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Community organising for climate: Sustainable Cities and the Running Waters Fund

Profile of Dom O'Donnell
Written by Dom O'DonnellPosted on 2/11/2021

Melbourne-based couple Linda Parlane and John Stone understand what it takes to make change.

“It’s all about collaboration,” says Linda. “It’s about the community coming together to organise,” echoes John.

Having spent the first 20 years of their working lives in environmental organisations and leading campaigns for green transport, solar energy, forest conservation and action on climate change, Linda and John are speaking from experience.

For the last decade, the couple has found themselves “fortunate enough” to be able to give, adding a new dimension to their support for our environment. Today, their approach to giving is informed by their long careers and a keen eye for opportunities for structural change. While growing their giving, the couple has continued to pursue positive change through their work.

John continues his work in promoting better transport in his role as Senior Lecturer in Transport Planning at the University of Melbourne, while both Linda and John remain tireless campaigners.

The couple’s latest campaigning efforts are directed towards Better Buses Victoria – a project working towards faster, more frequent and better connected bus services, delivered by zero-emission buses, in Melbourne’s west.

Giving from the other side

Linda and John credit their years working in non-government environmental organisations as their entry point to structured giving.

“It goes back to when we were on the receiving end,” Linda explains. “When we were at Environment Victoria – I was Executive Director and John was the Transport Campaigner – there were cuts to government funding, and we had to find money from somewhere.

“We had a small donor program at the time, but we suddenly had to start raising a lot of money to replace the funding that was lost, and so we had to learn about philanthropy.”

It was clear to us then that giving is a pleasure for people – that sense of being part of a community and contributing. That’s in a sense where our giving journey started.

Linda says one of the most surprising things they learned at this time was just how much people enjoy giving.

“People were so generous and so enthusiastic to help and be part of making change.

John and Linda in Western Australia's Kimberley Coast region.
John and Linda in Western Australia’s Kimberley Coast region.

“It was clear to us then that giving is a pleasure for people – that sense of being part of a community and contributing. That’s in a sense where our giving journey started.”

When John’s father passed away in 2008, he left behind a legacy that enabled the couple to do more with their giving than the occasional donation.

“I remember thinking at the time,” John recalls, “‘well, we don’t need all of that for ourselves, so why don’t we step into the other side of the philanthropy equation?’”

Shortly after, at the suggestion of their friends Bruce and Ann McGregor, Linda and John opened the Running Waters Fund with Australian Communities Foundation.

We’d always made donations where we could,” says John, “but opening the Fund with the Foundation gave us the possibility to do much more.

With a focus on urban ecological sustainability and social justice, the Fund has supported a range of causes over the years: the Community Organising Fellowship; the campaign to Stop Adani; the market-related work on coal and fossil fuels led by Market Forces; and the Reclaim Kosci campaign to get feral horses out of Kosciuszko National Park.

“The Fund is actually named after a lovely little tributary of the Snowy River up in Kosciuszko,” explains Linda. “It’s where we’ve spent almost every summer since we’ve known each other – nearly 40 years.”

The magic of connecting

“We’d always made donations where we could,” says John, “but opening the Fund with the Foundation gave us the possibility to do much more.”

One of the first things that attracted Linda and John to ACF was the opportunity to connect with other people and organisations championing for change.

“We liked the advocacy and social change focus, which was there even in the early days – that was really attractive to us,” says Linda. “There’s not a lot of point in just continuing to give charitably unless it helps secure change for the people and places you’re trying to help.”

The couple had one reservation when joining, says Linda.

“At the time, there wasn’t an ethical investment strategy, but the Foundation listened to the community and we’ve been really thrilled with the sector-leading transition to 100% responsible investing.”

The Foundation plays a crucial role in educating and connecting donors with what’s happening on the ground and helping people understand how they can be part of making things happen.

For Linda and John, the greatest joy of being part of the ACF community has been the opportunity to connect with and learn alongside other donors.

“The Foundation plays a crucial role in educating and connecting donors with what’s happening on the ground and helping people understand how they can be part of making things happen,” says Linda. “When you feel connected to the organisations you’re giving to and become a part of their family, that’s magic – and the Foundation plays a key role in facilitating that connection.”

“We’ve really enjoyed going to Learning Circles and meeting other donors and changemakers.”

John says their involvement led him and Linda to want to engage with the Environment Learning Circle about what you might do to try and deal with some of the transport challenges we face, like car dependence and its effect on the climate.

“I ended up being invited a couple of years ago to present to other donors about the Friends of the Earth’s Sustainable Cities campaign, which was a fantastic opportunity to really connect with others in the giving community.”

Making big changes for climate

Following his involvement in the successful community campaign to stop the controversial East West Link in Melbourne in 2014, John began working with Friends of the Earth to foster community organising for better public transport. The Sustainable Cities campaign came out of that work and has been building ever since.

Unless you try and reduce car dependence, rather than just have cleaner cars, then you’re not tackling the fundamental problems of transport disadvantage in people’s lives.

“It’s really kicked up a gear as more and more climate activists start thinking of transport as the next big horizon,” says John.

While campaigns to improve Australia’s performance on the shift to electric vehicles continue to grow, John warns of an opportunity that could be missed.

“Unless you try and reduce car dependence, rather than just have cleaner cars, then you’re not tackling the fundamental problems of transport disadvantage in people’s lives.”

Tackling a change as big as reducing car dependence isn’t easy, but John says the answer lies in focused efforts from the community. That’s why the campaign is now focusing on improving bus services in Melbourne’s west through the Better Buses Victoria project – a building block for further changes to transport across the city.

“The idea of transforming Melbourne’s transport system is huge, so you’ve got to pick something small to start with – something that’s practical and that’s going to make a difference for a lot of people,” Linda explains.

“Public transport services in the western suburbs are appalling. Families are forced to have two or three cars and sometimes more, because public transport is not doing the job it needs to, but some small tweaks to bus services could solve that. If you combine that with making them electric buses, then you double the positive impact on the environment while getting a great social justice outcome.”

The project is currently seeking funding to undertake research and better understand the challenges and opportunities for bus reform by inviting the community in Melbourne’s west to provide feedback on the quality of local bus services via community organising platform, Crowdspot.

“It’s a really exciting moment to be able to do this kind of community organising that has worked so well in renewables and other campaigns and to start building links between transport and climate for long-term change,” says John.

While the Victorian Government has announced the introduction of 36 next electric buses by 2025, John notes it’s still a long road ahead: “of the roughly 2,500 buses operating in Melbourne today, only one is electric. It’s a welcome announcement but also an opportunity for further change.

“We don’t want these buses to be introduced but still running around in these very slow, disconnected routes. The way to get real benefit for the climate is to also restructure the routes so they’re fast, frequent and connected.

“That’s the way you get bang for your buck in terms of reducing the climate impact and giving people the opportunity to partake in the life of their city.”

Feature image: John Stone and Linda Parlane partaking in a solar install day in Coburg, Melbourne.