Harnessing the Power of Philanthropy to Change Lives

Harnessing the Power of Philanthropy to Change Lives


Michelle Zahra is Head of the Origin Energy Foundation, a philanthropic foundation established by Origin in 2010. Its focus, chosen by the people of Origin, is to support programs that use education to help break the cycle of disadvantage and empower young Australians to reach their potential. 

The Foundation adopts an engaged philanthropy approach through a grants program, professional volunteering, matched giving and in-kind support to partners.

Describe your career trajectory and how you got to your current position

My career has been quite diverse. I began working in communications for tech companies – a path that led me to San Francisco during the dot-com era. I later founded and ran my own consulting business for many years, further broadening my experience and perspective.

I joined Origin in 2008, and had the opportunity to work in various Corporate Affairs roles. Working for one organisation for 16 years is a significant commitment but when your values and purpose align with your work, it feels like a natural fit. About eight years ago, I started working with the Origin Energy Foundation and without doubt it’s the most rewarding role I’ve had throughout my career. 

What does this role mean to you?

For me, this role provides a profound sense of purpose. I realise this series is about ‘changemakers’ but the real changemakers are the non-profit organisations that we work with and support through our philanthropic Foundation. 

Knowing that our work significantly impacts the lives of young people experiencing disadvantage is an incredible motivator. It inspires me to show up and give 100% every day, driven by the potential to make a positive difference in young people’s lives and their communities. 

Furthermore, our Foundation creates a variety of opportunities for Origin employees to participate in skilled volunteering. Seeing our people contribute their expertise to support the community is a win-win, as it not only benefits the individuals involved but also positively impact the many Australians who rely on these essential services.

Take us through a typical day of work for you

There is no typical day – each day brings a fresh set of opportunities and experiences. One day, I could be volunteering at a school, running a SolarBuddy session, teaching students about the transformative power of STEM education. The next, I could be engaging with non-profit organisations like Together4Youth – immersing myself in their initiatives within regional communities or with First Nations students. A wonderful example of this is the work we have supported through the Wuyagiba Study Hub or ‘Bush Uni’ in the Northern Territory. 

Among the most rewarding experiences I have are those spent meeting young people who have been empowered to realise their full potential through education and change the trajectory of their lives.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve encountered in your career, and how did you overcome it?

While the transition into the role of Head of the Foundation has been an exciting opportunity, it also comes with the great responsibility of ensuring that we deliver on our purpose to support young people in Australia through education. The opportunity to positively impact the lives of young people experiencing disadvantage is a responsibility I deeply value. However, anyone working in philanthropy will understand that the greatest challenge lies in providing clarity around the initiatives we choose to fund, and those we can’t.

Governance is paramount. Last year we initiated a strategic review of the Foundation to clarify our focus areas, refine our grant-making principles, and define the outcomes that we value most. We are now at the stage of implementing measurement and evaluation processes, enabling us to better understand the impact of our work and how we can most effectively support young people in breaking the cycle of disadvantage through education.

Working within the Origin Energy Foundation is a great honour, and I am immensely proud of our team for their passion and commitment. Each day, they go above and beyond in supporting our partners and striving to make a positive impact.

If you could go back in time, what piece of advice would you give yourself as you first embarked on your career?

Map out a plan for your future, outlining where you want to go, and expand your options to create more choices later in life. Believe in yourself—you can achieve anything if you set your mind to it. Consider a career in STEM, as these fields offer many exciting and promising opportunities for the future. And finally, make sure you choose a career with purpose and make sure it’s aligned with your own personal values. 

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