Woman Reichstein, Jill

Community Activist and Philanthropist

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

'As long as leadership is seen to be acting with passion, or mentoring and helping to affect change through education, then I am comfortable with being called a leader,' says Jill Reichstein, advocate of social change and one of Australia's most prominent philanthropists (Interview). Chair of the Reichstein Foundation, established by her industrialist father, Lance, Reichstein is a member of the Committee of Management for Changemakers Australia and has served on the boards of the Melbourne Community Foundation, the Foundation for Young Australians, the Community Support Fund Community Advisory Council, the Trust for Young Australians, the Mietta Foundation, the Koori Heritage Trust, and Philanthropy Australia. She is a mentor to many Australian women philanthropists and committed to models of philanthropic giving that empower and build capacity in communities in need.

Born in Melbourne, in 1949, to Mavis and Lance Reichstein, Jill was an only child and a daughter of privilege. But, she says, 'I think the balance for me was that my nanny, who I bonded with, lived in Port Melbourne and I used to love staying with her on weekends. So I would spend a lot of my childhood with her in a very different environment' (Women of Power and Influence). The nanny's influence, combined with that of a fantastic social studies teacher at her private school in Toorak (St Catherine's) exposed her to social justice issues and ideas about the need for social change that were solidified after a year at an English Liberal Arts school in 1968.

Returning to Melbourne after a year abroad, Jill became radicalised in ways her father and mother did not approve of, especially when she moved out of home. She took part in the anti-Vietnam War and anti-apartheid movements, completed studies in anthropology and sociology ('an important tool for learning how to create social change') at Monash University and got involved in feminist politics in general and the Women's Refuge Movement in particular (Interview). Working in a women's refuge in Kew in the early 1970s - the first community-based halfway house - was her first experience of running a community organization with, not for, the people who use it, a theory that underpins Reichstein funding policy today. She confirmed this belief in capacity building and user involvement by working in community-based childcare for the Brunswick Community Group, and the Brunswick City Council in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Reichstein suspects that it was her radical political leanings that led to the establishment of her father's foundation. Rather than leave his fortune to his daughter on his death, Lance Reichstein he established the Lance Reichstein Foundation. Jill, then twenty-five years old, was appointed to the otherwise all-male board of trustees. Frustrated by the board's preoccupation with the investment of funds, as opposed to their distribution, she instigated a change of personnel. With the help of some important mentors, including Brian and Sarah Stegley, Meriel Wilmot, and Barbara Spalding, she set about theorising and implementing a model of giving that promoted partnership between donors and communities in order to establish long term systemic change. Over the next eight years she replaced board members with experienced women passionate about social change, and became Chair at the age of thirty-five. A gradual, evolutionary process led to the formation of a board where experience in community organizations was a pre-requisite for belonging and a collective approach to decision making, along the lines of the feminist collective, was implemented.

Lance Reichstein's own philanthropy had been traditional in style, with donations to established charities and hospitals. His trust deed stipulated that funding should go to welfare and educational endeavors. It was sufficiently broad to allow Jill and her new board to undertake some more ambitious projects. From the outset, they specialised in funding programs deemed high risk. Of her training scheme through the Aboriginal Health Service in 1989 she noted 'the Health Commission wouldn't touch it', but the program successfully trained 27 people per year. Other high risk projects the Reichstein Foundation has supported include a group for truckies' wives; a sports program for Aboriginal youth; the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture; a theatre group of former women prisoners (Somebody's Daughter) and refugee support groups. More recently, she has expressed concern about environmental issues. 'I'm not quite sure where to start with that one. But, it's such a huge issue, I feel really overwhelmed by it' (Women of Power and Influence).

As well as modeling leadership as a group effort within her own organisation, and its partners - 'we are only as good as they projects we work to develop' - Jill has taken a leadership role in the philanthropic sector. She established the Social Change Network in the 1980s in order to influence public perceptions of philanthropy and philanthropists (Interview). In part, the group was made up of people with 'a strong belief that society should be more equitable. Others have just felt a discomfort at having too much'. Insisting that traditional charities were addressing the symptoms rather than the causes of society's problems, she sought to encourage women to take control of their money and understand how to use it to create long lasting social change, arguing, 'I think a lot of women who inherit wealth have never been taught the modes of managing their money or ways of dealing with solicitors and accountants'. Jill was also involved in Women in Philanthropy, which began as a support group for women who felt uncomfortable with their wealth or were seeking ideas for philanthropic activity (Big-Hearted Australians).

In 2012, the Foundation still operates on the principle of 'Change not Charity' and supports projects that focus on the root causes of social, economic, and environmental injustices. Reichstein is fully supportive of moves to make the philanthropic sector more open and transparent and welcomes the creation of a Charities Commission in Australia. She speaks regularly about her work at seminars and conferences and her daughter Lucy and son Tom are members of the board, now comprised of four women and three men. Priority funding areas are Indigenous people; people with a disability; refugees and asylum seekers; environment; human rights; and the criminal justice system.

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Jill Reichstein interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project, 12 May 2011, ORAL TRC 6290/3; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

Published Resources

Newspaper Articles

  • Cadzow, Jane, 'Big Hearted Australians', Good Weekend, 17 July 1993, p. 11. Details

Online Resources