Using all foundation resources to create change

By: Bill Mithen   |   CEO of Give Where You Live Foundation   |

Last week, we published a blog based on research into the varied roles foundations can play in the philanthropic eco-system. We invited Bill Mithen, CEO of Give Where You Live Foundation, to reflect on the blog and respond with the organisation's perspectives.

Bill Mithen,
CEO GiveWhereYouLive Foundation

Dr Alexandra Williamson’s recent paper and blog regarding philanthropic foundations in Australia describes the intermediary nature of Foundations and identifies 14 separate intermediary roles a foundation might play.

The roles identified are ‘more than just the money roles’ and are roles that the Give Where You Live Foundation has long argued are key to the operations of a progressive, contemporary foundation.

As funders, philanthropic foundations have an inescapable power within the social sector landscape. Service delivery organisations are mostly required to apply for funding through processes that make it clear that the funder requires them to prove the merit and efficacy of their programs and services. This relationship creates a power imbalance that has long had funders sitting atop service delivery organisations and therefore often removed from the actual clients the foundations are purporting to serve.

Seeing foundations as an intermediary between actors within the social sector landscape, as Dr Williams suggests, does start to breakdown that power relationship and imbalance and focusing on the intermediary roles identified in the research potentially brings foundations closer to the issues and the people that are affected by those issues.

The Give Where You Live Foundations 2030 strategy identifies several ‘other; roles that we can, and should play, within our local community. These are well beyond simple funding and grant making – although both of these remain critical to our success.

Through our recently renewed mission statement we have identified that we want to use all of our resources and energy in partnership with the community to help all people and all places thrive. In developing this mission statement, we identified that our role was, and should be, more than simply a funder and that we have many resources such as, influence, expertise, connections, networks, leadership, advocacy and partnerships that are equally as important as the funding that we might be able to provide.

We have started to think of this as an ‘Ecosystem of Activities for Change’ and is a concept that we think has application both within and outside of our organisation.

A seminal piece of work the Foundation completed prior to finalising our 2030 strategy was to develop an organisation Theory of Change. Our theory identifies critical focus points for people and places that will enable communities to thrive as well as identifying the critical functions the Give Where You Live Foundation can perform to assist.

In corporate vernacular, our three core competencies are building resources and raising awareness, investing in and supporting local organisations, programs and initiatives and importantly, convening, connecting and creating strategic and effective solutions.

While all three broad functions align to Dr Williamson’s research regarding the intermediary functions of foundations, it is the convening and connecting function that best matches her underlying premise that foundations have a much broader role than simple grant making.

As a regionally based, public community foundation, Give Where You Live has been very conscious of the special position in which we sit within our community. Hundreds of businesses support and engage in our work, thousands of individuals donate, several larger private trusts and foundations assist us, and local, state and federal government agencies, departments and Members of Parliament all connect and participate. We are in a unique position to advocate, gather evidence and research, influence, convene like-minded yet sometimes unusual partners and connect the community to stories, work and challenges.

This is truly a privileged position of trust and one that would be wasted if we only viewed our role as that of fundraiser and grant maker.

We see this as an active, dynamic position which is not particularly well reflected by the term intermediary. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines an intermediary as a “mediator or go-between”. This implies an intermediary is working with two or more actors that have clear goals and ambitions and is working to bring those together.

What the term misses is that we have developed our own ambitions and goals and we are actively seeking to achieve them and enable change within our community. These goals are shared by the partners we choose, but the term intermediary implies a passivity in strategy, thought and action in that intermediaries help others achieve their ambitions.

The term that we have been drawn towards is ‘Field Catalyst’. The term was first introduced in an article in the Stanford Innovation Review 2018 Winter edition, ‘How Field Catalysts Galvanize Social Change’. It refers to a type of intermediary that “thinks about a road map for change and then galvanizes the actors across a certain field to achieve a broad change”.

The term better describes the dynamic nature of change and the ambitions that foundations can have to enable and achieve that change.

It is not dissimilar to another concept that we have worked with in recent years. That being the concept of a backbone organisation in a collective impact initiative. In partnership with G21 the Geelong Region Alliance, Give Where You Live Foundation, developed a collective impact initiative called GROW in an attempt to address long-term, entrenched disadvantage. Once developed however it became obvious that because of the position we hold within the community it made sense for us to fund and backbone the initiative.

There are many examples across the country of philanthropic foundations using all their resources, not just their financial ones, to create change. The research by Dr Williamson is great affirmation of this work and will encourage other philanthropic institutions to question the power dynamic between funders and service organisations, become closer to the actual beneficiaries of services and value their unique positions within the social landscape.

A diagram has been included to explain Give Where You Live Foundations' Ecosystem of Change. Members of Philanthropy Australia can view this here on the Better Giving Hub

Apr. 07, 2021

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