Report on Philanthropy New Zealand conference

I was fortunate to have the chance to attend Philanthropy New Zealand’s conference “Passion, Pragmatism, Possibilities” in Wellington last week, and found many of the presentations very thought-provoking. The global financial crisis was, of course, a primary topic with the first morning’s sessions entirely devoted to aspects of philanthropy in difficult times.

Each opening plenary speaker took a slightly different perspective but some themes and clear messages were common to all, particularly the need for foundations to have courage and commitment and to stand up and show that they spend their money well.

Bruce Bonyhady, President of Philanthropy Australia, suggested some guiding principles on ‘All Weather Philanthropy’ to guide foundations through the times ahead. These included: that philanthropy should ensure that it does no harm, neither over-stretching already strained organisations nor over-committing; that philanthropy should take carefully calculated risks, and in the current environment should support projects which create efficiencies as well as greater effectiveness and are supported by durable organisations; and that philanthropy must always act as a catalyst to sustain, nurture and build community confidence, resilience and cohesion. Bruce pointed to the grassroots base of President Obama’s election strategy and to the extraordinary outpouring of community support after the recent Victorian bushfires as a sign that through something bigger than themselves, people are still able to be drawn together into a renewed sense of connection and community.

Luc Tayart de Borms from Belgium’s King Badouin Foundation spoke of the need for mavericks at this time; many organisations have fallen into the “expert trap” of failure through reliance on experts, who are often unable to look outside their existing paradigms. What we need instead are mavericks who have expertise but will also challenge the accepted norms. Luc also suggested that foundations be “optimistic but not naive”, that they remember there is no single one-size-fits-all way of proceeding, and that foundations help stimulate society not to fall into fatalism - that they prepare for the worst-case scenario but to go forward with passion and commitment.

Jennifer Gill from the ASB Community Trust, Chair of Philanthropy New Zealand, recommended that foundations remember their role as pioneers rather than stopgap funders, and that they encourage and assist communities to find their own responses to the crisis. She also urged foundations to hold onto their own vision and values, and not to destroy intellectual capital for the sake of cutting costs (particularly staff costs).

Some other speakers had similar, and vital, messages which resonated with those of the opening plenaries.

Rupert Myer put forward that now is the time to confidently assert the unique and relevant role of philanthropy, and that publicly shining a light on philanthropy’s core values will be just as important now as a sound business strategy. He called for philanthropy to be a beacon of hope, not intimidated by the global financial crisis and balancing generosity of spirit with tolerance for ambiguity.

Kathleen Enright of Grantmakers for Effective Organisations pointed out that philanthropy’s financial assets have always been out of scale with the enormous problems and causes it attempts to address; therefore, we will only be able to make progress if we work together. She suggested that grantmakers can now find some no-cost ways of assisting grant recipients such as: giving them some latitude to do something different with grant money, particularly with grants which were applied for before the current financial crisis; providing unrestricted grants to help not-for-profit groups grasp opportunities when they arise; and mission-related investing.

Congratulations to Robyn Scott and her team, and to the Board of Philanthropy New Zealand, for a stimulating event.

Mar. 23, 2009

 Tags: topical issues, global financial crisis, general, events

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