How Taranaki trust was rewarded

MATT RILKOFF
Last updated 05:00 03/05/2014

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Brian Jeffares knows better than most it's a rare thing to see central government riding into town handing out money.

Because, as chairman of cashed-up charity Taranaki Electricity Trust, he's overseen millions of dollars funnelled into schools, historic buildings, hospitals and rescue equipment that some would say should have been paid for from taxes.

"But it's a case of if not you, then who? Somewhere along the line the community has to take control of their own destiny. You can't wait for central government to come riding in on their white horse," the former mayor of Stratford says.

Since it was established in 1993 with the $12 million proceeds from the merger of New Plymouth Energy with the Taranaki Electricity Power Board, the TET has handed out $75m in grants and seen its capital fund grow to $78m.

And yet few seem to comprehend the scope of this success or care to be part of it. Close to 20,000 voting papers to elect its six trustees have been sent out this week but only 40 per cent will be returned. In Jeffares' 12 years as chairman, public attendance at the trust's annual meeting has averaged just one person.

"That attendance would indicate to me there is not a lot of disquiet out there with the TET. I think it would show everyone is fairly happy with what we are doing," Jeffares says.

So they should be. In 2013 the trust dished out $3.46m, or about $170 for every one of the 20,000 or so people within its boundaries between Eltham and Waitara. This makes it one of the country's most cashed-up funders and it's injecting much-needed cash into what has become an economically inert area.

This outcome was far from certain in 1993 when the trust was formed, when community leaders stood firm against pressure to hand the proceeds of the merger back to electricity consumers as other areas had done, or give the money to councils to control. Instead they formed an independent trust.

And though only able to pay out a miserable $68,976 in its first year, the decision was a smart one. Being independent it retained complete control of how much it returns to the community each year. This allowed it to grow by $10m while the global financial crisis pummelled the likes of the New Plymouth District Council's perpetual investment fund, which was locked in to contributing to council funding even when it couldn't afford to. Headstrong independence has also ensured Taranaki's biggest community funder could increase the value of its grants while global economy was in the doldrums.

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The TSB Community Trust last year gave out $10.46m in grants, or about $100 for every person in Taranaki, not counting Patea and Waverley, which fall outside its historical boundary. By comparison the country's 11 other community trusts, formed, like them, in the mid-1980s as the government deregulated the banking industry handed out anywhere from $2 to $60.48 per capita for the same period.

The trust has been able to do that because in 1986 TSB Bank famously maintained its independence against pressure to amalgamate with other trustee banks. Over time all but the TSB Community Trust sold their shares in the banks and diversified their funds.

In 1990, its first year of distributing grants, things didn't look so great for the TSB Community Trust. It was able to give out just $161,000 in funds.

Laughable when last year it handed out $4.5m in a single grant.

"Our dividend has gone like this," says trust manager Maria Ramsay, raising her hand in a sweeping upward motion. "It's been a nice and steady pace."

For the last four years the trust has received an average income in excess of $10m. With the bank still a relative minnow, the trust's income is likely to continue its upward trend.

Like TET, it's name is already ubiquitous on Taranaki stadiums and theatres. The charities are already responsible for the mowers that cut the region's bowling greens, they're where people turn to when a community hall needs a do-up, where volunteer firefighters go when they need extra equipment and it is their money what keeps the rotors turning on Taranaki's rescue helicopter. What you may not know is both trusts are also massive "investors" in sport, art, entertainment, health and education.

Suzanne Porter of Taranaki Arts Festival Trust describes them as critical supporters of what Taft does, their lifeblood. Sport Taranaki boss Howie Tamati labels their sports funding vital, says without it other investors would not have the confidence to put money into sport and related community programmes.

Despite such stated "need" Ramsay says the trust still grapples with how to measure outcomes, how to determine if its money is making a positive difference as their mission statement says it must.

"While numeracy and literacy programmes may be an acceptable thing to fund, it's outcomes are not something you can see. You can see a helicopter," she says.

So, how can they tell if the $6,292,570 the trust has invested in literacy and numeracy programmes at Taranaki primary and intermediate schools since 2004 is doing any good? Similarly how can TET know the millions it puts into education is helping?

Maybe they can't but that is not to say schools can afford to do without, says Puketapu Primary School principal Mike Johnson.

"The baseline funding is only just adequate. The extra funding gives opportunities to kids who, under normal resourcing levels, just wouldn't get them. That is how we marketed it to the trust."

It would appear schools believe the funding makes a difference. Of those that receive it 84 per cent rate the literacy initiatives as highly successful. For numeracy that level is 76 per cent.

The trust is taking a similar long-term approach to the Whakatipuranga Rima Rau programme to create 500 jobs for Maori in the health and disability sector by 2020. In this it is a partner with Taranaki District Health Board and Ministry of Social Development

The goal is ambitious, no doubt, but they are on their way. Since 2010 when it began promoting health as a career for year 12 and 13 Maori students, 58 have gone onto a tertiary institute, 18 to specifically study health related subjects ranging from pharmacist, nursing, radiology, dental therapy to doctors. Two students that started in 2010 have since graduated and are now working within the TDHB. Five are due to graduate in 2015. It has also facilitated 15 healthy industry internships and five cadetships.

"We are following international trends, with a greater emphasis on working in partnership with others, this is not only limited to other like funders but includes both central and local government and even the private sector. In philanthropy this is known as collective impact," says TSB Community Trust chairman Hayden Wano.

The aim is to fund in a way that is more enduring.

But Wano says they remain conscious of the need to maintain connection with smaller community groups through simple grant making. So while the trust becomes increasingly involved in long-term projects it will still be giving money to the Inglewood food bank, Pregnancy Help Taranaki, the Salt and Pepper Collectors Club and the inevitable lawn mowers for the region's golf and bowling clubs.

- Taranaki Daily News

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