‘Advocacy is political, but so too is silence’

Rachel Ball Fri, 5 May 2023

Rachel Ball, new CEO of the Reichstein Foundation, reflects on how far philanthropy in Australia has come in supporting advocacy. But what more can philanthropy do to unleash its full power?

A group of 31 funders pledged over $17 million last week in support of Yes campaigns for Voice. This outpouring of support from Australia’s philanthropic community is a show of respect for First Peoples and a call for a fairer, more united Australia. It’s also a stark illustration of how far our sector has come in its support for advocacy.

When the Reichstein Foundation began funding advocacy around 30 years ago, it was considered by many to be risky, radical and far too political.

It’s true, advocacy is political (as opposed to partisan), but so too is silence. Unless our greatest aspiration is maintenance of the status quo, we must push for change. The pushing is work and it requires resources. Philanthropists have increasingly recognised the importance of advocacy in creating change.

I have worked in human rights and social justice advocacy for more than two decades and witnessed firsthand the impact of increased philanthropic support for advocacy. Today, people with lived experience of injustice are more likely to advance solutions and lead public debate; messaging is well-researched and capable of shifting public narratives; and advocacy organisations and coalitions have built the expertise and infrastructure to create thriving, popular movements.

“We should celebrate this success, but not rest on our laurels. There is much more that philanthropists can do to embrace and unleash the full power of advocacy through our roles as changemakers, investors and funders.”

To start, we should use our voices and platforms to contribute to advocacy initiatives where our participation is strategic and supported by civil society.

For example, the stage-three tax cuts due to come into effect in 2024 will slash more than $254 billion in 10 years from Government revenue. That’s more than a quarter of a trillion dollars the government won’t have to spend on education, international development, the environment, health, the arts, or the multitude of issues that Australian foundations care about and fund. To put this in perspective, Philanthropy Australia estimates Australia’s total annual structured giving to be around $2.5 billion. Philanthropy is important, but we’re not the main game.

As groups including the Australia Institute and ACOSS have pointed out, these cuts make our tax system less progressive (that is, they mainly benefit high-income earners) and will disproportionately disadvantage women. In cases such as this, where the issues we seek to address are exacerbated by poor policy and where civil society would welcome our participation, we should have something to say.

We can also advocate for change in our capacity as investors. Australian trusts and foundations hold around $50 billion of endowments. Some of the companies we have ownership stakes in are forces for good. Others are causing and perpetuating the very problems we are spending our granting dollars to


Where companies are causing harm, divestment is one approach. Another approach is to join investor advocacy efforts to push those companies to change. Organisations including ACCR and Market Forces have demonstrated that effective shareholder action can yield impressive results.

Finally, we can do more to ensure that our granting policies and processes don’t deter charities from engaging in advocacy. For example, our understanding of how impact is demonstrated and reported needs to account for advocacy’s often slow and circuitous path to success.

Advocacy is one of the best ways to tackle intractable issues built into the fabric of our societies, but those issues rarely unravel quickly or easily, and often require years of sustained efforts.

An organisation such as the Centre for Policy Development might secure dozens of meetings with key policymakers in Canberra over years before securing critical policy reform; Tomorrow Movement might train thousands of young people to organise and mobilise before its movement sees their demands for economic and environmental justice met; and the Human Rights Law Centre might run and even lose a legal action or two before politicians hear the message that it’s time to act.

“To genuinely back advocacy as a critical lever for change, patience, flexibility and trust must be built into our reporting and evaluation systems.”

To some of us, these ideas might feel uncomfortable. But one thing I’ve noticed throughout my career is that you rarely win major change without a bit of discomfort along the way, so let’s embrace it!