The extraordinary measures needed to meet the extraordinary times of 2020

By: Sarah Wickham   |   Policy & Research Director, Philanthropy Australia   |

“Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. We saw a need that needed to be filled, and we stepped in to help” – Benet Wilson

2020 has presented more than its fair share of extraordinary times, which have demanded an extraordinary response from charities and philanthropy. As I finish my tenure as Policy and Research Director at Philanthropy Australia, I want to share the top 5 advocacy and policy lessons I have learned from COVID. I believe these lessons can act as a guide for philanthropic funders during the (inevitable) next crisis, and ensure that philanthropy remains a force for meaningful change at the most urgent of times. 

It’s easy to make change happen in a crisis, but harder to get systems change

It is no secret that the charitable sector has been advocating for serious fundraising reform for at least the last decade, if not longer. I have lost count of the number of inquiries, independent reviews and reports on the state of Australia’s fundraising regime, that all agreed on the need for serious reform. This ongoing headache is now more acute as the sector grapples with the unprecedented complexities of COVID-19. Our outdated and burdensome fundraising laws are not only curtailing the ability of charities to deliver during one of our country’s greatest economic and health challenges, but also stifling innovation that is desperately needed for the sector to evolve in the rebuilding phase.

During a crisis, policy makers must move fast to meet the urgent needs of the communities they serve. In these situations, standard policy making processes go out the window and the landscape shifts rapidly, presenting an opportunity for campaigners to secure an immediate outcome so long as it aligns to the present circumstances. An interesting example for our sector this year was the federal government’s decision to raise the Newstart allowance, after years of continued refusal. For the Raise The Rate campaign, who have been pushing for an increase for many years now, their advocacy has now pivoted to ensuring that this higher rate of JobSeeker is maintained for good.

Philanthropy Australia was also able to work quickly with policy makers to secure two immediate wins: lowering the eligibility threshold for charities to access JobKeeper, and the provision of credits for funds who ‘over distribute’ by at least 4% over the next two financial years. However, like many organisations we struggled to secure commitments from government on our longer-term systems change policies, such as establishing a Not-for-profit Loan Fund and the introduction of a Living Legacy Trust structure.

The next step for philanthropic funders will be to ensure that they are providing the right support to their partners so they are able to transform the short-term collaboration, good will and trust built during the pandemic into longer term commitments for deeper systems change outcomes.

In the unchartered territory of a crisis, people listen to science

As we enjoy an effectively COVID-free Christmas, we can be grateful that from the beginning Australia’s pandemic policy approach was led by science.

We have also seen this data and evidence-led approach in our charitable sector’s response and advocacy during this year. Top quality and timely initial research from sector leaders such as the Centre for Social Impact, Social Ventures Australia and JBWere as well as insights and research from firms such as Perpetual enabled Philanthropy Australia to lead credible peak body discussions with policy makers regarding the impact of COVID on the sector and present opportunities for collaboration with government to support community needs.

This crisis has reconfirmed the centrality of scientific research and data to any social or health initiative, and the important role of philanthropy in providing rapid funding for the crucial work that underpins all good policy decision making.

Determining your unique leadership role

During a crisis there are plenty of opportunities for leadership, be it as a strong media voice, a behind-the-scenes influencer or a force for collaboration. The most critical thing is to determine how you can best use your leadership role in a way that is relevant and valuable.

At Philanthropy Australia we realised that as a peak body we were in a strong position to deliver regular thought leadership content to our members, the government and the public, and meet a gap in sector specific knowledge that was not currently being filled by other stakeholders.

Some of the highlights of our COVID leadership included: Australian Philanthropy’s Response to the COVID-19 Crisis, our COVID-19 Resources website, the Policy Priorities for a Post COVID-19 Australia, and partnering with the Australian Communities Foundation to launch the COVID-19 National Funding Platform.

You won’t get a foot in the door without existing relationships

One of the best pieces of advice I can give to funders is to ensure that the partners they work with are connected to relevant policy decision makers, because when things get challenging, it’s those relationships that will be critical to influencing change.

By the time COVID hit, the existing relationships that Philanthropy Australia had built with key Ministerial offices and charitable experts within government departments were strong enough that we already had our foot in the door. We were able to provide real-time feedback on draft policy, understand the most pressing needs of decision makers and provide rapid updates on new government announcements to our members, thanks to the relationships we had cultivated in the years prior.

For philanthropic funders in a crisis, it’s important to ask yourself – who do I know who is influential in the current decision-making landscape? How can I work with my funding partners to use my unique voice as a philanthropist to get a strategic message across? What can I do to ensure the voice of the community, and those with lived experience, are heard by the decision makers?

It takes a village and that village must be singing from the same song sheet

Over the last few years there has been a concerted effort from charity leaders to collaborate on a strategic sector voice. This year, the formation of the Charities Crisis Cabinet (CCC), bringing together a cross-section of charities leaders, advocated effectively for the needs of Australia’s charitable sector through the pandemic.

It is due to the leadership of this group that the narrative regarding the vast economic contribution of Australia’s charitable sector (employing 10% of the workforce and representing 8% of GDP) landed. Among other things, CCC also enabled sector input into the National COVID Commission’s work and secured meaningful policy outcomes to ensure the sector continued delivering crucial services during this time.

There is still significant work ahead to ensure that the voices and experience of Australia’s charitable sector are at the government decision making table. However, CCC has built a strong initial foundation that can be strengthened overtime to ensure that our sector is listened to.   

As Australia moves into the disaster season and long term COVID recovery (on top of recovery from last summer’s bushfires) it is important for philanthropy to continue delivering our extraordinary response. Multi-year capacity funding will enable your partners to play critical leadership and advocacy roles so that the voices of those with lived experience are heard by policy makers, our communities are supported and charities are in the room where decisions that affect our country are being made. Philanthropy Australia is fortunate to have the backing of our Philanthropy Champion community to enable this work, and I look forward to seeing how our role as the peak body of more and better philanthropy will continue to flourish under the direction of our incoming CEO Jack Heath.

Dec. 15, 2020

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