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April 14, 2020

Meet Matthew Wright-Simon a real-life philanthropreneur

Matthew runs his own funding body with friends, donates a day-a-week to a cause he likes and continues to innovate in the social justice sphere despite COVID-19 raining on his parade.

  • Words: Josh Fanning
  • Picture: Cath Leo


The message came through Facebook from a well-known (to us at least) local philanthropist and member of the startup community in Adelaide, Matthew Wright-Simon:

“Tonight I am supposed to be at a big awards gala in Federation Square accepting an award for social impact as one of Australia’s Impact 25. I am the only one from SA. Like so many people right now – so many! – I have seen months of what we had planned vanish in days.”

Matthew first came to our attention as he took over from Dr Kristin Alford to help lead the TEDxAdelaide franchise before going on to help establish an Adelaide chapter of The Awesome Foundation and give away more than 55 micro-grants of $1,000 each. Last year he launched his own social enterprise, Double Denim, which he operates with his co-founder and wife Josie to generate funds to address women’s homelessness.

Yes, Matt’s that guy who just seems to be able to give and give and give.

But due to COVID-19, Matthew – along with the 24 other worthy Australians named in Pro Bono Australia’s “Impact 25”  – wasn’t going to get a chance to champion his cause(s) on the national stage.

And while the world is enduring this ‘Great Pause’ moment – as the gears of the economy wind down and the strength of our civilisation is revealed – we thought it important and good and worthy to give Matthew a chance to talk about how we might all become a little more giving going forward.

Q&A with Matthew Wright-Simon

CityMag: Do you remember when you reached out and invited us to join the Awesome Foundation?  Was it 2016?
Matthew Wright-Simon: I do indeed… Was it really that long ago? Since then we have given out around $40K (more than $55K to date). It has been fascinating to see how the group and our processes have evolved and the diversity of things we have seeded.

When did your philanthropic / charity itch start? Tell me about your motivation in this sector?
My early motivations were eco. I started a Greenpeace group in the late ’70s/early ’80s at primary school. Probably like many people, I have supported charities with regular giving, sponsored youths and done fundraising. Across the big and little voluntary things I have done (e.g. TEDxAdelaide v providing mentoring or planting trees) I’ve also donated a day a week of my time for many, many years to support causes and communities I care about. This really has been part of my way of doing things and makes sense to me.

The Awesome Foundation was different, in that I could see a way to connect with others who had similar motivations to help; a way of socialising giving that had that balance of small community/big community. More than 5 years later, I still love it – in fact, it tops up my faith in humanity every month. I am one of two founding members (or trustees).

Explain the Awesome Foundation and when it started
The first thing to state is that it wasn’t my idea.

Like many things, I stepped in early to support someone else’s initiative (I was invited by the first Dean, Lucinda Roberts, to join when I was co-working out of Hub Adelaide on Peel Street). Even though I am hardly shy, I have found I am a good co-pilot for people who launch something (Katrina Webb and Newday Leadership is an excellent example). Our group has operated longer than all but a small number of groups worldwide (Awesome Foundation started in the US). In Adelaide we kind of form a stepping stone to Impact 100 and we relate a little bit to 10×10 Philanthropy… there are some similarities in their models, but we really have a strong grassroots focus. 

Basically, if you have a crazy brilliant idea that needs funding, we award $1,000 grants every month. It couldn’t be simpler! Your idea is yours alone. We don’t want a stake in it. We just want to help you make it happen!

It’s nice to be recognised for work you weren’t necessarily seeking any recognition for. We know you’ve never written and asked us for a story about your work and yet the impact you’ve had on Adelaide’s start up and social enterprise scene is significant.

Tell us how you found out Impact 25? Is it something you’ve been building towards?
It’s held by Pro Bono Australia. This not-for-profit has a big subscriber base and one million annual users. They set up the award in 2015, but hit my radar in about 2017. The award emerged for me this year because I wanted to acknowledge a friend who has done a great deal for the social enterprise sector. Coincidentally, a day or two after nominating my friend, a different member of the social sector let me know she was nominating me! So, no, no build-up at all. I’m still quite shocked to ‘win.’

It feels like COVID-19 has reorganised everything for everyone. As someone who works at the coal face of social innovation – what are three things we could do to build more resilient systems than the transactional capitalist one we’ve been running on since the collapse of the Soviet Union?
Here is where I think the Impact 25 awards are so great. If you look at the 150 people who were ‘shortlisted’ and then the final 25, you can see a really interesting mix across so many areas of ‘endeavour with empathy’. More than a few represent social enterprise/s and I think that this model that puts the health of the environment and people up-front and uses trade as a mechanism for change, including the empowerment of disenfranchised people, is part of how we change things for the better.

To build on your observation, social enterprise is not about the state controlling and distributing resources as it sees fit. It’s also not about a free market with no thought given (or weighed) of the damage to the environment that supports life or the rights of humans. Social enterprise is somewhere in the middle and you can look to pioneers like Muhammad Yunus and his micro credit ‘social business’ model that empowers entrepreneurs to improve community outcomes. I could talk about this a lot, as it also links to my views on charity/aid and how this contrasts with impact investment and philanthropy (areas that also fascinate me).

Exploitation (and other externalities) is a dirty secret behind what so many of us pretend to call success. The UN Global Goals demonstrate just who has been left out of this success story and where the great opportunities to evolve can truly be found. Philanthropy at its best can be a catalyst for radically changing the drivers for what I think we called ‘growth’ in a pre-pandemic world. Of course, our relationship with the natural world is broken – it has been in this country since we broke the ground declared Terra Nullius – and it is only in acknowledging this and determining our own relationships with the Aboriginal world that we might find the capacity to learn and listen and to access the depths of imagination and heart to heal what feel like impossible wounds.

It can feel overwhelming, but your example – as just one person – gives us pause. Do individuals actually represent the best hope we’ve got of creating institutional change?
Top-down leadership and trickle-down economics get most of us, well, down. Playing ‘up’ is so much more fun. Playful, grass-roots (or community) based collaboration and sharing are about the only things that can get us out of this mess. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, “Here’s to people; the cause of – and solution to – all the world’s problems”. Of course, he was talking about beer, not people, but he has a strong point. It’s good to be serious about silliness; so many of our problems in so-called western societies are related to keeping play and laughter separate from the difficult stuff. Most of the really serious stuff is unbearable without a sense of humour! Most people who have seen me on stage (and sometimes on screen) would nod or wince to confirm that smart silliness really is central to what I do, especially in the ‘thought leadership’ realm. Thoughtful leadership – with or without silliness – is what’s missing in the big picture.

So what’s one small thing we can do right now?
I would love to give a plug for several of the causes I support, with the most vulnerable of a shaky lot being Catherine House (which links to Double Denim, the social enterprise I co-founded with my wife, Josie). We have doubled our donation to Catherine House for every sale in April, upping it from $5 to $10 per heat pack sold. I’d love CityMag readers to buy up big to do something about women’s homelessness. Oh and follow us on insta.

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