Do the most you can for those you serve: Lisa Cotton - Philanthropy Australia

24 January 2018

It would be tough to find a bigger champion of democratised philanthropy than Lisa Cotton, co-founder of The Funding Network. As she prepares to step down from her role as CEO, she reflects on the growth of collective giving, changes in the sector and the challenges that lie ahead.

Nicole Richards, Jan 2018

‘Transformational, not transactional’ is how The Funding Network (TFN), one of Australia’s largest collective giving networks, describes its work to grow the capacity of grassroots social change organisations. Since launching in Australia in 2012, TFN’s live crowdfunding model has facilitated almost $7 million in funding and in-kind support for 160 non-profits.

TFN’s success is in no small way attributable to the compassionate, yet fearless, leadership of its co-founder and CEO, Lisa Cotton, who was named an Impact 25 leader in 2016. Renowned throughout the social sector for her engagement, grace and commitment to social change, Cotton leaves big shoes to fill when she hands the reins to incoming CEO, Julie McDonald, in February.

In this Q&A with Philanthropy Australia’s Chief Storyteller, Nicole Richards, Cotton shares her thoughts about the future of collective giving, her proudest achievements, what it means to be a leader in the social sector and more.


NR – The list of TFN’s achievements and impact is long. What would you say has been the secret to its success?

LC - I’ve thought long and hard about this for years, but it comes down to two simple propositions:

The first is our ability to pitch coach high-potential grassroots non-profits and provide a unique platform and exposure to donors. The second is making meaningful giving accessible to all, from those with modest means, to our wealthy who want to expose families to what’s happening outside their everyday environments. It’s a truly egalitarian model where everyone can participate and experience the joy of giving and connecting with others.

Philanthropy Australia’s catch-phrase is more and better philanthropy. I’m proud to say that TFN is delivering on this with nearly 5,000 donors having participated in our live crowdfunding events, and many of the 160 non-profits who have pitched going on to forge lasting relationships with them that have fundamentally changed the trajectory of their organisations.


What are your thoughts on the future of collective giving? What role can established philanthropic funders play?

Collective giving is an approach whose time has come. With the rise of populism, people are embracing the power of participation now more than ever. A few years ago, founder of GetUp, Jeremy Heimans, co-published a thought-provoking blog on Harvard Business Review: Understanding 'New Power'. It explains how the growing tension between how ‘old power’ and ‘new power’ is transforming the way social activists do their work. They characterise the two types of power as:

Old power works like a currency. It is held by few. Once gained, it is jealously guarded, and the powerful have a substantial store of it to spend. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. It downloads, and it captures.  

New power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.

Heimans suggests that old power is consumption, enabled by control and ownership.

The new power is shared ownership or what’s been called the ‘shared economy’ and this is re-framing what philanthropy can be. For philanthropic funders, this is a powerful development.

Many foundations have amplified the impact of their grants by providing matched funding at our events as incentive for others to give to causes dear to their hearts. It’s a terrific example of participatory philanthropy.


We often hear about the 'electricity' that's generated at live TFN events. How would you describe it? 

I’d describe the emotion at a TFN event as “feel good giving”. TFN provides a rich sensory environment that engages several parts of the brain. Apparently, there’s a mirror neuron system in our brains which contains cells that represents actions. This is activated when we detect the movements and emotions of others. Empathising with others is what happens at TFN events when you get passionate social entrepreneurs sharing deeply personal stories, and an audience buying into those narratives and demonstrating their support by publicly pledging support.

This is why effective storytelling is so powerful in the non-profit sector.


What would you say are the most common misconceptions about collective giving?

Collective giving in many forms has been around forever, from tithing in churches, giving circles, to traditional auctions at fundraising events. Over the past 10 years, there’s the rise of online giving which has been transformational for the sector, however what online does at scale, it lacks in human connection and a sense of purpose that live crowdfunding can provide.


What’s your number one tip for nonprofits taking part in a pitch event?

Be yourself and practice your pitch. That’s two tips isn’t it?! 

Storytelling is an everyday occurrence in the sector, but distilling complex social issues into a compelling six-minute pitch is extremely hard. Our audiences respond enthusiastically to people who are authentic and who are those they can trust will deliver on what they promise.


Biggest lesson learned during your time at the helm of TFN? Anything you would’ve done differently?

When we started out, our target market was everyday Australians who want to give within their means. This meant we were a ‘donor centric’ organisation. Our messaging was focused on building a deeper culture of giving in Australia – a big aspiration for a start-up.

It was three years down the track when we were applying for DGR1 (tax status) and interrogating where we were applying most of our resources, that we realised what we were actually doing was capacity-building for small non-profits.

As important as donors are, we flipped our value proposition and now talk about the power and potential of grassroots innovation, which resonates more powerfully with givers and has enabled us to achieve so much more than we ever imagined.


What does great leadership in the social sector look like to you?

I think the five most important qualities leaders must possess in this environment are:

  1. A passionate, unyielding desire to do the most you can for those you serve.
  2. A deep belief in the change you can achieve when asking others to fund your organisation.
  3. The confidence to ask hard, sometimes painful, questions about how your organisation can do more and at a lower cost.
  4. The staying power and talent to lead difficult change processes.
  5. The clarity and courage to get the "right people on the bus, in the right seats", even if that means making difficult personnel decisions.


If you had to pick just one, what would you say is your proudest achievement?

My proudest achievement is the high-performance culture created at TFN. This doesn’t develop without our team and board investing themselves deeply and taking bold risks.

In our first four years, we vastly exceeded our targets, however, early last year we had several introspective moments when we acknowledged that we can only achieve so much impact with running our own live crowdfunding events. To reach scale, we needed to do more. We took a leap of faith and established a ‘white-label’ offering whereby we coach others in the sector to use our methodology.

The re-engineering of our model has been hugely successful and is getting the power of collective giving and donor engagement into new geographies. In the long-term, this will enable TFN to be less reliant on philanthropic funding to run our lean operations.


Before you step down, is there anyone in the sector you'd like to give a shout out to?

TFN has always been about collaboration. The genesis of this started with our relationship with TFN UK which generously supported us in our growth years and has been an amazing cheerleader for innovating around the model. 

I have unending gratitude to our founding partners, ‘true believers’ in the transformative power of collective giving, and our more recent supporters.

The other believers have been those 60+ corporations and foundations across Australia who have hosted our events. We’ve laughed with them, cried with them, but importantly, together, we’ve shared many magic moments that have piqued interest in the many social issues of today.

In addition to a terrific board, one person who has played a central in the TFN story is our General Manager, Tom Hull. Tom represents no better example of getting the right person on the bus at the right time. Our relationship and complementary skills made my TFN journey such a profound experience.

Finally, as a capacity building enterprise, it’s easy to think that our success comes down to good systems, processes and management. Obviously, this is vital, however, in great part, our growth emanates from the success of the non-profits we’ve partnered. These change-makers are the ones on the front lines, innovating in the context of rising disadvantage. Many of the presenters have often had lived experiences with the issues they address. They are authentic and courageous, putting themselves out there asking for support with a sense of urgency and a long-term vision to effect social change. They really are the heroes of the TFN story.


What’s next for you?

I had always intended on handing over the reins. After six years, I didn’t make the decision lightly. It scared me to walk away from something I love doing and a team, board and supporters I am so fond of. But sometimes you have to do the thing that scares you the most for many reasons and I’m delighted we have someone the calibre of Julie McDonald taking over.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we, in our modern lives, are so driven by the to-do list that we rarely take a big step back and ask what it’s all about.

Over the next few months, I’m going to carve out some time and space for writing, deeper thinking and exploring. But first up, we’re going to holiday in Italy!


Read the full article in Philanthropy Australia here.