Lessons from the trenches: Ian Darling

Tue, 10 Oct 2017

“It’s not the questions I’m worried about, it’s the answers that scare the hell out of me,” says Ian Darling with customary humility.

Darling is about to embark upon a series of masterclasses that will see him share insights from his philanthropic journey with audiences in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane. It’s a rare opportunity to hear and learn directly from a leader whose philanthropic contributions have inspired and incited serious social change.

Though Darling insists he doesn’t have all the answers, chances are his deep experience and hard-won wisdom will bring him pretty close. He is, after all, the creative force behind the Shark Island Institute, The Caledonia Foundation, Documentary Australia Foundation and Good Pitch Australia.

Creativity and connection are the hallmarks of Darling’s philanthropy, which uses the former, in the shape of documentary films, to spark the latter. Gayby Baby, Frackman, The Hunting Ground, That Sugar Film, Happy Sad Man and Blue are just some of the films Darling has helped breathe life into. These are in addition to the ten films he’s directed in his own right including The Oasis and Paul Kelly – Stories of Me.

Beyond output, Darling is also renowned for quality outcomes and coalition building. If convening power is one of philanthropy’s most valuable traits, Ian Darling is a master practitioner. Across three annual events beginning in 2014, Good Pitch Australia raised more than $15 million in philanthropic grants for 19 films and their social impact campaigns and brokered 300+ strategic partnerships between community groups, corporates, nonprofits and policy makers.

Though the Good Pitch Australia events are on hiatus, Ian Darling’s philanthropic work is not done as he explained recently to Philanthropy Australia’s Nicole Richards.

NR – You’ve long been an advocate of storytelling. Why is storytelling so important to social change?

ID – People have always responded to stories because they enable us to put context around an issue. Storytelling is a really important way of getting a complex message across.

With a Good Pitch film like Gayby Baby, this was a story that was told through the eyes of kids whose parents were in same sex relationships and I think that contextualised the issue far more powerfully than any politician trying to tell us what constitutes good or bad parenting. By humanising this emotive and complex issue it got the message across incredibly effectively.

It’s such a privileged position to be taken into someone else’s world whether they’re donating their organs or fighting for their community to stop gas fracking or telling the world they were abused at university or in their own home. These are very personal stories and the more personal they are, the more likely it is that the audience will go on that journey. When the story comes with the authority of personal experience, regardless of how confronting that can be, it will hopefully shift something within the audience.

Along with Gayby Baby, The Hunting Ground was another Good Pitch project that sparked significant change, culminating recently in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s National Report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at Australian Universities. What are your thoughts on the interplay between philanthropy and advocacy?

At the very base level, philanthropy exists because there’s a need in the community for support and in some instances, it’s helping fill the gaps for where governments provide support and in other instances it’s taking up the charge where there’s no support.

The fact that philanthropy exists means that there’s a need, and if we’re filling those gaps every single year and providing funding to areas in need and if that requirement is an annual one, that means there’s some sort of imbalance in the system and something’s wrong.

Unless we, as a philanthropic community, are trying to not only support the gaps, but also try and make the community structurally stronger by using advocacy, then I think we’re only doing half the role that we should be doing in a philanthropic sense.

There can be great leverage in advocacy and at the end of day, philanthropy is still only a tiny part of the overall equation. We’ve got to be strategically smart about what where doing and that’s not only about giving, but trying to change the system.

Advocacy is important not just for large-scale philanthropy but for smaller foundations or individual donors too. The flow-on effects from advocacy can be very significant – the support of philanthropy for an issue can have magnified and lasting benefits.

Take for example That Sugar Film which had a $300,000 campaign. It’s had an incredible impact, shifting the health choices of the nation and suddenly the country is far more aware about the dangers of hidden sugar and the cost to community which is immense – billions of dollars in unnecessary health costs from bad dietary choices. If you looked at the exposure of that film, and the evidence in shifting behavioural patterns, it’s close to a 50 x multiplier on the funding that went in.

What we’re trying to do through advocacy is make a healthier, more tolerant, more understanding and more efficient society.

Philanthropy wouldn’t exist if everything was working properly. So, in my opinion, if you’re not involved in advocacy, your philanthropic dollars are going backwards because unless your corpus is growing faster than the rate of problems in society, your impact is going to be less.

Why would you want to keep throwing your philanthropic dollars at a system in constant need of repair?

Ian Darling

Each year the problems seem to get larger and more complex, so unless you’re trying to change the system, your impact is probably declining each year.

Did you instinctively recognise the need for an integrated approach using advocacy and education right from the start of your philanthropy or was the value of this combination learned through experience?

Philanthropy for me has been very much an evolution, not a revolution.

The shifts I’ve made from business to social impact storytelling are reflective of this. There’s been no single silver bullet as such, it’s come from taking a hands-on approach and making lots of mistakes and getting lots of scar tissue along the way.

There were a few a-ha moments, one of which was when I was travelling with a documentary film of mine in the US in 2004 and saw so that so many of the documentaries I was watching were supported by the philanthropic community. I suddenly saw that documentary and storytelling can be used to great effect and if there’s a considered outreach and education program attached to a film, it’s worthy of philanthropic support. That led to the creation of Documentary Australia Foundation and our own social impact filmmaking which led to the creation of Good Pitch Australia and the ongoing work of the Shark Island Institute.

With 19 films and their associated social impact campaigns either complete or in progress, you’ve retired the annual Good Pitch Australia event. What happens when these 19 films have run their course? Could Good Pitch make a return to the Opera House?

I’m not sure. I think the fact that Shark Island Institute put capacity funding in to the Good Pitch mechanism for the next five years is a huge next step in its own right. I can only think in five-year cycles at this stage but the fact that a not-for-profit’s got full funding for five years isn’t too bad.  

I suspect some of these films will go on for many, many years.

At the same time, we’re developing a new model where we’re going to be supporting the development of up to five new films each year which will have the same rigour and process as these Good Pitch films because we think it’s really important to keep telling these vital stories, whether they’re about human rights or exposing injustices or whatever it may be.

I think what people loved from Good Pitch events was the sense of humanity in the room and at the end of the day there was such a great feeling of hope. I think that was what made it unique – it wasn’t a talkfest, it was more of a do-fest. People could see immediate funding and direct solutions and a strategic approach and that was really empowering.

There are so many stories that need to be told and we’re continuing to reinvent the model but we think what was achieved can be done without necessarily putting everyone in the same room.

Creating smaller circles of influence is one aspect of it but what we also wanted to do was to make this a self-sustaining model. The more filmmakers we work with, and the more the existing filmmaker group trains the sector, and the more foundations that get involved with filmmaking, the less need there is for Good Pitch.

What does leadership look like to you? Who are the leaders who’ve inspired you?

Well, it’s the week after the AFL Grand Final and when I look at a team like Richmond, which came thirteenth last year, but were premiers this year, I think there’s some great leadership there. This time last year, the coach and president were under pressure to be sacked. It takes incredible leadership for Damien Hardwick, the coach, to stick to his plan because he could see the change that had come through and he had a strong strategy and knew that so many of the hard yards were behind them.

Often when the outside world is calling for change they haven’t caught up with what’s already happened behind the scenes.

A true leader is not only strong and strategic and visionary but also has confidence in themselves to withstand the outside pressures. I think that’s applicable not only to sporting leaders but political and corporate leaders too. Often, in the investment game where I came from, the market is selling the stock furiously at a time when it should be buying it – they don’t realise that the company has turned the corner and they’re working on old assumptions.

True leaders can stand their ground when all around them is falling apart and stick with their strategy and get the best team possible around them and be able to articulate their vision.

I’m a Sydney Swans supporter myself so there’s no self-interest in this answer whatsoever, but I think this will be quite a leadership case study. [Full disclosure: Nicole Richards is a Tigers fan and was suitably chuffed by this observation].

Courage is a major thing, and in the philanthropic stakes, I think Rockefeller Brothers in New York have shown incredible courage, not only in terms of who they are and the fact that they’re defined now by their choices to divest from fossil fuels, as well as the rigour and strategic choices in their advocacy which is second to none. They’ve shown what it takes to be relevant and effective and progressive.

What’s one thing you know about philanthropy now that you wished you’d known when you were starting out?

How difficult it is. How you’ve got to take the little wins along the way to keep you going.

If you’re trying to make a significant difference you’ve got to understand that you’ll need to be in it for the long haul. Strategic philanthropy isn’t a one or two-year commitment, it’s 10 or 20 years and it’s hard and you’ve got to get your hands dirty.

To make an impact, you’ve got to be prepared to take risks and make a lot of mistakes along the way.

Someone asked me not long ago if any of my philanthropy had caused more harm than good. I realise that the first donation I ever made probably contributed to a lot of problems. Back in the 1960s there was a massive campaign encouraging kids to bring powdered milk to school to help with the huge food shortages in Africa. So, I did, but it turns out the powdered milk caused all sorts of problems because the local water quality wasn’t good and it undermined breastfeeding and the whole thing had a very questionable impact.

What can people expect at your masterclasses?

I’ll be talking about the theory of change from a very personal perspective, having gone from the world of business to philanthropy to filmmaking to more collective engagement, so it’s more of a story about a journey but in a very honest way.

The journey hasn’t been paved with success, it’s come with a lot of mistakes along the way and hopefully that’s instructive.  

It’s going to be very visual – I’ll have a huge number of video clips that will hopefully keep everyone’s attention even if they get sick of hearing my voice. I hope there’ll be lots of questions too.

Now that I think about it, perhaps the notion of a ‘masterclass’ is wrong. Maybe it’s going to be more like ‘lessons from the trenches’.