People with Purpose: Sound investment

Posted on 20 Feb 2024

By Greg Thom, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia

Caroline Gurney Future Generation CEO

When it comes to making a difference in the world, Caroline Gurney, the CEO of the philanthropically focused investment company Future Generation Australia, believes investors can have their cake and eat it too.

Tell us a little bit about your background.

I spent the first two decades of my career in the financial services industry, working across the UK, Asia and Australia for investment banks including UBS and Citigroup.

Given my husband is Australian, I inevitably wound up in Sydney, as UBS’s Australian head of corporate affairs, marketing and corporate responsibility.

In that role, I set up and became a director of the UBS Foundation, which in turn led to roles on the boards of several other organisations including Our Watch (a not-for-profit focused on preventing violence against women and children) and Future Generation Australia.

Three years after joining the board of Future Generation Australia, its founder, Geoff Wilson, asked me to be the chief executive. It was a big decision to leave UBS after almost two decades, but I haven’t looked back.

Why did you join Future Generation as CEO and what does the organisation do?

As a director of Future Generation Australia, I’d already developed huge admiration for the Future Generation model, which delivers both investment returns to shareholders and vital funding to Australian not-for-profits. To date, we have donated $75.9 million to charities that support youth at risk and youth mental health.

Future Generation is such a win-win-win structure – giving shareholders the opportunity to do well and do good.

Sadly, though, there are still too many people who have never heard of it. I felt passionate about getting the word out to ensure that most Australians have a bit of Future Generation in their share portfolios.

The way the model works is that investors buy equity in the Future Generation companies, as they would in any other company listed on the Australian Securities Exchange. That equity is then allocated to – and managed by – more than 30 leading Australian and global fund managers, including the likes of David Paradice, Peter Cooper and Phil King at Regal.

All these fund managers work pro bono for Future Generation, meaning they do not charge their usual management and performance fees. This allows the Future Generation companies to donate 1% of net assets each year to not-for-profits – without compromising shareholder returns.

"I firmly believe that everybody can – and should – make a difference, no matter how insignificant their contribution may seem."

What makes Future Generation's approach to charitable investment different?

A few things. For starters, we provide our not-for-profit partners with untied funding, which they can direct according to their needs and priorities. Giving guides will tell you that untied funding is best-practice giving, but it remains rare, with most donors making one-off gifts to a specific project.

Secondly, Future Generation provides multi-year funding of at least three years, but generally longer.

Our NFP partners tell us that the consistency of a multi-year commitment that is untied is incredibly impactful. It means they can plan and direct more resources to their core mission, instead of fundraising.

It also means we have open and honest discussions about their needs and opportunities, providing valuable insights about the reality “on the ground”. This helps us to be more effective in our giving.

Thirdly, we have evolved our giving approach by drawing on our expertise as an investment manager.

We know that private giving is most useful when it embraces the role of risk capital: funding areas that have high potential to create social good but are so far overlooked or underfunded by others, particularly governments.

Following a strategic review aimed at identifying opportunities for impactful giving in youth mental health, Future Generation Global began funding not-for-profits that promote wellbeing and prevent mental ill health.

Currently, governments spend only about one per cent of their mental health budgets on prevention – even though Australia has a strong record of reducing the financial and human cost of many other diseases, from skin cancer to diabetes and heart disease, by focusing on treatment and prevention.

Also, just as our fund managers identify under-valued companies and invest in them to realise growth, we fund small to medium-sized not-for-profits with a proven track record, but still enough “runway” to significantly deepen their impact.

Finally, we have taken a portfolio approach to Future Generation Global’s social investment.

We have constructed a portfolio of complementary not-for-profits working across the mental ill health prevention spectrum for the same reasons that fund managers build a diversified investment portfolio – to mitigate risk and maximise returns.

We bring our partners together regularly through an online community of practice and an annual exchange event. This is building trust and a collective identity among them, leading to collaborative work and collective advocacy for greater action and investment in the prevention of mental ill health.

Along with impact measurement specialists, we have also built a groundbreaking tool that will allow us to track both our individual partners’ progress and the collective impact of the portfolio.

We believe that in time this will develop into a compelling evidence-based asset that will demonstrate to other funders, particularly governments, the value of investing in wellbeing and prevention, as well as in the core operations and development of high potential not-for-profits.

Bernie and Caroline
Caroline Gurney with former stockman and founder of troubled youth charity BackTrack, Bernie Shakeshaft.

What's your philosophy on how individuals can make a difference in the world?

I firmly believe that everybody can – and should – make a difference, no matter how insignificant their contribution may seem.

You can donate money, volunteer your time, or just help out a friend or neighbour. It’s good for the people you are helping, obviously, but it’s also good for you!

Future Generation supports not-for-profits that work to promote wellbeing and prevent mental illness in young Australians – and studies have shown that volunteering or helping others is associated with better perceived mental health and quality of life.

I know that when I help people, I feel good. It’s definitely beneficial to my mental health.

Who do you admire most in the world and why?

I admire so many people for so many different reasons that this is a tough question to answer.

I guess a common thread is that a lot of the people I admire tend to be women – whether that’s my high school history teacher for making me passionate about something at such a young age, or my boss at CitiGroup, who was a New Zealand woman in a sea of males. She always promoted me and championed me so selflessly.

Then there was Wendy McCarthy, who I knew when I was at Citigroup and then became my mentor when I was at UBS.

Luckily, over the past 18 months, I’ve started doing podcasts, which has allowed me to showcase many of the people I have long admired.

One who really stands out is Natasha Stott Despoja, who has become a close friend. She is someone who lives her principles in every aspect of her life.

In more recent times – and to address the gender imbalance ! – I’ve come to really respect Michael Chaney, who I did a podcast with last year.

Not only is Michael incredibly insightful, thoughtful and accomplished, but he is generous with his time, despite being so time poor. I really admire that in a person.

I’m looking forward to speaking to many more of my heroes. Next up is Andrew Denton!

Become a member of ICDA – it's free!