The best of philanthropy - A farewell from CEO Sarah Davies

By: Sarah Davies AM   |   CEO Philanthropy Australia   |

Sarah Davies at 2019 Philanthropy Meets Parliament Summit

In February this year, I wrote an opinion piece for ProBono as part of their 2020 predictions series on philanthropy: what trends did we need to pay attention to and what practices would we need to develop and enhance. Eleven months later (and what an eleven months – no way I saw that coming!) I have not changed my views and would repeat the call to action for philanthropy to:

​‘… continue to play the heck out of the unique characteristics that philanthropy enjoys: its freedom, its risk tolerance, its ability to fund the things no other dollar can fund, its boundary-less time horizon, its lack of agenda or obligation to politics. Granted we must balance these privileges with being accountable and transparent, sharing our knowledge, lessons and resources – but these behaviours, in turn, build our effectiveness.’

If this represents the best philanthropy can be, I truly believe we have seen the best of Australian philanthropy this year: you stood up, showed up, adapted, responded, learnt and bent over backwards to be the best you could be for our people and communities. Whilst I would never wish for a repeat of this year, it has pushed us to be better and do better and has reinforced four fundamental lessons about what really matters, all of which apply to philanthropy:

  • Science, knowledge and expertise matter. Philanthropy can create the evidence base needed to create positive change, supporting the testing and development of new models, approaches and solutions. It also uses the evidence base to scale and build systemic change. Rigour, testing, knowledge – are all critical ingredients for successful philanthropy;
  • Humanity and kindness matter. So much of philanthropy has an inherent equity, social justice, inclusion lens: care, understanding and empathy are fundamental to our wellbeing and to building and sustaining flourishing, kind, communities. This year has made our mutual dependency so explicit;
  • Place matters. We knew this – but it’s been reinforced (again).  The importance of local community agency and action, as well as questions around our place in the world and our role and responsibilities;
  • Power and influence matter. Whether it’s tangible and visible or built into our unconscious bias and patterns, the great opportunity for philanthropy is to recognise, share and give its power and influence. Giving power to community, embracing lived experience to directly influence and shape our decisions and actions will be a dominant theme in philanthropy as we develop the best tools, models and approaches with which to do this.

And if there’s a fifth lesson from this year, it’s been the reminder that accountability and responsibility matter (in government, business and community). Philanthropy may be at its heart a voluntary, deeply personal act, but it still needs to be accountable. In March last year, I wrote a blog for Philanthropy Weekly on the light and dark sides of philanthropy and argued that effective and active mitigation of the dark or shadow side, enhances and builds philanthropy’s efficacy and success. 

The imperative of making thoughtful, informed choices has never been clearer (ref Brexit, US election as well as our experience of the global pandemic) and philanthropy, if nothing else, has the privilege of making choices that affect and impact so much beyond us. Addressing and mitigating the shadow side of this privilege and being accountable is essential.

So as I sign out from the year, and from the role I’ve been lucky enough to hold and share with you at Philanthropy Australia over the last five years, it seems so perfect that we finished the year with our thought leadership series on how to keep improving and evolving our practice with Pay-What-It-Takes, and that our last major public activity was the recognition and celebration of the 2020 Australian Philanthropy Awards

The recipients in the nine award categories give us the best tangible case studies of Australia’s exciting, impactful and authentic philanthropy. 

Here’s what they have demonstrated, for us to celebrate and emulate:

  • Community and community voice at the centre
  • Effective and strong advocacy – courage and boldness
  • Understanding and working in the context of systems and system change
  • How to recognise, use, share and divest power
  • Robust, mutually beneficial and sophisticated partnerships and relationships
  • Use of ‘soft’ power, connecting convening, challenging and championing
  • Using all their assets in the kit (financial and other) to fund and drive change
  • And as we get better at understanding what it takes to create sustainable, scalable and positive change, to be more vocal and active in paying what it takes to get there.
From left: Ann Johnson, Alan Schwartz, Sarah Davies, Amanda Miller

As we sign out of 2020 (or if you prefer, kick it into touch with a whacking great boot!), it’s clear that philanthropy is all about leadership – at its core, philanthropy is about having a vision and turning it into a reality – it’s about working to solve society’s problems at the root, rather than offering relief for the symptoms. It’s about our visions of what a just, inclusive, equitable, innovative, exciting, beautiful, sustainable and meaningful world looks like and working together to try to build it for all of us.

I have been blessed to see this every day at Philanthropy Australia – from trustees and foundations, corporate foundations, community foundations, individuals, families, new generations, collectives, charities, for purpose enterprises, other peaks – there are many shapes and sizes, all working to create good and inspire others to do the same. 

My sincere thanks and appreciation to my Chairs - Alan Schwartz, Ann Johnson and Amanda Miller - and my Board (I seriously love my Board, current and past), to my team (just the BEST, more than love you guys) and to all our members and partners who have shared the last 5 years with me. Everything we’ve done, we’ve done together – I’ve needed you; I’ve learned from you and you’ve been there for me and for us. Thank you.

Thank you to our Philanthropy Champions who backed us when we wanted to change, and who back us now as the peak body for philanthropy. Thank you to our grant and project partners, who give us the resources and confidence to continue to build our value for the sector. Thank you to all our members for making this vibrant, essential community. My welcome and thanks to Jack Heath, who will be starting as Philanthropy Australia’s CEO on 18 January – he will be brilliant; he gets it, he’s part of it.

My wishes for all of us for the future? Keep the gang together, grow the tribe, and keep pushing to be better. Take care and have fun over the summer break. Just love philanthropy!

Dec. 09, 2020

Philanthropy Weekly Newsletter

Sign up to our weekly e-newsletter for sector news, expert opinion and resources.

Sign up here