the family they got so excited, they went and raided their pocket money so that they could contribute their own money as well to their chosen causes, which for the moment have included homelessness and conservation.
Our personal giving has been a journey and we’re thrilled to be able to continue that with a fund at Foundation SA.
Speaking of Foundation SA, The Wyatt Trust was integral to Foundation SA’s establishment, shepherding the organisation into existence last year and providing critical ongoing support. How do you view Wyatt’s role in this process and why is community philanthropy so important for South Australia?
With our Founder having been a civically engaged entrepreneur, establishing Foundation SA seemed like a natural fit for us to continue this legacy. We could see there was a gap – that there were many South Australians who had an intrinsic desire to be giving back financially but were stumped on where to go to get the assistance they needed.
Community foundations are a unique model, it is as much about knowing and understanding your local community as it is about financially supporting it, so there was no downside to establishing Foundation SA. While not all Foundation SA donors match the focus areas of Wyatt, we see Foundation SA as extending the impact that Wyatt, and giving more broadly, can have in our community.
With wealth inequality accelerating since Covid, what do you think are the most pressing actions needed to reduce poverty and inequality?
The big question I always ask myself is how can we as a foundation with limited resources, fund in a way that has the potential to create impact on a level that generates lasting change?
Can we end poverty? As a society, absolutely. Can Wyatt do it on its own? Absolutely not. Our challenge is to make the biggest change possible while demonstrating what’s possible for those who have more influence and control of systems.
Poverty won’t end without political will, and at the moment, political will is tied up in a system that is holding things in place.
One of the things Wyatt has been well known for is the provision of modest financial support in tangible ways. We regularly hear from agencies and service providers that we’re meeting a need that isn’t being met elsewhere. It’s been wonderful to have people come back to us over the years, saying things like, ‘Fifteen years ago when I was living in my car, Wyatt helped me make a bond payment and that was the thing that got me into stable housing and got my life back and I couldn’t have done that without your support’.
It always gives us a lot of joy to receive those messages and we know that even though we’re just one piece of a big puzzle, it’s important that we have confidence that what we’re doing is helpful.
Beyond that, at the end of the day, our partnerships are the bedrock of Wyatt’s grant making. The talk around poverty and inequality usually lends itself to individuals or families but we can’t lose sight of the fact that our grant partners also experience rising costs in terms of general operations, cost of living and employing good staff. For us, the challenge is not losing sight of the people we’re here to serve but also the organisations that allow us to do that – who may also be in really difficult circumstances.
What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities facing philanthropy in Australia?
There are so many challenges. The reckoning about where private wealth has originated from and how individuals, families and foundations are deploying that from both a grant making and an investment perspective is a big one.
Diversity within the sector is another one, and an issue that, despite best intentions, is moving very slowly.
In terms of opportunities, we’re at a moment in time where there’s more urgency than I’ve seen since I’ve been in the sector and that’s very motivating. We no longer have the luxury of waiting for tomorrow to act on pressing issues like inequality and climate change. There’s a real opportunity in front of those of us who want to see change happen in their lifetime.
What’s the most valuable lesson about grant making you’ve learned?
The magic ingredients in terms of good grant making are listening and humility, and to me, working in philanthropy means you’re an expert generalist.
What I’ve learnt over the years is that when you get the right balance of listening and humility, it will make the end result far better than if I lead with my presumed ‘expertise’.
The reality is that I’m never going to stop learning from the people and communities we help. We talk about being a learning organisation at Wyatt so we’re always questioning how we might change and improve our practice because there isn’t a conceivable situation where we know everything.
What are you most excited about in the short and long-term at Wyatt?
Definitely working closely with people with lived experience to design, implement and evaluate our work. I do see Wyatt as being here to serve people and having the people we’re here to serve play an integral role in what we do and how we do it is exciting and empowering. What we’re finding is that it empowers the people we’re working with as much as it empowers us as a team to learn and grow.
Also, The Wyatt Trust is now 137 years old and seeing the pace of change and the organisation’s willingness to look at things with fresh eyes and question whether there are different ways we should be doing things and take action – that is really special. I feel very fortunate to have a Board of Governors that’s very much future focused and understands that the problems we face have never been more complex so we need to keep adapting and rising to those challenges.
Longer term, I’m excited about new partnership opportunities. We’ve had a number of other funders approach us recently asking to get involved in our work and financially support our grant making because they can see the impact we’re having. To me that’s a wonderful opportunity for the impact to be increased and a great sign of faith in our work from peers who are seeing the value in what we’re doing and the way we’re doing it.