Five minutes with…Luke Toebelmann

Corporate partnerships manager thrives on teamwork 

Luke Toebelmann is the corporate partnerships manager at the Brotherhood of St Laurence (BSL), a charity that works to alleviate poverty in Australia. In this interview, he talks about winning FIA’s Young Fundraiser of the Year Award, what attracted him to fundraising, getting fundraising buy-in across BSL and the great team he works with. Luke recently delivered a talk at FIA Conference 2021 with his colleagues Chris Mills and Anita Toy about the partnerships framework the team successfully established. If you were a conference delegate, you can watch it on demand hereLuke also thrives when it comes to family, running with his mates and good coffee! 

Congratulations. You’re the 2021 Young Fundraiser of the Year! How does it make you feel? 

I’m proud of the award, but more so, I’m pleased that my team thought that I was worthy of being nominated. Reading the references and endorsements that my colleagues and partners wrote in the application was what really blew me away and made me feel most proud. 
Do you think winning the award will help your career or change it in any way?  

Being recognised like this gives me the confidence to continue to do what I’ve been doing. It reassures me that I’m on the right path, even though sometimes it might not feel that way.  

Corporate philanthropy is often misunderstood and can be a difficult space to work in. In saying that, though, I feel the work that I’ve put in during my time at BSL has set the organisation up to achieve great results over the coming years. I’m excited to see BSL’s partnerships portfolio continue to grow, and we’ll see what the future holds from there. 

Your team also won the Fundraising Team of the Year Award at the FIA Awards for Excellence in Fundraising. How did that go over? 

Yes, we have such an amazing team! The results that the team has achieved over the past two years is something we’re proud of. The team has worked really hard to build a culture of philanthropy across our organisation, and while there is still work to do, we’ve come a long way in quite a short amount of time.  

From a personal perspective, I’m just super grateful to be surrounded by such a talented and diverse team of fundraisers but, more importantly, by genuine and kind people. 

You started your career in the higher education sector by creating engagement programs for students. What attracted you to the non-profit sector? 

I was lucky enough to take extended leave early in my career to travel around Australia. It was on this trip that I saw first-hand the level of inequity and disadvantage that exists across our country. This drove me to think about how I could utilise my skillset and experience to create more of a social impact through my everyday work, and I subsequently made the move into fundraising. 

What was the particular attraction of fundraising for you? Was your engagement program experience helpful and transferable?  

Absolutely. However, I honestly didn’t know much about fundraising when I started looking at a move to the sector. Having experience in events, marketing, public speaking and, most importantly, experience working with vulnerable groups of people, I knew that these were attributes that were going to hold me in good stead to transition successfully into a fundraising role. That was in 2015 and now, nearly six years later, I’m thrilled with the decision I made. 

What interested you in BSL when the corporate partnerships manager role came up? 

Having worked with a wonderful smaller charity for four years, I wanted to diversify my fundraising experience and made the jump to one of the largest community organisations in the country. 

Another big factor was that BSL had committed to investing in the right people and resources to ensure the team was set up for success. The learning opportunities that have come from working with such an experienced team has been incredible for my development. 

When you first got to BSL, the partnerships program had some key areas of improvement to ensure a future of success. How did you iron things out? How are things now? 

I think, like many organisations in our sector, corporate partnerships are an area that’s misunderstood. BSL didn’t quite know what it meant by ‘corporate partner,’ which made it difficult for the organisation to quantify success. Since joining the team in mid-2019, my key focuses have been to simplify, educate and collaborate. 

One of the first projects that I undertook at BSL was to develop a partnerships framework that could be implemented across the whole organisation. Within this, I set out to simplify how we defined a philanthropic partnership, as opposed to a strategic partnership. I recently presented a session at FIA Conference, alongside my teammates Chris Mills and Anita Toy, about this framework, which is available for conference delegates to watch.  

We’ve also had a clear focus on educating the organisation that philanthropy is everybody’s business. We’ve built great relationships across programs, finance, executive leadership, board and other organisational services as we know that collaboration is crucial in building a successful fundraising program.  

I feel like we’ve done the work internally, and now we’re ready for growth in our corporate philanthropy portfolio. Our programs are innovative and impactful, our people are clear on their role in philanthropic relationships, and the foundation is set for some big results in the future. 

What are the current challenges in corporate partnerships? Are things getting back to normal now that (hopefully) the worst of the pandemic is behind us? 

While I don’t think anybody knows what ‘normal’ looks like, there have been some real positives to come out of the past 18 difficult months. 

For organisations like BSL, which supports the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our country, the pandemic has dramatically increased the demand for our services. Thankfully, our incredible partners have also increased their level of support. We received increased financial support from four of our corporate partners, as well as additional support through in-kind laptop donations from various partners. It’s great to see corporates strengthening their current partnerships in a time of need, which is something that has been evident across the sector. 

A common theme that has emerged out of my conversations is that the bushfires and pandemic have shone a spotlight on the giving strategies of many businesses. I feel that perhaps there have been many businesses that have been giving to community causes based on legacy and the mentality of ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.’ However, over the past 18 months, they’ve realised the importance of social impact within their business. Corporates are understanding the difference they can make through strategic community partnerships, not only to create far-reaching social impact but also to improve their bottom line. If this continues, it could mean great things for the community sector. 

You believe in giving back to the fundraising community. At FIA, you’ve started a special interest group for corporate partnership managers. Tell us about this work. 

Yes, I started the Victorian Corporate Partnerships Special Interest Group in September last year. We have about 25 members so far, all of whom are fundraisers involved in corporate philanthropy. We meet quarterly with hosting duties shifting from organisation to organisation, and the host presents a session on something they excel at in the corporate partnerships sphere. More importantly though, the group is about creating a support network for like-minded people experiencing similar challenges in their everyday work. Our next meeting is in June, and we’d love more fundraisers to join the network! All you need to do is send me an email, and I’ll add you to the member list – 

You’re a dad as well as a busy fundraiser. How do you balance your professional and home life?  

Working from home has been a dream for me. While there are the usual challenges of having meetings interrupted by the kids or by the dog barking at the postie, it has meant that I’ve got an additional three hours a day with my family.  

I’m lucky to have a separate room in my house to work from, meaning I can physically walk away from my workspace at the end of the day. The ability to switch off from work and on to family can be difficult but is something that I’m really conscious of. 

Any advice for people wanting to transition to fundraising from outside the profession? 

That’s an interesting question. Most fundraisers I know didn’t go through school saying I want to be a fundraiser;’ however, they now really enjoy what they do as a profession. It’s a challenging job but certainly one that’s fulfilling in the sense that when you succeed on an individual level, it means many people will benefit from your work. Knowing that the more money you raise and the deeper you can build donor relationships, the greater the social impact, is a fantastic driver to persevere through the challenges and continue to strive for great results.  

What do you like to do in your spare time?  

Outside of work and family, my three loves are coffee, running and the North Melbourne Football Club.  

I bought a decent coffee machine during the pandemic, so I’ve been loving trying new beans from my favourite coffee roasters! In my spare time, I love to run with my mates. Whether it be through the Dandenongs or around the city, it’s always a fantastic catch up with some great fellas. And we won’t talk too much about North Melbourne other than to say that I’m optimistic about what could happen from 2025 onwards. Fingers crossed!