University of Melbourne Magazine

Podcast transcript – The Bequests Manager

Val McFarlane: Have you thought about who’ll get your money when you die? Will you leave it all to your family? And if not, what else could you do with it?


Death and wills are not something most Australians like to think or talk about. Only around half of the population has made a will. But for Dr Jennifer Henry, death and money are top of mind every day.


[Dr Jennifer Henry on telephone: Hi Mrs Jefferson. It’s Jennifer Henry calling from the University of Melbourne. How are you?]


She’s a bequests manager at the University of Melbourne and works with people who want to leave something to the University in their will. Often they want to fund scholarships for students, or research.

Dr Jennifer Henry: These people come to us ready to talk about their impending death and their own money. So the bequest managers of the world need to be comfortable talking about those things straight away. We can’t be the less comfortable person in that conversation. So it’s very interesting, it can be very confronting. There are often tears in conversations.

Val McFarlane: And how do you feel being party to that level of intimacy, because it is intimacy talking about these things?

Dr Jennifer Henry: It is. It’s an amazing honour. It’s a really interesting and very sacred space to be in and I think all people that work in the bequests space take on that sacred oath and take it for the responsibility and the honour that it really is.

Val McFarlane: Bequests, or gifts in wills, have long been an important source of income for universities. Some people leave a few hundred dollars; others leave millions. At Melbourne, gifts in wills have paid for everything from scholarships for students from rural areas, to new buildings, to scientific equipment, even musical instruments – as well as research projects across every discipline. And just as there is no typical bequest, there’s no typical bequestor.

Dr Jennifer Henry: We have such a range of people from their 30s to people over 100. We have same sex couples, we have childless couples, we have people with many children. I have one man with eight children and he says he doesn’t have very much money but he’s treating the university as though we are his ninth child. And we are each getting an equal ninth of his estate, which is so gorgeous.

[sound of doorbell and Dale greeting Jennifer Henry]

Val McFarlane: Jennifer’s job takes her all over Victoria – and sometimes further afield – meeting people who are leaving a gift in their will to the University. One of those is Dale, who with his partner, is funding a scholarship for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Dale: My brother passed away a year and a half, two years ago now. And my will originally had my partner first getting everything and then my brother was sort of the second beneficiary. But obviously since he’s passed on and I basically had to redo my will, we both had discussions about what we would change our wills to and we went from there.

Val McFarlane: Dale is only in his 30s, and he knows he’s unusual in planning so far ahead.

Dale: I do feel strange that we’ve done this at such a young age because it’s forecasting 40-50, possibly 60 years before we pass on… and having said that… I feel like it’s an opportunity for us to build up a nice nest egg for the university to offer to students and to carry that on and carry our legacy on, I guess, through the scholarship. In some ways it gives me a warm feeling inside that I’ve done that. That we’ve done that.

Val McFarlane: Jennifer didn’t set out to work in this field. She started out as a scientist with a PhD in plant molecular biology from Melbourne.

Dr Jennifer Henry: I did realise about two weeks into my PhD that if I stayed in plant science research I would end up being like my supervisor, which was stuck in an office writing grant applications. But I wasn’t sure what else I wanted to do until I realised that I always took any opportunity to leave the lab and talk about science to other people.

Val McFarlane: In the last few weeks of her studies, Jennifer began working in scientific publishing in Melbourne. A decade later she moved to New York for a job with one of the world’s leading scientific publishers, and then moved to a not-for-profit organisation. That’s where her interest in fundraising started, and that eventually led her back to her old university and her current role.

Dr Jennifer Henry: My career has certainly taken a few zig zags but I think there is a very definite common thread there…I always felt like I have one foot in science.

Val McFarlane: One of the best things about her current role is she still gets to hang out with scientists, matching them with potential donors who are interested in leaving money to research.

Christy Hipsley: I study the history of life to work out how things are related and why they look the way they do.

Val McFarlane: Christy Hipsley is an evolutionary biologist who works between the University and Melbourne Museum. She’s been working on a project that only became possible because of a bequest. Thanks to a gift from the estate of Michael John Mavrogordato, she’s been able to use x-ray computer tomography, a technique similar to medical CT scans, to look inside museum specimens and create 3D models of them. She’s put all these models on a website for anyone to see.

Christy Hipsley: Anyone all around the world can come and interact with those specimens and see the inside of different animals. And it might also inspire people to get into that kind of research or to pursue biological sciences.

Val McFarlane: One of the star attractions on the website is a model of a young Tasmanian Tiger, or thylacine. The species was declared extinct in 1986.

Christy Hipsley: Anyone in the world can now look at a tiny baby of an extinct animal and actually see its skeleton in 3D, so I think that’s really cool and people have been quite excited to see something so rare.

Val McFarlane: Not everyone who’s planning to leave a bequest lets the University know in advance. In fact, around half the income the University receives each year in bequests is unexpected. Where possible, though, Jennifer likes to connect donors with the area they’re keen to support while they’re still alive.

Dr Jennifer Henry: A large number of the bequests that we have these days are for scholarship support. Where people have decided to leave a bequest, we do try and expose them to students who are currently on scholarships funded by previous bequests just so they get an inkling of what type of student their gift will one day support. And it’s really heartening to see the students and the donors come together, and there’s often again quite teary moments and people are so happy for the life-changing opportunities that these donors have enabled.

Val McFarlane: And that’s the thing. Yes, Jennifer talks to her clients about death. But really, these conversations are about life.

Dr Jennifer Henry: I had a woman a few weeks ago whose mother died of breast cancer so she wanted to set up a scholarship for medical students. So whenever she spoke to me, her mother was alive in the room and will live on whenever a student gets this scholarship. So, it was a way of bringing great joy back into her life and feeling like her mother’s life and legacy had been extended.

Val McFarlane: And in case you are wondering, Jennifer has decided to leave a proportion of her own estate to research at the University of Melbourne and other causes she believes in.

Dr Jennifer Henry: Yeah, my kids are young teenagers so they know that they will have more than enough to get them through to 18 and after that we would certainly leave them something but not everything. I think we even drew a picture of a cake on a whiteboard that we have in our kitchen. We drew the cake on the whiteboard and said you will get all of this, but that’s enough for you. Of what’s left, daddy and I are choosing to leave it to causes that we think are important – dogs and trees and education.

Val McFarlane: You’ve been listening to the 3010 podcast, written, presented and produced by me, Val McFarlane. Music by Rory Clark. Chris Hatzis was our audio engineer.

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