Leading with the heart

3 mins·7 Mar, 2024

It’s one thing to be passionate about the environment and social justice. It’s a whole other thing to turn that passion into real action. We find out how Hayley and Nikki Morris let their passion take the lead in building Morris Family Foundation, and the little lightbulb moments that helped them find their way.


Nikki and Hayley Morris are each other’s biggest cheerleaders.

When they’re asked to name the qualities that impress them most about their sister, a few themes shine through.

“Nikki’s biggest strength is probably her ability to connect with anyone,” Hayley says.

“She has an ability to be present and hear people. She makes people feel special and important. People warm to her and want to be around her.”

For Nikki, it’s Hayley’s dedication and passion for helping others that makes the biggest impact.

“She is inspiring,” Nikki says.

“I love spending time with Hays. She is my best friend.”

With their strong bond at the core, the sister duo has turned their individual strengths and shared values into important work that is making a difference for people and communities all over Australia and overseas through Morris Family Foundation.

The foundation supports innovative and grassroots projects that work to address social, economic, and environmental issues by creating systemic change to tackle their root cause.

It works across five areas of focus, including: community transitions for a safe climate; regenerative agriculture; oceans and reefs; First Nations Australians; and international development.

The organisations funded by the foundation are working on projects like vital research and restoration work on the Great Barrier Reef; lobbying some of the country’s largest companies to switch to green energy and electric vehicles; transitioning our agriculture industry to regenerative farming practices; indigenous training and employment programs; and rescuing children who are victims of human trafficking and slavery.

Finding the way

In hindsight, Hayley and Nikki’s work with the foundation shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. They’ve both shared an interest in the great outdoors from an early age, and developed strong passions for the environment, community health and wellbeing, and social justice along the way.

But they both admit the path to the foundation’s current state wasn’t always clear or easy.

When their father, Computershare founder and Morris Group Executive Chairman Chris Morris first set up the foundation in 2008, Hayley and Nikki saw it as their opportunity to make a real difference. They just weren’t exactly sure what that looked like.

“At first our focus was on medical research, especially cancer research as my mum was diagnosed with multiple myeloma,” Nikki says.

“I think we always agreed that we wanted it to be pretty personal so we could all have our say on who we wanted to fund and which direction we took.”

Hayley says while those early days of the foundation were exciting and full of possibility, they weren’t without challenges.

“The biggest challenge was making decisions as a family. Initially it would get a bit heated,” Hayley says.

“When (current CEO) Penny Cottle joined Morris Group as CFO, she sat in a meeting and afterwards said to me: ‘I thought philanthropy was supposed to be the part that made everyone feel good?’

“That was probably a light bulb moment that we weren’t doing things well. After that, Penny and I went about putting in place structures and process which helped immensely in the decision making.”

The early days

To fully understand how and why the foundation grew into what it is today, you have to take a few steps back and look at Hayley and Nikki’s individual pathways.

Growing up as a sports-loving, outdoorsy type with an obsession for Formula One racing, Hayley says it was the time she spent on the family farm that ended up being the most pivotal to her finding her biggest passion.

“We spent many of our childhood years on the farm on the weekends,” Hayley says.

“That had a profound impact on me in later years as I came back to farming and agriculture as an interest area.

“Back then, like most teenagers I don’t think I knew the direction I would go. I probably always saw myself doing something in the business world and likely working with Dad.

“I started a degree in public relations straight out of school but became disillusioned with the course pretty quickly. I ended up going to work for Dad in Chicago as his personal assistant. I came home from that experience and changed my degree to international business and worked for Computershare while I studied.

“I worked closely with Dad and my aunty Penny over those years including some amazing overseas work experiences in Boston and London. But in 2006, I decided to leave Computershare to pursue my interest in the environment.

“At this point I did a lot of volunteering and went back to uni to do a postgrad in sustainability which led me to starting Sustainable Table and then Impact Sustainability.”

For Nikki, the initial entry into the corporate world and then pivot towards her passions was much the same.

“As a kid I honestly didn’t have any clue on what I wanted to do. Maybe be in business, following Dad’s footsteps or something along those lines,” Nikki says.

“I ended up studying marketing to start with, but that was probably because I didn’t have a clear direction on what I really wanted to do. I’m not much of a planner.

“I worked for Donohue Financial Planning and GE Equipment Finance after I finished my studies. But I realised a few years into it that this kind of career wasn’t for me. So, I quit in my late 20s and went and did a three-month yoga teacher training course overseas.

“Once I returned home, I taught yoga and started working for Sustainable Table which Hayley had just founded and joined Hayley working directly on the day-to-day operations of the foundation.

“Since then, I’ve completed a meditation teacher training course, another more in-depth 350-hour yoga teacher training course, and eventually ran my own yoga studio in Middle Park which focused on teaching kids’ yoga, meditation, relaxation techniques and how to manage their emotions. At the moment, I’m back studying again and am four months into completing a two-year diploma in Ayurveda.”

The Morris Family

The lightbulb moments

As the pair each pursued their own careers and interests, they continued to narrow their focus on how to build the foundation and create real change that aligned with their passion areas.

“My time at Sustainable Table taught me so much about climate change, waste, and protecting the environment in general,” Nikki says.

“We were really focused on changing people’s habits through the food they consumed, and also being aware of waste, composting, recycling and reusing.

“My interest in Sustainable Table was originally all about waste. I just remember getting so passionate about waste and not consuming anything that was unnecessary, never buying anything in a bottle or plastic, making a lot of my foods from scratch and buying in bulk.

“Hayley was definitely part of lighting this spark and getting me motivated and inspired to do things better.”

Hayley says the big lightbulb moment that really ignited her passion for the environment came during a family holiday overseas.

“We were on holiday in South Africa and visiting game parks. After learning, watching, and participating in a functioning ecosystem the whole time it dawned on me that as humans we’re not a part of this. In fact, it was only a highly functioning ecosystem because humans had been kept out of the national parks,” she says.

“That really hit home for me the idea that the way we lived was not going to allow our species to survive and thrive into the future – when we operate like earth’s resources are infinite. We are destroying our future every day the more we extract and create waste. We have to learn to be a part of the ecosystem as opposed to being above and controlling it.”

The important things

Looking through the foundation’s focus areas today, the links to Hayley and Nikki, their passions, and their values are clear.

For example, their support for international development projects, especially in Africa, stems from the pair spending a lot of time travelling in the continent. The oceans and reefs projects are a direct result of the family purchasing Orpheus Island Lodge in tropical North Queensland and them beginning their crash course in learning more about the reef. And so on.

They say that the nature of philanthropic work, especially in the environmental space, means that sometimes there aren’t the immediately obvious big wins on the board – big systemic change takes time to really start seeing progress. But they still find opportunities where they can step back and be proud of the foundation’s success.

“In the early days Hayley and I went on a couple of trips to see some of the overseas projects we were funding in Cambodia, Tibet, and Kenya,” Nikki says.

“To actually meet the people on the ground doing all the hard work was amazing and knowing in a small way we were able to contribute to helping people’s lives improve was so rewarding.”

For Hayley, it’s much the same.

“I have immense gratitude to Dad for setting up Morris Group and the foundation, because it allows me to work on the things that I am passionate about,” Hayley says.

“It is such an honour to be in a position to be able to support these amazing organisations and the people who work so hard to make the world a better place.”

And at the end of the day, the extra reward for them is the opportunity to work closely together and focus on the things that really matter.

“We have the same values at heart for sure, and I will always respect her opinion,” Nikki says of Hayley.

“Any opportunity to talk and spend time with Nikki is a blessing on my day,” Hayley says.

“We are probably quite different in terms of our working style and some of our traits in this area. But we are very similar in our philosophy of life, our values, how we parent, and the things that are really important in life.”

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