Fiona Maxwell On Big Changes In The Non Profit & Philanthropic Sectors


Fiona Maxwell's career has spanned the non-profit, government and university sectors in Australia and the USA.

Prior to becoming CEO of Brisbane Powerhouse, Fiona was Queensland Manager for Philanthropy Australia, establishing the Brisbane office and supporting philanthropists and non-profits alike to grow the sector.

Fiona’s role as Queensland Manager, Artsupport Australia encompassed growing cultural philanthropy – working with local philanthropists, advisors and intermediaries – as well as supporting the non-profit sector to build stronger and more sustainable relationships with its' supporters.

Prior to this role, Fiona was Executive Director of the Next Wave Festival. She has been Chair and board member of organisations including industry service and peak bodies, internet start-up and philanthropic grant- making committees, including Women & Change, Queensland women’s giving circle. Fiona currently sits on the board of domestic violence support organisation, DV Connect.

Fiona holds a Bachelor of Arts from QUT, a Masters from the University of New South Wales and recently completed the Executive Program for Non-profit Leaders at Stanford University.


Fiona discusses large shifts in the not-for-profit sector, providing insight into the sorts of challenges non profits will face. Fiona also talks about collaboration, the rise of millennials in business and Brisbane as a thriving creative hub.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led you to work in the not-for-profit and philanthropy sectors? [2:28]

[Fiona Maxwell] - I came to the nonprofit sector, I guess, through the arts. I studied art at university. I'd always wanted to have some kind of creative career. When I went through university, I was also doing an education degree and realised very quickly I was not going to be a school teacher. I ended up also finding out that I was quite good at organising things. My art making wasn't crash hot, but I was much better at organising things. I ran the student gallery, went on to work in various art museums and galleries in Sydney and Melbourne and Los Angeles and then got into the festival world. So multi-art form, diverse venues, mix of stakeholders, that sort of thing. You have to fundraise. In learning about the art of fundraising, you then learn about who the givers are, which is then how I ended up in the roles with Art Support and Philanthropy Australia trying to cultivate more givers, growing the pie, so that more people are able to support things.

When the role of CEO at the Brisbane Powerhouse came up, how could I resist? You know, I was here seventeen years ago on the opening night as a student, and it was the most extraordinary place. Somewhere so very different for Brisbane, really grungy and gritty and rock-and-roll, and so, the privilege to be able to come back seventeen years later and to take this organisation to its next destination is exciting.

Yeah, it is. I remember the opening, as well. So, how did you find your purpose, Fiona, and how did that change the way you live and lead organisations? [4:15]

It's funny, I don't think I ever set out to do anything with any great epiphany moment. Although, I remember years ago, talking to some friends of friends who worked with a big consulting firm with this slightly sneering look on their face. They were like, "How do you cope with the salary?" And I was sort of like, "Well, I'm not destroying the world. I'm working for good, and when I get up in the morning, I feel good about that." So, that helps. Whenever I'm struggling to pay my kids' school fees, that's what I will resign myself to. But no, it is about social change in one way or another. And whether that's through the arts and through the experiences that we can provide here, or in my other roles about philanthropy and the non-profit sector, broadly.

As CEO of Brisbane Powerhouse then, what have you found to be some of the best ways to engage community and create this positive change? [5:31]

We have a fantastic range of stakeholders here, from council... Brisbane City Council is our primary stakeholder... through to sponsors, some great corporate partners, individual donors, our associates programme of people who are supporting individual artists to make work here. And people are immensely passionate and loyal about Brisbane Powerhouse. They want to be part of that journey. They want to be part of a creative hub for Brisbane, and I think, I was talking to someone earlier today about it, in the last 17 years, Brisbane Powerhouse, QUT Creative Industries, GOMA who've really transformed the cultural footprint of Brisbane. And the hope is, and I think we're well on our way, that it's not just a stepping off point to the beaches, but actually there's a lot going on here.

We moved back here after having lived in all sorts of other places, because we wanted to be a part of that creative energy, the "can do", the optimism, where people can start up a business, can start up an idea, and make it happen in Brisbane.

So, what do you find to be some of the biggest challenges working in a large organisation, and how do you work around them? [6:57]

I've worked in small organisations where literally it's a team of seven or eight, you turn around and go, "Hey! What about this?" And like, "Yes, let's do it!" That nimbleness.

I've also worked in government and universities where you pretty much can't do anything. You need a committee to have a committee.

And so, our interesting challenge is we're a big small organisation and a small big organisation. How can we be nimble and responsive? How can we engage with the art sector with our local community with what's happening now, as well as, how do we work within an ecology of a relationship with council and the larger arts sector, and the level of accountability and transparency that is expected of bigger organisations.


So, how might organisations then best create a positive work environment of collaboration where employees feel and are valued, and where everyone contributes their best? [8:05]

It's an ongoing work in progress.

It starts with clarity of vision, and clarity of mission.

In our case, our mission, our objects, that we set out 17 years ago are still very accurate and very true.

And so people really understanding what that is, everyone being on board with what that is. Often in a place like this, that does so much, there can be tensions between the creative side and the commercial side.

Even before I started people wanted to complain to me about the cost of the wine in the bar. The quality is excellent. Balancing those tensions, but when people realise where there's vision, then coming on that journey. It's also about genuine consultation and engagement, and that's really difficult to say to people, "I actually care about what you think. Give me your feedback." And then for people to see that that's been acted on or that it's been considered, because sometimes it's hard to be transparent in a leadership role. It's hard to go, "Oh, yeah. That's a great idea. I'll do that tomorrow." Rather than going, "Oh, I can't actually do that, because there's this really complex thing that's stopping me."

So, that's part of the journey for an organisation of this size. The wonderful privilege here though is that people work at Brisbane Powerhouse because they are so passionate about what we do. People love the building and they love the vibe of it, and the nature of the building's design, you come into its heart. You think about other theatres where actually the gathering of the public is on the edges. The beauty of our building is that you come into it's heart, and people love the artistic and creative community that we work with, and the corporate and commercial hirers that come and do things here, come because of that.

You could hire a meeting room at a big brand hotel, and probably get more flashy bells and whistles and better mints and notebooks, but people come here because the creativity of the cultural programme rubs off on everything else.

Most certainly.

So, changing topic a little bit, how have you seen the nonprofit sector change over the last five or so years, and where do you see it heading? [10:41]

I think the non profit sector has to change, and things like the NDIS has been disruptive and will be transformative.

And it's often interesting to talk to people in other sectors, in the arts particularly, and go, "What if the NDIS happened to us? What if every Australian got $200 a year to spend on their arts product of their choice, and then chose what they wanted to do? How would we do things differently?"

That's really interesting, because often cultural organisations go, "Well, this is what you need to consume. We are the ones to make the choices about what you, as a consumer, will be exposed to." And so, thinking about audiences and an audience and their decisions is really interesting.

One of the things that we've done successfully here in the last month was an escape room game called "Containment", so it was all about zombies. Ten people at a time. You got an hour and a half to solve a puzzle, and if you didn't solve the puzzle by roving all over the building, you would turn into a zombie. So, that is completely transforming the way audiences will experience cultural product. It's not about sitting in a theatre and looking at what's on stage, and that theme needs to be universal across the nonprofit sector. Innovation in models has to change.


So, changing topic a little bit, how have you seen the nonprofit sector change over the last five or so years, and where do you see it heading? [10:41 continued]

Reliance on government funding cannot continue. Government funding is ever more competitive, is ever dwindling. The expectations of government around reporting, around data, around collaboration; have to be more transparent.

The rise of the social enterprise sector, the rise of social enterprise within nonprofits, and people understanding what those differences are, the rise of social procurement, all of those sort of things.

The collective impact is a really interesting area to look at, especially when you're looking at big social problems. Micah Projects in Brisbane, a homelessness charity, are extraordinary in the work. The international leadership, they have shown in working in the collective impact space, in terms of where one person's homelessness in Brisbane, how many touch points do they have with community services, with government departments, with church groups, and everything else, and still we are not getting any closer to seeing them sustainably housed.

So, I think those models, that places like Micah are piloting, can be seen further. I think the other movement that's interesting to see in the commercial sector is the B Corporation movement, and how in other places in Europe, we're seeing companies that sit in between the for profit and nonprofit are the biggest growing sector of business.

In Australian business language, there's not a category there, which is why something like the B Corporation movement is really interesting.

And there are some really interesting Brisbane companies who are listing as B Corporations and tackling that in different ways. It's not just your obvious Patagonias or Five a.m yogurts, it's actually things like accounting firms who are doing really interesting stuff in this space. And I think that's where we'll see some change.

You've touched on this a little bit already, but what advice would you give then to not-for-profits who would like to build stronger and more sustainable relationships with their supporters? [14:29]

It's about ongoing conversation. It's interesting, this morning we had an hour-long session with one of our biggest partners where we had five of our staff and five of their staff; we were really up front about what had worked over the last three years, what didn't work.

Sharing failures is really important. Don't be afraid to say what didn't work, because then you can finesse a variation on that. If everything is brushed up to look fine, then you'll find yourself continuing to deliver something that you never wanted to be delivering in the first place.

And I think the really interesting thing that then came out of that conversation is, "Alright, what are the deeper projects we can now engage in in the next three years of that partnership? What are the things that are not only beneficial to us or beneficial to the partner, that are beneficial to social change? How can we do something together, and in the case of this partnership, talk about Brisbane as a creative destination? Brisbane as a thought leader in creativity and that's in the interests of both us and the partner, as well.

So, you've previously worked as the Queensland manager for Philanthropy Australia. Where do you see the greatest challenges in the sector, and where the opportunity is to achieve better philanthropy? [15:53]

the philanthropic sector is going through a massive change as we start to see millennials take charge, as the next generation of family giving.

They're now starting to take over family companies, they're starting to have roles and directorships and whatever within family businesses, and that Baby Boomer generation is starting to retire. We're also seeing a generation of millennials who are leading their own companies and in Australia, people like Mike Cannon-Brookes from Atlassian are really kind of "stand out" examples of people who've made wealth early through an IT or in the innovation space, and then are going, "Alright, how can I give back?" It's not just about amassing that wealth.

So, what are the traits and trends of millennials in their giving, and how does the nonprofit sector need to change? And that's really interesting. 

Millennials are hands-on. They want to be engaged. It's no longer chequebook philanthropy. They want to be in, participating, being behind-the-scenes, and involved. They're loyal to causes, but not necessarily loyal to charities, and I think that's really interesting.

Particularly probably to the big traditional charities who might have seen regular support, because they're doing good in the homelessness, foster care or big social issues.

Millennials want to engage in those issues, but if they're not being solved by that charity, they'll find another charity or they'll start their own.


So, that's the other thing that we're seeing is philanthropy-led charitable work. And I was in a forum recently where a guy who was property developer said, "I don't think the big charities are doing enough around social housing and the impact of the NDIS. I'm going to do it myself." So, I think that really means nonprofits have to change the way they report, how transparent they are about the way they work, the opportunities they give for their donors and supporters to be involved, whilst still being in control of the expertise as well, and going, "Alright, this is the way we've got to do this." It's not a shift about going, "Oh, well, this donor's given us a whole lot of money. We'll now put on Mamma Mia the Musical on every year until the end of time." It's about growing respect for each other's expertise.

The other thing that's been interesting is the rise of collective giving, and I'm part of a women's giving circle, which is a really exciting forum and last week we gave away $50,000. So, every year we put in $1000 each and there's fifty members at the moment. There could be more. We call for small nonprofits to send in their great ideas. We shortlist and the top three pitch, and then we vote, and that $50,000 is given to the winning charity. So, we're really excited this year that Muooz, the Eritrean restaurant at West End has received $50,000 to refurbish their kitchen. So, they've been in those premises and everyone will know that restaurant and who they are, for some years, but it was previously a Chinese restaurant. So, the kitchen is set up for cooking things with woks. It's not set up for cooking African food and not set up to be a training environment for all of the fantastic women who come in as new migrants who use somewhere like Muooz as the launchpad for feeling at home in Australia, ultimately.

So, to finish up then, Fiona, could you please recommend a few great reads to our listeners? [20:03]

One that I picked up at an airport recently is a book called "Chapter One" by Daniel Flynn, who is the founder of "Thank You", which started as bottled water and now is all sorts of products, baby products, hand soap and all that sort of thing. And just recently throughout Brisbane Powerhouse, we've introduced the "Thank You" hand soap range. That's just really interesting, and I must admit it's one of those ones I pick up and put down and have a look at. But to take on the bottled water sector dominated by the big soft drink companies, and look to disrupt that as a nonprofit with a social focus is a great story.

The other one that's a bit different is "A Woman of Independence" by Kirsty Sword Gusmao. And she was the former first lady of East Timor, and her story is quite extraordinary. She's an Australian woman who learnt Indonesian at university, Indonesian studies and so on, went over to Indonesia and got involved in the East Timor movement. And when Gusmao was in prison in Indonesia as a freedom fighter, she went in and started as a translator and they ultimately fell in love and she was involved in his release and home imprisonment and then the establishment of Timor as a nation. An absolutely amazing life. It's one of those ones... because if they made the movie of her life, Angelina Jolie would play her... she's just extraordinary and she is still very involved in Timor, particularly around leading a women's charity. I think it's the Alola Foundation, and around critical issues for women in East Timor around parenting, post-natal health, educating around breastfeeding, all of those sort of things that are really critical in that community and then providing some business opportunities and empowerment for those women to be on their way. 


Initiatives, resources and people mentioned on the podcast

Recommended books


You can contact Fiona on LinkedIn or the Brisbane Powerhouse on Facebook. Please feel free to leave comments below.

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