NSW’s $1m PitchFest makes grantmaking ‘history’

Posted on 17 Feb 2023

By Matthew Schulz, journalist, SmartyGrants

Heritage Pitch Fest 1
The PitchFest event was hosted at Sydney’s historic Mint.

The NSW Government has won attention for a well-promoted grants scheme aimed at exciting the public while delivering $1 million in matched funding to boost state heritage.

The Activating State Heritage grant program is the first of its kind for Heritage NSW, but judging from the reaction from participants, it won’t be the last.

The program had a dual mission of prompting owners of significant heritage-listed properties to invest in those treasures while also boosting public engagement in those proposals through a program that culminated in a Heritage PitchFest before judges and a live audience.

An historic woolshed in regional NSW won the top prize against stiff competition from three other shortlisted candidates at the slickly produced livestreamed event, hosted in late November 2022, where proponents presented their case to a judging panel and audience immediately before a vote.

Appropriately for an event with a heritage focus, the PitchFest was hosted at the Mint, Australia’s oldest surviving public building, with comic Tim Ross emceeing.

The winner was the Windy Station Woolshed, 100km south of Tamworth, a massive Federation-era wooden structure once the hub of a huge sheep station.

The former merino wool production house has become an agricultural tourism magnet, and the heritage grant will help pay for an event space and improved access to visitors. The Romani Pastoral Company, which owns the site, will match the grant with $1 million of its own funds towards restoration works.

Windy Woolshed
Funds for the Windy Woolshed will go to upgrading the space as an entertainment centre.

Other proposals vying for the prize were a heritage restoration and museum at Bondi Surf Club to celebrate the history of surf lifesaving, a plan to revitalise the old Corrimal Coke Works, and a multi-purpose hospitality precinct at the historic Horsley Estate in western Sydney.

At the event, the judges quizzed candidates about their vision and how they would spend the $1 million on offer if selected.

Clare Lee
Windy Station’s agritourism manager Clare Lee

But it was the Windy Station presentation that swayed the judges and audience, with Windy Station’s agritourism manager, Clare Lee, describing the win as “an incredible opportunity that demonstrates what can be done with regional heritage”.

The money would fund a facility to host conferences, weddings, and social and educational events, and could also be used for creative productions that would take advantage of the “spectacular” location, she said.

The judging panel of heritage experts ranked the finalists based on applications and pitches.

Out of a possible 25 points, judges allocated 20 points and audiences the remaining five points. The judges were:

  • Frank Howarth, chair of the NSW Heritage Council
  • Caroline Butler-Bowden, executive director of Cities Revitalisation and Place, Transport for NSW
  • Natalie Vinton, founder and CEO of Curio Projects
  • Annie Tennant, director, Design and Place, Placemaking NSW.

They were tasked with assessing applications on the basis of their ability to:

  • demonstrate a better use of space
  • engage community in heritage
  • contribute to community wellbeing
  • support economic activity.

Candidates were stepped through a three-stage application, which involved:

  1. an expression of interest
  2. the application stage, when further details were submitted
  3. determination via a live judging panel and audience.

Adding to the pressure were tight timelines. Works are required to begin in 2023 and must be completed by 2025.

Heritage NSW executive director Sam Kidman said the first ever PitchFest had been a powerful way to allow the public to have a say in the state’s heritage and it had received “an overwhelmingly positive response”.

Before the event, critics had labelled the event a “heritage Hunger Games”, with the Labor Opposition suggesting the money would be better spent if spread further.

In reference to the media report, PitchFest host Tim Ross joked to the audience, “If you’ve come along thinking that people are going to hit each other with heritage reports until someone falls over, it’s not happening!”

In a video presentation, NSW Heritage Minister James Griffin said the four nominees had been “rigorously tested and selected to pitch today” and stressed that millions more in funding was available for grants that “engaged communities in our rich heritage, contribute to community wellbeing, and support economic activity in local areas”.

The program forms a big slice of the state’s $5 million Heritage Grants 2023–2025 program.

Watch now: Impact Fund celebrates five years.

Is pitching the way forward for your grants program?

While it was a first for Heritage NSW, other grantmakers and fundraisers have long used live-pitching events to create a buzz.

The Australian Communities Foundation, for instance, has hosted an annual Impact Fund event for the past five years, drawing on a wide network of philanthropic supporters to make an impact on inequality, democracy, First Nations rights and the environment.

The foundation pledges initial funds in each of those four areas, before tapping into a network of philanthropic supporters to raise four times that initial amount in each area. The approach has raised $4 million for projects and generated a big buzz for supported projects.

At a smaller scale, the Onkaparinga Council in Adelaide’s southern suburbs first used a “Pitch Fork” program in which groups competing for a $3000 small food security grant voted for each other.

The council now uses the method to award tens of thousands of dollars in unspent grant funds, with a different theme each year.

We’ve written a help sheet on the pros and cons of grantmaking by public vote, which shows that the benefits of motivating groups to pitch can extend beyond the winners.

For example, one grantmaker found that while only 20% of projects received funding, the vast majority of applicants – 80% – were still "highly engaged and moving forward" two years down the track.

More information

NSW Heritage Grants program

Activating State Heritage grant guidelines

Watch a replay of the PitchFest event

Grant nerds tips for better funding

Help sheet: How to target grant funds for greater impact

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