Legally philanthropic: making a difference through law

September 26, 2018

Philanthropic Advisor Michelle Wanwimolruk discusses the strategy development for the Michael and Suzanne Borrin Foundation and how the foundation is making a difference through law. 

What is ‘strategy’ anyway? Strategy has become one of the most overused words in professional life. Everyone wants to be seen as ‘strategic’, and every organisation seems to have a ‘strategy’ or ‘strategic plan’ these days. At the Michael and Suzanne Borrin Foundation, we do not have a document titled ‘Strategy’. This article shares the work that led to the launch of the Borrin Foundation. It is an attempt to share some ‘working assumptions’ about our approach and hopefully spark conversation and feedback.

Start with the ‘why’

‘We believe law is essential to a flourishing society – one that is just, inclusive, tolerant and free. Our vision is of an Aotearoa New Zealand where everyone understands the role and value of the law, and everyone enjoys the protection and opportunity that it provides.’

That is our ‘vision’ statement. It was the result of insightful and thoughtful discussion by the Foundation’s Grants and Scholarships Committee – who are leading members of New Zealand’s legal profession. The vision looks back as well as forward, and speaks to why the Foundation exists.

It looks back to the Borrin Foundation’s roots and ‘origin story’. This story begins with Michael and Suzanne Borrin, a young Jewish, Polish couple who came to New Zealand in the 1930s. The tragedy of losing their Jewish family and friends in the death camps and persecution of Jews in World War II left Michael and Suzanne with deep gratitude to New Zealand for providing them with safe refuge. It also left Ian, Michael and Suzanne’s only son, with a sense of the importance of the rule of law for a flourishing society.

Our vision also looks forward. Ian wanted to give a gift to all of New Zealand – for our future. This gift reflects Ian’s belief that the law should be a force for good. As a lawyer, a Family Court judge and the head of Police Complaints Authority, he cared deeply about people and how law affected real people’s lives. The Borrin Foundation exists to make positive change in New Zealand, specifically through the law and the legal system.

Our vision lies at the heart of our grantmaking. The spirit and intent behind Ian’s generous act serves as a touchstone for our work. Wise advice received was to ‘start with the why’ – know your story and roots as they contain the ‘spirit’ of your work.

Borrin Foundation committee

Grants and Scholarships Committee and Philanthropic Advisor. ( from left) Michelle Wanwimolruk, Sir Terence Arnold, Richard Caughley, Mark Hickford, David Goddard, Kathryn Beck.

Study and learn from others – the ‘how’

The Borrin Foundation is here to make a difference to the lives of New Zealanders, through the law. We do this by supporting legal research, education and scholarship through effective philanthropy. But what does ‘effective philanthropy’ mean? And how do we go about doing this? We are clearly the ‘new kids on the philanthropic block’ and have had a lot to learn.

We set about learning from thought leaders and studying leading practices in philanthropy in both New Zealand and overseas. A big thank you to all the people who generously shared their time, advice, and resources with us. A shout out to colleagues at J R McKenzie Trust, NEXT Foundation, Tindall Foundation, Todd Foundation, Wayne Francis Charitable Trust, Vodafone NZ Foundation, Foundation North, among numerous others. (Word limit means I can’t mention you all!).

We have also been influenced by the approach of overseas philanthropic foundations, including: MacArthur Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Laura and John Arnold Foundation, Mulago Foundation and the Edge Funders Alliance. While they fund in different areas and on a different scale, all these grantmakers are ambitious in their vision for social change.

There was also a lot of reading and research: countless hours on the internet, reading the myriad of research reports, working papers, Stanford Social Innovation Review articles, resources from GEO (Grantmakers for Effective Organizations), the Foundation Centre, Ford Foundation, Hewlett Foundation etc. (Big thanks also to PNZ for pointing out great resources, people, or providing access to subscription-based articles! If you’re not a member of PNZ, do join!). I highly recommend two books: Do More than Give’ and ‘How Change Happens. There is a wealth of literature and knowledge about modern philanthropy and social change – including ‘systems grantmaking’, ‘participatory philanthropy’, catalytic philanthropy’, strategic philanthropy, venture philanthropy and ecosystem grantmaking.

However, intellectual learning gives us only intellectual knowledge. Having an intellectual knowledge of philanthropy is akin to memorising and studying books on parenting. Even if we’ve studied parenting deeply, we won’t know how to raise a child until we’ve done it ourselves.

The importance of people and getting out there in the ‘field’

Another essential part of the process of setting up the Foundation was broad stakeholder engagement. We talked with many people with an interest in, or expertise about, how New Zealand’s legal system affects the lives of real people. Our stakeholder engagement work encompassed NGOs, academics, public sector agencies, members/former members of the judiciary, lawyers, and people in communities. ‘Key experts’ were also invited to meet with the Grants and Scholarships Committee. Memorably, an ‘educational roundtable’ about the criminal justice system and Māori included guests Moana Jackson, Kim Workman, JustSpeak, and people with lived experience of prison and the criminal justice system.

Through the stakeholder engagement and reaching out to wider networks, we found ourselves doing ‘proactive grantmaking’ (possibly even before we even knew what the term meant!). We found great projects, great people, and great ideas that needed financial resources to make great impact. This happened iteratively and sometimes somewhat serendipitously. When the Grants and Scholarships Committee indicated an interest in certain projects or areas, I worked collaboratively with the potential grantees on proposals for funding.

 ‘Reflective practice’ – a fancy term for making it up as you go along!

The Borrin Foundation was launched in February 2018 at the Supreme Court. At the launch we announced the two areas that our grantmaking will focus on: the criminal justice system, and family law. These are areas where the law is not serving New Zealanders well. We will approach our funding of these areas with both a proactive and reactive approach to our grantmaking. At the event we also announced $1.7 million worth of grants across five inaugural grant projects (see our website for more information).

This event was also an example of the ‘do more than give’ approach. Our launch was attended by the Chief Justice, the Governor-General, various Government Ministers, Supreme Court Justices, and many other ‘distinguished guests’. We brought people together and shone light and attention on an important issue in New Zealand that goes to the heart of our values for social harmony, equality and justice. Among Western developed nations, New Zealand’s incarceration rate is second only to the United States, and Māori are disproportionately represented in our prisons.

It turns out that our ‘make it up as we go along’ strategy is actually a strategy known as ‘reflective practice’. Duncan Green, the author of How Change Happens, says that when you work in complex systems you need to learn as you go through trial and error. Rather than thinking of strategy as a single plan built on predictions of the future, we should think of strategy as a portfolio of experiments that compete and evolve over time.

The Borrin Foundation is in its infancy. Being new, we have fresh eyes and are willing to experiment and learn as we go. Some might say that things will soon settle down into ‘business as usual’. I certainly hope not. Being strategic entails being flexible and alert to changing contexts and opportunities. Anyone or any organisation that seeks to be strategic needs to continuously evolve and push boundaries, and go to the new frontiers. Not just in the early stages, but always.


The Borrin Foundation’s trustee is the Nikau Foundation – a community foundation inspiring generosity. The Nikau Foundation is responsible for the administration of the Borrin Foundation, including oversight of its investments and ensuring its long term financial security.


Article originally published in Philanthropy News Issue #74