A mystery waiting for a solution

Wed, 8 Dec 2021

The title might mislead the unwary – The Case of the Missing Foundation(s) – but this is no cosy detective story. Rather, it’s a sober analysis of the state of philanthropic giving to disability in Australia.

The research, commissioned by The Achieve Foundation and conducted by the Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies (ACPNS) at QUT, reveals that it’s time for a dialogue between people with a disability and philanthropy. 

“We discovered that the field of disability philanthropy in Australia is fragmented, with little cohesion or convergence, and no apparent big picture emerging that indicates a planned or informed vision for future systems change,’’ the report observes.

In particular, the research shows that there is an element of giving that focused on a particular impairment (for example, low vision or cerebral palsy) and that the overall level of giving doesn’t match the need. ‘Now is the time to change this,’’ the report says.

“[The findings are] …as clear as a research report gets…Philanthropy currently doesn’t seem to be aware of disability as a potential source of really significant investment, either on its own or attached to other things philanthropy cares about,’’

Kirsty Nowlan, Executive Director of the Achieve Foundation

The first step towards addressing the issue occurred this week when the Foundation hosted a roundtable of some relevant stakeholders to help start the dialogue around the issue. “Having spoken to a lot of the people who are coming to that conversation, I’m already confident there’s enough of a shared ‘aha moment’ – that there is something missing from Australian philanthropy and that people understand the importance of it, [so] that we can start a dialogue around it,’’ Kirsty said.

The title of the project – the Case of the Missing Foundation(s) – is intended to communicate the broader sense of philanthropy not being more engaged with disability.

“Actually, if we want to improve outcomes for people in Australia, one in six have a disability,’’ Kirsty said. “It’s not just ‘let’s go fund it’: if we’re funding poverty, how are we thinking about people with disability? If we’re funding pathways to employment, how are we thinking about people with disability? So, I think it’s …an issue of itself, and as a cohort that is present in every single other issue.’’

The ACPNS research identified 624 grantmaking charities that include people with disability as either their primary or secondary beneficiary group. It draws on the 2017-18 ACNC data, and Kirsty acknowledged that there had been some developments in disability philanthropy since then.

The incidence of people with disability in Australia…is not reflected in the scale of disability philanthropy,’’ the report says. “This signifies the absence of leadership and a guiding vision for the sector as a whole. Grantmaking charities in Australia rarely have people with disability as their sole beneficiary group, choosing rather to fund disability amongst a wider selection of causes. This may have significant implications for funding focus, coherence, and impact.’’

Another important factor is the perceived role the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), which might contribute to a sense that disability is now largely the funding purview of government. Before the advent of the NDIS, there was a patchwork of support for people with a disability, ranging from philanthropic funding for specific causes and groups, often based on geography, but leaving gaps in the broader support. The NDIS sent the signal that the Federal government would take responsibility for the core dimensions of what individuals with a disability need.

“It’s a hunch but a reasonably steady one – whether if there is a perception among philanthropy, ‘Well, there has been an investment, so the NDIS has fixed the problem, so we’ll go off and do the other things where we can have catalytic impact’,’’ Kirsty said.

“And I think that’s quite true, because obviously contemporary philanthropists are thinking about either issues they’ve been personally touched by or how they can make a catalytic impact. And if you think the issue’s been dealt with, then you would put your money elsewhere.’’

Kirsty pointed out that there was, however, many elements of the broader situation that the NDIS was not established to cover.

“It was never going to fund support for inclusive education, or a transformation of facilities or approach to building community at a local level,’’ Kirsty said. “The NDIS was never going to fund changes to attitudes of employers to get people with a disability to be employed, so those were all things that were beyond the scope. ‘’

The report makes seven recommendations that include establishing a shared commitment to philanthropic giving and support for disability and social inclusion in partnership with people and disability; making giving meaningful and easy; demonstrate diversity, equity, and inclusion; create and communicate grantmaking principles; actively advocate and establish policy position and practice an evidence-based philosophy.

Kirsty is heartened by the initial response to the research. “It does start a conversation, so I think we need to work out now how to have the conversation on an ongoing basis and how to bring people with a disability and philanthropists together to start to think about building a shared agenda,’’ she said.