28 Apr 2023
In her first blog, The Ross Trust CEO Sarah Hardy reflects on her journey in philanthropy and offers advice for others interested in joining or progressing in the sector.
Many years ago, I was told I was too emotional to ever be a CEO. Sadly, it’s a message many women receive early in their careers.
I have now been CEO of The Ross Trust for more than five years and prior to that was CEO of The Menzies Foundation. Before attaining these CEO roles, I held leadership positions in various organisations.
If being ‘emotional’ means empathising with, and valuing, your grantees, and the groups they support, I don’t believe it precludes you from CEO roles in philanthropy. Indeed, I would go further and say it’s a valuable prerequisite.
My career journey to philanthropy began in one of the most empathetic professions of all – nursing. It was the late 1980s and my first role was working with the Royal Flying Doctor Service, visiting remote Western Australian communities, and treating patients requiring basic healthcare. It was an eye opener, and I soon began to question how I could make a difference in society.
After rewarding years as a midwife in Melbourne, I moved into community health education, largely focused on young women, and started to better understand the intersection between disadvantage and health and educational outcomes. The more I worked, saw, and studied, including at Stanford University and Harvard University, the more my thirst for influencing lasting social change was whetted.
One of the reasons I am writing this blog is that I am regularly asked for tips by people interested in joining, or moving into management roles within, the philanthropic sector. I’ve also been asked about the personal qualities needed to work in philanthropy.
I believe we need empathy, understanding, and an inquiring mind about others’ work and purpose. Don’t stay in an ivory tower and communicate only by phone or email. We need to be prepared to get out and listen to people who are actually doing the work, as well as those who are benefitting from programs. This applies to aspiring CEOs as much as to everyone across an organisation, from human resources and finance to fundraising and communications.
Honesty and transparency are also important. Philanthropy and grant making come with considerable power. Those seeking funding devote significant time and energy to building relationships and their applications. In turn, we owe them the respect and time to clearly articulate feedback about grant applications, not only to reduce misunderstandings but to build relationships and help develop proficiency, both individually and collectively, in a sector where everyone shares a common goal – to promote the welfare of others.
Philanthropy does require a unique set of skills and it’s not for everybody. If you think it is right for you, many undergraduate degrees can be a launching pad. Swinburne University and Queensland University of Technology offer specialist undergraduate and postgraduate studies in the sector.
If you like the values and work of particular organisations, find out more by volunteering, reaching out to staff, and reading newsletters. Do as much as possible to learn about their work.
More broadly, listen to podcasts and attend talks when you can. The Communities in Control Conference on 29-30 May this year is a terrific opportunity to hear from the best thinkers, leaders, and doers, and to connect with like-minded people.
While philanthropy is facing challenges, every time I meet a grantee, I am filled with new knowledge and feel grateful to be part of the ripple effect that this sector is so good at creating ... even if the money isn’t ultimately coming from The Ross Trust.
The minute I grow tired of learning, or the genuine sense of purpose, is the time I will leave. Yes, at times I might be emotional but without emotion and empathy, I wouldn’t be where I am today contributing to a better world and still hungry to keep achieving in such an important sector.