Giving back to your roots a lasting legacy

Giving back to your roots a lasting legacy

22 October 2017 - Alan and Bob Johnston Ashburton

Alan and Bob Johnston have a fund with Advance Ashburton which sees scholarships given to medical students.

For seven decades, two brothers lived in and loved the people of Ashburton. 

It's where they did their schooling, played sport and ended up running their successful farm. 

It's also where they have and still are receiving medical treatment for various ailments. And because of this, Bob, 71, and Alan Johnston, 68, wants to ensure that young people from their beloved tiny South Island community will be able to medically treat others like themselves for generations to come.

Like many New Zealanders, the brothers have been contributing financially to the "steadily growing" community foundations fund that currently has more than $100 million dollars in investments, and more than double that in bequeathed funds.

Community foundations are public charitable organisations that are built through generous gifts and permanently invested. The interest earned from these endowments generates a sustainable source that gets reinvested into the local community.

The Johnstons have been giving back to Ashburton by gifting annual medical scholarships to aspiring doctors and nurses. Neither brother has ever been married or had children of their own, so the retired farmers decided to take action and make a difference while they're still alive.

This started a decade ago when the Johnston brothers decided to get involved with the Advance Ashburton Community Foundation in Mid Canterbury. They say they didn't jump into it immediately; they first did their research before deciding that "the organisation is structured right and had the right people". 

"We've been donating ever since," Bob says.

According to Bob, both he and his brother decided that their legacy should be cemented in health sciences. The brothers' endowment fund grants two to three annual scholarships for any young student from Ashburton who wants to specialise in health sciences.

"We like the idea that we can do things like this in our lifetime. We're two bachelors that never had to put kids through school, so we're glad we can help other people's children," says Bob.

The retired farmers like to meet the recipients of their scholarships and say they often know the young people's parents or grandparents.

"This is something we can do for our community now. We could have left everything in a will, but we have the pleasure of seeing the money work in our lifetime."

Bob says the recipients are very grateful. One of them, Scott Kelland, 19, sent the brothers a letter recently to update them on "how he's getting on and where he is with his studies".

Kelland applied for the scholarship last year and is currently studying Health Sciences First Year at Otago University in Dunedin.

He hopes to become a medical doctor and says the scholarship money helped him cover all his course-related costs and hall residence.

"It has really helped me pay for some of the things I need. I didn't have to worry about anything. It is very useful," says Kelland.

He says the scholarship took the pressure off him having to find a job and he can, therefore, focus solely on his studies.

"I'm grateful they were there for me."

Bob says it's wonderful to hear how Kelland and the other scholarship recipients are progressing. 

"You know, we're not putting them through university, we're just helping them. We get a huge amount of pleasure from the money we put in the system," says Bob.

Bob's advice to people when it comes to gifting money is that family comes first and if they have something left, "why wouldn't they give in their own lifetime and see the good the money does".


Advance Ashburton Community Foundation CEO Sandi Wood says the foundation prides itself on being able to help generous local people like the Johnstons to give back to their community to causes they are passionate about.

One such cause that filled the gap between government funding and the community foundation happened when $1.5m was donated to help with the funding needed to complete the building of the new Acute Admitting Unit and Day Theatre at Ashburton Hospital.

Wood says the $1.5m donation made up the difference between what the Canterbury DHB had in terms of funding to allocate towards the rebuild of the hospital after the earthquake, and what was needed to make it a "better facility for our local community".

"Community foundations are the conduit between a need in the community and the desire of donors to help their community in their area of passion. This often stems from a personal experience or an area of need they know about personally.

"Because we are local, we often know what can be done in our community and the people that can make it happen. It's taking the time to talk to people, understand the real needs in our community and foster relationships to fill these gaps, this includes collaboration with a myriad of organisations including both local and national government," says Wood.

She says many people have benefited from living in Mid Canterbury, which has a population of 34,000 people and ranges from the Rakaia to the Rangitata rivers, and from the foothills to the sea.

Advance Ashburton was established in 2003 by the late Neil Sinclair. Wood explains the way community foundations works is that they accept donations in all sizes from generous local people – from weekly instalments via payroll giving to larger bequests left in wills and everything in between.

"The funds received are then invested, and the interest that is earnt is then gifted out as per the donor's wishes, by way of grants and scholarships," says Wood.

Advance Ashburton Community Foundation holds over $10m in funds, with a further $29m in bequeathed funds. They currently manage 30 different funds and have to date gifted over $2.5m back to their community.


​Community Foundations of New Zealand CEO Eleanor Cater, 48, says philanthropy works to fill the gaps in society that "might get left behind" by the government and taxpayer.

However, she says it works best when they are working in partnership with government, local government, business and other local funders to constantly ask where the gaps are and what part of the "puzzle" can be solved together.

"It's not just a hit and miss approach. Many of our community foundations undertake detailed research into their community's needs. 

"As an example, the Acorn, Geyser and Eastern Bay Community Foundations have recently teamed up as a region to run research as a way of understanding where they should be channelling their investments for the future (be it poverty, education, environment etc.) Called 'Vital Signs', it's a research tool that reports on the social, environmental, cultural and economic well-being of communities, identifying strengths, and areas for improvement," says Cater.

She says community foundations are all about communities taking charge of their own greatest needs. Cater has been with Community Foundations NZ for the past eight months, after having worked with various charities before this. 

She explains that community foundations are a very different concept and a whole new way of looking at things. 

"This is about giving forever, it's about helping all causes in your chosen community and about giving people opportunities if you care about your community," says Cater.

She agrees with the Johnston brothers that donors should always consider their families first but says "there's always room to give as well".

"We always encourage people to look after their family first. But I've heard people say they suggest giving 90 per cent to their family and 10 per cent to charity or a community foundation.

"That 10 per cent makes a heck of a difference," says Cater.

According to her, a lot of people are cash poor but asset rich, and they end up leaving everything in a will to be sorted out after they passed on.

However, Cater believes people are starting to solve community problems with their own money.

Nationally, community foundations currently have $101m in funding with a further $246m in bequeathed funds says Cater.

"These are future proofed funds that will get of to a slow start, but then in 10 to 20 years, the funds will snowball. We're talking forever, so this will get huge," says Cater.


Cater says community foundations are for everybody, not just millionaires and the like.

"I don't believe you have to be wealthy to be generous. You can give anything because this is for everyone."

She pointed out one example of a cleaner at a hospital that left a small amount of money that's "still growing".

Cater says each community foundation relies on the local support of lawyers and financial advisors to assist new donors.

She claims they get "some good deals on investments".

"Each foundation is very transparent on what they spend. They have to do it to gain the confidence of their community," Cater says.

However, Cater says, in the end, it's all about the joy of giving.

"You see people's eyes light up. It's a wonderful thing."

In the meantime, Bob and Alan Johnston's next big project is helping Ashburton's Rural Health Academic Centre, a training centre supporting rural education and research, get on its feet.