Lee and Penny Stevens have a passion for giving

April 27, 2016

Philanthropy New Zealand’s newest honorary member  Lee Stevens was recently invested as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit at Government House in Wellington for services to the community. Lee and his wife Penny say their many years of giving have provided them with a wonderful lifestyle.

Lee says that like a lot of newbie philanthropists, he didn’t know how to invite applications or allocate grants when he first set up the Rua and Clarrie Stevens Charitable Trust with his late father Clarrie in 1970.

Instead, he allowed large numbers of people to make grant applications then spent hours sorting through them, trying to decide which ones deserved a modest grant from the trust he and Clarrie had set up to honour their recently deceased mother and wife.

“I was inundated with applications from all around the country,” recalls Lee who, with his wife, Penny, was made an honorary member of Philanthropy New Zealand at the end of last year in recognition of their many years of giving.

Joining Philanthropy New Zealand in the 1990s helped put him right: thanks to attending seminars and talking to other members, he adopted a more strategic approach to grantmaking. That included limiting the number of potential applicants by only making grants available to small organisations and, in many cases, personally inviting them to apply rather   than throwing the process open to all and sundry.

The trust also moved into multi-year funding, providing larger grants over several years to a smaller number of organisations.

“Multi-year funding means you can achieve more and it’s more measurable and you can develop the relationships better.”

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Lee and Penny at their home in Auckland.

Unlike many charitable trusts, the Rua and Clarrie Stevens Trust began life with no capital. Within five years Lee and his father Clarrie had managed to raise $50,000 and it now has assets of $1.6m and has allocated $1.4m in grants.

Over the years the trust has supported a wide range of organisations. They include arts organisations such as the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra – “Mum loved the arts” – the Himalayan Trust, and education groups. In 1998 the trust established the Clarrie Stevens Memorial Scholarship for law students at the University of Otago where Lee’s father – a prominent Dunedin lawyer – studied. It also supports groups that work with refugees and migrants.

The impetus for the latter came from Penny; she has a background of working with community organisations and has a particular interest in those that work with refugees.

More recently she was the driving force behind the Liberty of Being Me Foundation which the couple set up in 2010 to help girls and women develop self-esteem. Most of the foundation’s funding comes from the Rua and Clarrie Stevens Trust.

In July last year, the Stevens handed over the responsibility for the day-to-day management of the trust to the Auckland Communities Foundation. However they remain very involved with the grantmaking side of things, and are delighted to have been introduced to new organisations as a result of their association with ACF. These include Mixit, an Auckland-based multi-cultural platform for young refugees, migrants and locals that uses dance, drama, music and aerial circus to help increase confidence, self-expression and communication skills.

Earlier this year Lee was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in recognition his contribution to the community. Both he and Penny say their many years of giving have been a rewarding and enriching experience.

“The trust got me up in the morning – it was a passion and I still love it today,” says Lee.

Penny agrees: “We have made so many friends and connections that we would never have made without the trust,” she says. ‘It’s given us a wonderful lifestyle.”