‘Philanthropy’ is a word for our times

By: Jack Heath   |   CEO, Philanthropy Australia   |   https://www.philanthropy.org.au/

Our CEO, Jack Heath, introducing the Philanthropy Australia National Conference 2021.


I want to acknowledge the extraordinary contribution of so many philanthropists – especially those I have had the privilege to meet these past few months. Your generosity, over many decades, has woven the rich tapestry that is Philanthropy Australia today.

And there has never been a more important time for Australian philanthropy. 

Our world faces an existential crisis with climate change.

The systemic challenges experienced by the First Nations peoples persist - but alongside a remarkable resilience, enterprise and leadership across so many Indigenous communities.

COVID is still decimating countries around the world.

Many older Australians fail to get the care they have given unto others.

Far too many Australian children have a poor start in life in a world of increasing income inequality.

Rates of mental ill-health are on the rise. 

Trust across all our institutions is disturbingly low and declining at a time when we face such great challenges. Although, since the arrival of COVID, trust in governments has gone up - I deeply hope it holds. 

I say “hope” because we also live in an age when it’s so easy to criticise and be cynical. It’s become a habit. And a habit that, in turn, can breed a sense of shamelessness among our political and other community leaders.

Social media, and some forms of traditional media, increasingly bring both a spotlight and magnifying glass to our human failings and, in so doing, can distort the picture of who we really are and the best we’re capable of being. 

In anxious and fearful times, we draw a sense of security and identity when we belong to a tribe. And as algorithms deepen and reinforce our connection to tribe, the world increasingly divides into “us” and “them” or “my tribe” and “the rest of the world”. 

This is why I love the word philanthropy. I believe it is the word for our times.  As you know, philanthropy comes from the Ancient Greek and it means “love of humanity”. As such, it calls for a movement from self towards other at a time when it’s so much all about me and mine.  

Philanthropy calls us to look outward to others and to our collective future rather than inwards to our individualistic and present self. 

This is the project of our times – to reorient ourselves to others for, and over, the long term. It’s something that we saw repeatedly in the self-less responses to the Black Summer Bushfires, to the floods and to COVID.   If we go looking for the self-less response, we will surely find it, each and every day across our communities, across our nation.  

And so, how great that (former CEO) Sarah Davies and the team constructed our conference theme “What does the future need from us now?” And how great that we have so many outstanding people sharing their perspectives and insights over the course of this conference with you.

So let me share a few thoughts on where I think we might head.

As I see it, we need to make our philanthropy deeply personal – but in a self-less way. A philanthropy that starts with a big heart that holds a compassion for those experiencing suffering and distress and then acts on that compassion, a big heart that holds a deep desire for people to reach their full potential irrespective of their postcode, history or upbringing, and a big heart that soars on the wings of our artists and storytellers.

To give due honour to this big heart, we need to bring to it our clear head. It is the clear head that leads us to harness our innate generosity in a way that leads to greater impact in the lives of those we love within, and across, the world. The clear head asks prescient questions. It probes, tests, learns and strives to find a better way. It never assumes, it innovates, looks to prevent and takes calculated risks. It seeks out a more strategic, more effective philanthropy.

And what I’ve come to know is that if you can hold together a big heart and a clear head over a sustained period of time – when you can marry a constant heart with a constant head – then joy most surely starts to emerge. 

In Australia, we don’t come easily to words like “joy”, but this joy does exist. Over the years, so many philanthropists have shared with me the deep joy they experience from their giving. It is a joy which is infectious. 

So how then should we go about our philanthropy?  In terms of my own personal approach, I aspire to lead with these five core values.  These are the RITCH values – R, I, T, C, H.

R is for Respect and here I am talking of the respect for the inherent dignity of all people. 

A dignity that arises from when we first come into this world and stays with us to our very last day.

It is a dignity that sits in the heart of a young political staffer who speaks of her trauma but from a power that is unassailable and with a courage that is breathtaking. 

It is a dignity that sits in the heart of an incarcerated young Indigenous man in every single State and Territory of Australia.  

It is the dignity that sits in the heart of an Aboriginal elder from Nauiyu in the Northern Territory and finds expression through her artistry, advocacy, writings, deep caring and deep listening.   

It is the dignity that sits in the heart of a young mother and her child in a domestic violence refuge in Western Sydney.

It is a dignity that sits in the heart of old man in a forensic psychiatric facility in Perth, in the heart of a young woman with an eating disorder in a substandard hospital facility or no facility at all. 

It is the dignity that sits in the heart of a young person who has never had a full-time job. 

It is a dignity that sits in the heart of a middle-aged father who has lost his job in regional Australia and is now wondering whether the world might be better off without him. 

It is a dignity that sits in the hearts of a young Tamil family on Christmas Island.   

It is a dignity that sits in the heart of a villager in Indonesia who has had his modest dwelling carried away by floods - for the third time.

It is a dignity that sits in the heart of mother in war-ravaged Yemen who is just one of the 16 million Yemenis experiencing famine and acute food shortage - no uber eats in Yemen tonight. 

It is a dignity that sits in the heart of a young person who flees Russia to Australia because they don’t want to be persecuted because they are queer.   

And it is a dignity that sits in the heart of an 85-year-old woman with advanced dementia in a wonderful nursing home in Melbourne – my mother. 

I is for Impact. This goes to ensuring that our philanthropy is effective and of enduring benefit.  It is about quality before quantum but quantum with quality is best. Impact strives to ensure that each gift, whatever the size, derives the greatest possible benefit. It evaluates and it measures.  It aspires to scale and, sometimes, it is impatient.

T is for Trust – the elusive trust. Trust enables us to have direct and caring conversations, including between grant-makers and grant recipients, between service providers and those served. 

But so often we go on a dance, we are terribly polite because we don’t feel comfortable speaking to our needs and fears. For a while, COVID put a stop to that dance as grant-makers freed up their giving and the terms associated with their giving. We hope it lasts and we’ll be surveying again this coming August – stay tuned. 

Into the future, and in a spirit of trust, we are going to push for a better understanding of what it takes to properly fund a non-profit organisation, and its programs, in a way that goes to the true cost of doing business, sustaining organisations and helping people over the long term. 

Trust creates safety – a safety that allows us to be vulnerable and to grow from this vulnerability. Trust collaborates and achieves together what cannot be achieved alone. Trust leads to more and better philanthropy.

C is for Celebration. This speaks to the joy thing.  It goes to the storytelling.  It calls on philanthropists to share their story - not to big-note themselves, but to inspire others.  In my view, it behoves philanthropy to inspire more philanthropy.  And so, in the months and years ahead we will work harder to share more stories of people who have caught the philanthropic bug and hopefully will help pass it on to others.

I also believe we need to democratise philanthropy – to make it seem less daunting and more matter of fact.  There are so many philanthropists alive today who do not consider themselves philanthropists. There are so many people with deep philanthropic intent who, despite their success in accumulating wealth, sometimes struggle in get engaged with a philanthropy they find intimidating. I want for us to reach out to, and welcome, the small “p” philanthropists and the not-yet-philanthropists.   And this brings me to the final value.

H is for Humility. Easy to say, but so hard to embody.  Humility says, “I don’t have all the answers”. Humility learns from others. Humility fosters co-design and values lived experience. It is curious, it pauses, it listens, it learns.  Humility brings others into the picture, into the decision and grant making process.  Humility is forgiving of mistakes of oneself and others – humility ensures failing is learning. Humility also helps create a sense of deep mutual safety. It celebrates others. It builds trust. It leads to lasting impact. It respects the inherent dignity of all humans. Humility lies at the heart of deep philanthropy.

So thank you for staying with me thus far, for staying with my evangelism, but I do believe we are at a moment of critical importance, a moment when what we do today will create our future tomorrow. I also happen to share the belief of Danny Kennedy who will join us at the final session of our conference that Australia can become a “Postcard for the future”. And if we are to become that Postcard, I believe it will largely be because of our philanthropy in the years immediately ahead of us, in how we do our philanthropy, how we give, how much we give, and how much we bring of ourselves to express and model a deep and abiding love for our common humanity.

On 5-6 May, after time to reflect and refresh, we will come back together online for two days of interactive, inspiring workshops. Participants will actively discuss, collaborate and think strategically as we collectively explore what the future needs from us, now. Register here.

Apr. 21, 2021

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