Profile: Lesley Harris, founder of Act of Women Giving

Lesley Harris is the founder and CEO of Act of Women Giving, an ACT initiative supporting young women. The project was inspired by the fantastic progress made by a number of other Giving Circles internationally and overseas such as Impact 100 Melbourne, which awards grants to various charitable organisations across Australia. So far, Act of Women Giving has awarded one grant. The recipient is Country to Canberra, which plans on implementing a series of leadership workshops in a number of rural high schools within a 200km radius of Canberra. I chatted to Harris about her organisation and what it means for young women in the ACT.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

I’ve spent approximately 16 years working in the community sector. I describe myself as a late bloomer, doing my first degree in Community Education at the age of 35, then postgraduate studies at 45. Since the beginning of my university studies, I’ve discovered a passion for lifelong learning and community. I am the Founder of Act of Women Giving, a new philanthropic initiative in the ACT, and I am currently working on building a small business to deliver a range of project support options for nonprofit organisations. I live with my husband (Darren) and our Australian Silky (Toby) and Pomeranian X (Gypsy).

Why did you start Act of Women Giving?

In 2010/11 I undertook a Graduate Certificate in Business majoring in Philanthropy & Nonprofit Studies through the Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies (QUT). I enjoyed the fundraising aspects of the course a lot more than I expected and felt quite drawn in by the strategy that supports fundraising to include donor management and relationship building.

On completion of the qualification, I successfully applied for an internship at The Myer Foundation in Melbourne. The idea of learning about “the other side” (grant giving) instead of being on the receiving end (as the situation is for a nonprofit) really appealed to me. The internship introduced me to all aspects of grant making and the opportunity to witness (and become inspired  by) the results of what some of the grants given by The Myer Foundation and Sidney Myer Fund could achieve.

After living in Melbourne for seven years, we moved to Canberra in 2013. I was keen to find out what was happening in the philanthropic space here. I expected there to be more, particularly as the demographic of the ACT is on average cited to be more highly educated, with higher incomes than other Australian states and territories. While we do punch above our weight in terms of donations given, I think we can do more!

I also observed there were a lot of fantastic women around; I wanted to do something in the philanthropy or fundraising space but didn’t know what. The idea was parked until I came across a story about Impact 100 Melbourne in 2015, a giving initiative where 100 donors donate $1000 each. This and similar models around Australia and overseas were extremely popular and doing great things for the community, plus, many of them support women’s initiatives. After some further research I decided to introduce a platform in the ACT that would raise funds to support and grow opportunities for women. It is based on the Impact 100 model, with 3 donation levels (in order to make it accessible to a wider group of women). This is how Act of Women Giving began.

How does your organisation help and support young women?

This initiative is beneficial to both our donors and the women who benefit from the projects we fund. Firstly the membership is open for women only; our tagline is ‘Connecting women in the ACT and Surrounds through Giving’. Women who join us have the opportunity to connect with like-minded women, become more aware of what initiatives or issues are taking place in our community that affect women (both the positive and the negative), and grow their connection to community. They also have the opportunity to vote on what projects are funded and, in some instances, women can volunteer their skills to assist with events and promotion when required. We are also hoping that the daughters, nieces, and friends of our donors will be inspired by the role models in their lives who give, thus planting the seed for younger women.

We raise funds to support projects that advance opportunities for women and girls in the ACT and surrounding regions. Our criteria in the early stages is fairly broad. This year we sought expressions of interest from community sector organisations and from individuals that were carrying out work related to creating or advancing opportunities for women and girls. Our first successful grant recipient was Country to Canberra. They will implement leadership workshops that will be rolled out to young women in approximately 50 rural highschools within a 200km radius of the ACT. Girls will learn about goal setting, ambition, equality, education and career strategising.

How do you think young women can be empowered? Are we just talking about equality of access to jobs, equality of earning potential, or is there something more?

I’m an advocate for education of any kind, both informal and formal, and trying new things. It’s not always easy to find what we want to do, or know what our passions are, and this may change over time as we do. I understand that there is a lot of pressure to get things right but, really, life does go on if they don’t!

I think it’s important for young women in particular to try things and not be afraid of something not going quite as planned. I personally have learned a lot more in these situations than in others when everything has gone smoothly! When we realise we have adapted or adjusted or survived adversity we become more resilient and confident – this all contributes to becoming empowered. It actually took me a long time to learn this myself; understanding ourselves and recognising the signs when something is good or not so good for us, and having the confidence to follow our instincts and listen to our inner voice is very empowering. And if we get it wrong we have to trust in ourselves that we will find a way to overcome challenges and adversity. It’s about learning how to back yourself. The key is to learn from our experiences! It can be hard and take courage sometimes, however, it also builds inner strength and resilience which is something no one can take away from us!

What are you plans for the future and how do you see Act of Women Giving developing over the next year or so?

Most importantly, I want to grow our base of donors and corporate supporters. We would like to be able to give one larger grant and 1-2 smaller grants per year (so raise somewhere in the vicinity of $40K-$60K a year). It’s difficult to say at this point how long it will take to achieve that. I’m aiming to double our donor base by mid-2017, which means we should be able to double the grant amount we’ve given this year.

Over time, the awareness of our brand will grow, and I would like to think that people would recognise it as having a high level of integrity and transparency with regards to where funds are donated. We hope to become well-known and respected for the work we do to support women and girls within our region. There are always lots of ideas bubbling away; it’s a matter of ensuring we keep on track with our priorities to create, grow, and nurture opportunities for local women and girls, and ensure our donors realise how important their contributions are in achieving this. It is with their support that we will be able to achieve great things!

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