The Benefits of Giving Back

Leeanne Marshall , 4 September 2019

Improving the built environment of communities in need does not have to be an all or nothing proposition, says Leeanne Marshall, who presents a variety of ways to make an impact, both big and small.

I studied and worked as an architect for many years, but was always searching for a way to really delve into the social aspects of architecture and find ways to work towards providing good design solutions to those who might not otherwise have access to them.

Interestingly I was talking to a lawyer recently about some pro-bono work that they are doing for Australian Red Cross. They made the comment that unlike the legal profession, where pro-bono work is almost mandated, there is a perception that architects do not have as much of a community role. This is not a new comment to me, but I always think it is a surprising perception as really, at the heart of it, we are in the business of creating space for people and communities. It feels like as architects we have to address this perception, as we actually have much to offer.

I come to this presentation wearing two hats: one Architects without Frontiers (where I worked for a decade and where I am now a board member and advisor); and the second the Australian Red Cross (where I lead shelter and settlements activities in preparedness and response to disasters for the International Programs department)

Though I had worked in practice for many years, I knew that I always enjoyed community focused work that had a positive impact. I was also always very interested in some of the soft elements of creating communities. While I was working in Canada I came across Engineers without Borders and wished there was a similar thing for architects. It was only when I returned to Australia and undertook my masters that I found out that there actually was an Architects without Frontiers in Australia and that they were looking for experienced architects in India, right when I was going there anyway as a result of my studies.

So, in 2008 I started volunteering with AWF on a small preschool building project called the Anganwadi Project. Living and working with Manav Sadhna, our partner organisation in India, enabled me to learn very important skills that I wasn’t really taught about at university or on the job – particularly around community engagement, facilitation and community based design. Ultimately this volunteering work led to me gaining a paid position with AWF soon after.

5 - Leeanne speaking

Architects without Frontiers

Architects without Frontiers (AWF) is Australia’s first architectural not for profit organisation with a mission to improve the built environment of communities in need. The organisation facilitates the design and construction of health, education and community projects, primarily in Australia and the Asia Pacific region.

We work in an interdisciplinary and collaborative way with local partners to deliver design solutions that address long-term community needs and we really believe that architecture can be an ethical tool for social change.

To date, AWF has helped to transform the lives of more than 2000 people in five main ways. We have:

  • Collaborated with 35 communities to improve their social and physical infrastructure;
  • Designed and helped build 43 health and education projects in 12 countries; and
  • Partnered with 60 Australian architects in delivering pro-bono design services.

6 - Fiji project

Ramarama Community Information Hub in Fiji.

An example of the kind of work that AWF does, and that I undertook during my time there, was the Ramarama Community Information Hub in Savusavu, Fiji. This was a collaborative and grass roots led project by the local rural women of the area province, supported by AWF and DFAT. It involved the design and construction of key community buildings on the site, which will not only provide space for the indigenous women of the region to sell and exhibit their craft, but also provide training facilities and mentoring for young women along with safe accommodation for women travellers. The project aims to strengthen cultural traditions and improve the standard of living for the local women of Cakaudrove.

It’s important to me that we aren’t just leaving a set of buildings, but that we’re also working with the women to strengthen their capacity to run the centre in a sustainable way when the construction process is complete, so it has been a very long-term engagement and relationship between us and the women.

Generally, AWF provides three main programs (Design/ Build, Education, Design Brokerage), only two of which I will discuss in detail, as they are more relevant to your work as practitioners and they demonstrate the role AWF plays in facilitating pro bono projects for firms like your own.


Volunteers can work hands-on with local communities in India and Nepal to deliver built projects through our partner organisations The Anganwadi Project and Aussie Action Abroad.

The Anganwadi Project (TAP) – This is the program I started with. Since 2007, this program has offered experienced Australian design professionals an opportunity to live and work in India for four to six months. During this time, volunteers design and build small preschools in informal settlements in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India. TAP volunteers work in close collaboration with the local communities and employ local builders and craftspeople throughout the process using mostly recycled materials to create simple, beautiful spaces for the education of children. Through the development of long-term and meaningful relationships, the maintenance of existing schools and development of future opportunities is ensured.

AAA/ AWF Nepal Design Build trips – Since 2005, this long-running program, a partnership with Aussie Action Abroad, offers students and design professionals the opportunity to travel, interact with, and contribute to communities in need through development projects. Volunteers get to work hands-on alongside architects, builders, related professionals, and local tradespeople to construct sustainable buildings and resources – from toilet blocks to school buildings. The program is an opportunity to understand local needs, resources, and the adaptation of materials to suit the project. The trips run from four to six weeks and we have had great feedback from firms who have engaged their staff in these activities.

Design Brokerage

Under this program model, we build a highly skilled team for each project from the AWF Partner Network and broader industry connections (this is the model that was used for a Uganda project that ClarkeHopkinsClarke are involved in). Under this model, AWF acts as the broker between communities/clients and firms such as your own to deliver social projects.

4 - Design Brokerage

Depending on the project, we could have a diverse team of network partners or a single firm leading on what is required.

3 - AWF Diagram

At the moment we have 12 organisations in our AWF Partner Network (Hassell, Bonacci, Hayball, Roberts Day, Cox, Jackson Clements Burrows, SJB, Milieu, LCI, Tract, WT Partnership and ClarkeHopkinsClarke).

Here are a few quick examples of the sort of projects we have worked on with partners:

  • Vietnam Disability Day Care Centre in Vietnam (sketch design and site work provided)
  • Asia Indigenous People’s Pact office in Thailand (Brief, concept design, ESD and ongong procurement advice provided)
  • Maningrida Arts and Culture Centre in Northern Territory (large team from the network partners has provided concept design to enable funding applications)

The AWF Partner Network is an extremely important part of what enables AWF to keep delivering on our mission in a sustainable way. It is a community of socially conscious Australian built environment organisations, who want to give back in a structured and considered way that aligns with their organisational interests and values.

Through our regular events and project updates, the partners have indicated that their engagement on projects such as these have had a great impact on their firm and their staff.

Benefits and Impacts

There are a number of benefits and positive impacts of engaging in AWF projects for practices as well as individuals, including the following:

  • Becoming part of a community of like-minded organisations developing and sharing their expertise in community projects;
  • Increasing networking and knowledge sharing across multiple disciplines;
  • Providing opportunities for organisations to add social value to their business for staff, client and project attraction;
  • Providing opportunities for team/ staff to gain new skills – both personal and professional development; and
  • Attracting positive business recognition for firms.

For me personally, being able to work closely with communities and help them find solutions to their own built environment challenges is much more than a job to me. It’s a continual learning experience, a chance to be creative/ innovative and at the end of the day it is also very rewarding.

1 - Leanne and Red Cross

The Humanitarian Sector

My current role at the Australian Red Cross is no longer in architectural practice, but the skills I gained from my education and from working in practice are definitely used. In my role as Shelter Technical Lead I am responsible for ongoing shelter and settlements planning and capacity building as well as supporting more inclusive, locally led disaster preparedness and response activities. It focuses a bit more on the soft elements to create vibrant communities, particularly livelihoods, people, connections and safety, but I really need those technical and problem solving skills in my back pocket to respond to the needs that might arise on the ground.

I’m not suggesting that practices should get involved directly with disaster response, simply to say that the skills of architects are extremely valuable in situations like this. Also, for our preparedness work, we are doing a lot of investigations, long-term technical reviews and other research where there is occasionally potential to be involved.

Ultimately, I do believe that we have a responsibility to ‘give back’ as part of our work, but it doesn’t have to mean giving up everything. There are many examples of practices giving a small amount of their time to pro bono projects alongside their other work and that it has a very positive impact on the business itself as well as the communities. By making the right connections and adding value where it is needed, we can find models where ‘everyone wins’.


This article is an edited version of a recent presentation given at the Vic/Tas event, The Social Conscience of Architecture. It was published with permission.

Leeanne Marshall is the Shelter Technical Lead in the International Programs team of the Australian Red Cross. She has a background in the built environment, having trained and worked as an architect for over a decade, and has been working in the development/ humanitarian space since 2008. She worked for a number of years with local not-for-profits, including Architects without Frontiers Australia, delivering community-based, participatory projects in Australia, Asia, Africa and the South Pacific. Since joining the Red Cross Red Crescent movement, she has supported a number of humanitarian shelter responses from Asia Pacific to Latin America. In her current role, she is responsible for ongoing shelter and settlements planning and capacity building as well as supporting more inclusive, locally led preparedness and response activities. Leeanne is the Australian Red Cross representative on the Global Shelter Cluster Strategic Advisory Group, where she also co-leads the working group on inclusion of persons with disabilities in shelter and settlements programming. Leeanne is also a board member of Architects without Frontiers Australia.