Highlights from the 2018 Philanthropy Australia National Conference

Thu, 13 Sep 2018

More than 740 members of Australia’s philanthropic community came together in Melbourne on September 5-6 for the biennial Philanthropy Australia National Conference. Though countless provocations and calls to action were issued, debated and dissected during the thirty conference sessions, two themes reigned supreme: the first was purpose and the need for even bigger philanthropic ambitions; the second was power – specifically, how you shape it and how you share it.

‘Purpose. Is it enough?’ was the theme and starting point for this year’s Philanthropy Australia National Conference which featured three international keynote speakers and a stellar line-up of local philanthropic leaders including David Gonski AC, Alan Schwartz AM and philanthropy leaders of the year, Allan English, Audette Exel and Ian Darling.

Sarah Davies, Philanthropy Australia CEO, welcomed the full-to-bursting roomful of delegates on Day One, encouraging them to make the most of the opportunity to “exploit the disruptive elements of provocation and challenge” embedded within the conference program. And they did.  

While the contemplation of purpose may have been the starting point for the two-day program, the conversation quickly expanded to take in advocacy, trust, power and the political landscape. The prevailing narrative in the vast majority of sessions called for philanthropy to be even more ambitious. To lift its sights, take courage and aspire to greater change.

Though the highlights were many, here, in no particular order, are six of the best.

1. ‘Some of the biggest problems won’t be solved by philanthropy, but maybe they won’t be solved without philanthropy either.’

Larry Kramer, President of the William and Flora Hewlitt Foundation presented the opening keynote address by imploring the philanthropic community to honour its “responsibility to be open and transparent” while “picking problems that matter” and setting ambitious goals. While Kramer recognised that philanthropic funds were miniscule when compared to billion-dollar governmental budgets, he emphasised philanthropy’s incomparable convening power.  

“Some of the biggest problems won’t be solved by philanthropy,” Kramer said, “but maybe they won’t be solved without philanthropy either.”

Kramer identified two issues he considers the most pressing of our time: climate change and the decline of liberal democracy. These he deemed to be “issues in which all philanthropists should be involved.

“Don’t kid yourselves,” Kramer said, “Australia is on the same path as the US. Do not take your democracy for granted, do not treat it as a means to an end.”

Kramer urged immediate action from philanthropy on climate change. “We are underpredicting the scale of the problem,” he said.

“The consequences if we don’t succeed are extreme – the costs are literally incalculable. It will undo the progress on all the issues you’re concerned about and more.”

“We need more resources on the philanthropic side,” Kramer urged. “Only two per cent of global philanthropy is focused on climate. These are immense challenges but so are the opportunities to make billions of people’s lives better.”

2. Advocacy goes mainstream

‘Advocacy’ used to be a topic akin to religion and politics that tended to be avoided in polite philanthropic company – only a few brave souls dared to advocate for advocacy. But, just as religion and politics have become indivisible from the 24-hour news cycle and discussions about the state of the world, so too has advocacy confidently entered the local philanthropic vernacular.

The calls for greater advocacy came thick and fast during the conference with last year’s Marriage Equality Campaign being a heavily referenced example of the power and potential of advocacy to effect change.

Ian Darling AO2017’s Leading Philanthropist, said advocacy was critical to philanthropy’s ability to achieve meaningful outcomes and that the sector needed to “speak more loudly if governments try to take away our ability to advocate – we’ve got to speak up.”

Fred Blackwell from The San Francisco Foundation shared the compelling story of the Foundation’s work to build pathways to equity using people, power and place. “We think of ourselves not just as a grantmaker but how we can engage our donors, partners and civic leadership,” Blackwell said before adding that the Foundation is increasingly focused on policy advocacy and systems change. Blackwell went on to explain how a half-million dollar investment in advocacy for affordable housing resulted in billions of dollars’ worth of value at the ballot box.

In the breakout sessions, the Reichstein Foundation’s John Spierings detailed a powerful advocacy case study on the Justice for Workers campaign to ensure all employees with disability are paid fairly for their work while in another session Kerry Gardner AM from Global Fund for Women pulled no punches when she admonished philanthropy for dismissing “activism” as “a bit over there, a bit university.” Brooke Horne, co-founder of The Equality Campaign and co-recipient of this year’s Best Major Grant at the Australian Philanthropy Awards shared his experience and insights, including the wisdom that “an us versus them mentality means both sides lose.” 

“There is hope,” Horne told the room in his closing comments. “You can play a part in it, you just need to step up.”

3. Probing power: “Where is your power and how do you use, distribute and share it?”

Jeremy Heimans from Purpose opened Day Two with a whirlwind tour of the changing power paradigm in which he likened new power to a current made by many, rather than old power which he characterised as a currency held by few.

The implication for philanthropy, Heimans said, was that the most effective actors were finding ways to effectively blend old and new power. Speaking across both days, Heimans drew on several examples such as his work with Mike Bloomberg to help set up gun reform movement, Everytown and his work with the Gates Foundation to build the power of the people they served.

“The future is a battle for mobilisation – those who can mobilise best are going to win,” he said, adding that, “You can’t escape the political. You can’t change the world without politics.”

“Invest in new power. Spend down your own,” Heimans challenged the audience.

In an earlier session, Joy Anderson from the Criterion Institute (US) sagely observed that “Trust, power and privilege are closely tied together.”

Presenting the closing conference keynote, Danielle Walker-Palmour from the UK’s Friends Provident Foundation also probed the concept of power: “Where is your power and how do you use, distribute and share it?” she asked the audience.

“Think about who you are, where you come from, what you are doing, and most importantly why?”

4. Increasing the transparency of philanthropic giving: the launch of Foundation Maps Australia

Calling Foundation Maps: Australia a “game-changer for strategic giving” Sarah Davies observed that “for far too long the philanthropic sector has been hamstrung by a lack of information and now, for the first time, users will be able to see where grants are going across the country as well as where Australian funders are granting overseas.”

The interactive online platform, a joint initiative of Philanthropy Australia and US-based Foundation Center, brings greater transparency to philanthropic giving that will provide unprecedented insight about the grantmaking practices of Australian foundations and facilitate greater collaboration and reduce duplication of effort. 

Lauren Bradford from Foundation Center in the US was on hand to launch the platform and urged funders in the audience to input their data to help tell their story and that of the sector.

“As our field becomes more strategic and tackles increasingly complex and ambitious social challenges, our ability to work effectively requires timely and accurate data,” Bradford said.

“Through our joint efforts, we hope to turn data into insight providing donors with opportunities to collaborate and achieve their visions of a better world in previously unimagined ways.”

Users will be able to see funding trends, identify who else is funding in their areas of interest, and discover potential new partners for collaboration. Searches can be made by grant, grantmaker, and grant recipient location. Grants will also be searchable by subject area, support strategy, organisation name, year, size, keyword, grantmaker type and transaction type. Already Foundation Maps: Australia has tracked 8,700 grants worth $552 million to over 3,660 recipients.

5. Collaboration and collective effort

Collaboration was another pronounced theme, particularly in the 20 breakout sessions where the breadth and span of case studies and topics made it a challenge to select just one in each time slot. From personal stories of family giving to collective efforts to mobilise and nurture social movements, the powerful results of collective effort were on full display.

The need for cross-sectoral collaboration was also a key takeaway from the Edelman Trust Barometer which anchored the ‘Purpose and the Crisis of Trust’ panel session on Day One. Edelman Australia CEO Steve Spurr told the audience that “philanthropically-led organisations are the most trusted thing we have in Australia, so you have a role in fixing the system.”

The Criterion Institute’s Joy Anderson agreed, saying: “Philanthropy plays a significant role in looking across the sectors and shaping business and questions of how a democracy functions.”

The Edelman Report also showed that 65 per cent of Australians believed CEOs should take a leadership stance on change rather than waiting for government to impose it, suggesting that opportunities for collaboration with the corporate sector and corporate philanthropy stand to be more powerful than ever.

The importance of listening to and learning from non-profits and the communities they serve was another subject that received plenty of attention with former Leading Philanthropist Allan English noting that “the model isn’t broken but clearly we can get better. As philanthropists, we get siloed but we have to keep asking ourselves, ‘Where are the conversations and learnings from our non-profit partners?’”

Respecting the expertise and knowledge inherent in communities and non-profits was a point that Audette Exel made emphatically: “It’s not our job to find solutions, but to support others to find their solutions,” she said.

“The philanthropic community needs to get its act together and fund operating costs and stop beating nonprofits up.”

This would have been music to the ears of Save the Children CEO, Paul Ronalds, who, on Day One, eloquently detailed the forces of “change and strain” that non-profits currently contend with. Ronalds said changes to funding, contract consolidation, decreasing margins, increasing costs and expectations had made him very concerned for the sector.

“The sector is woefully unprepared for the changes we’re seeing,” Ronalds said. “I don’t think executive teams and boards are sufficiently focused on these trends.”

“We need transformation that goes beyond the funding model and beyond the operating model. We need philanthropy and the charity sector to bring government and the corporate sector to the table because we all need to work together.”

6. Remembering the joy of giving

Joy is a word that doesn’t get nearly enough airtime in most philanthropic discussions but there were more than a few mentions during the conference and particularly the panel discussions. Arun Abey and David Gonski AC both shared personal stories about the unexpected and deeply rewarding benefits of giving with the former noting that “the joy of doing something that has a [positive] effect” has an even “bigger payback”. Speaking to the importance of ‘head and heart’ Gonski recounted a recent business meeting during which he suggested the addition of “a KPI that relates to one’s heart”, though he said, “it didn’t go down so well.”

The Hon Jeff Kennett AC made repeated calls during the panel discussion on ‘Purpose and the Crisis of Trust’ for greater “advocacy about the benefits of philanthropy” and “the concept of giving.”

Adara Group founder and former Philanthropy Leader of the Year, Audette Exel AO, admitted that she “agonised every day” about the extent of need in the world, urging the audience to follow their passion and contribute “their stitch in the tapestry.” Ultimately, she said, what kept her going was the joy she received from giving.

Rounding out Day One with the most exquisite expression of joy, were the dancers from e.motion21, a non-profit that provides dance and fitness programs for children and young adults with Down syndrome. [If you find yourself short on joy, take a look at the e.motion21 YouTube channel].

View the conference photo gallery here.


‘The power dynamic is not real, it’s a creation that becomes real only because everyone wants to believe it’: Larry Kramer

Recalibrating a foundation’s purpose: Danielle Walker Palmour

“As funders I think we can all do a better job of listening”: Fred Blackwell, The San Francisco Foundation

With thanks to our 2018 Conference Partners