‘Philanthropy is a portrait of readiness,’ says incoming Community Foundations Australia CEO Ian Bird

Dee Rudebeck Fri, 10 Nov 2023

The expansion and strengthening of the place-based community foundations network is a key plank in Philanthropy Australia’s double giving agenda. The network will be instrumental in developing a language and culture of giving at the local level never seen before in this country. As Ian Bird prepares to take on his new role, the internationally recognised for-purpose leader says change is coming – and it will be accessible to all.  

“There’s a clear direction to work from the bottom up – as a growing network with all sorts of partners – to make the community foundations model an essential social infrastructure that everyone can turn to, contribute to and benefit from,” said Ian after presenting his vision for Community Foundations Australia to our Philanthropy Meets Parliament Summit in Canberra in October. 

Ian brings a depth of experience to the role as the former CEO of Community Foundations ​of ​Canada from 2011 to 2020, and most recently as chair of the ​Global Fund for Community Foundations​. At the Canadian peak body, he oversaw its transformation from an association of independent entities to a “network of purpose”, working together and with other sectors on domestic and global priorities as diverse as reconciliation with Indigenous communities, gender equity, social finance and shifting patterns in giving. 

​​​Community foundations are charitable funds established and managed by local people to meet the needs of their communities. They build permanent financial assets and local volunteers lead community engagement, stewardship of funds and operations management. Currently​, just over half of the Australian population has access to a local community foundation, with ​more than 40 across ​the country.​ ​​​​But Ian’s remit is ​to ​grow that. “There is so much strength and vision within the network here, but there is still a long way to go,” he said. 

Australian community foundations are in a prime position to “leapfrog” ahead in development under his watch. “The good stuff we can take from Canada is the clear intention that this is something that is not a ‘nice to have’. There are all sorts of reasons to get very serious about building the community foundation field and to draw on best practice from abroad,” he said. 

Centre Indigenous peoples’ experiences into the model from the start 

“What we can do differently is that we can centre Indigenous peoples’ experiences into the model from the get-go. We can build bridges for those who have differences and diversities in a way that community foundations in Canada did not incorporate into their formation. They formed more of an elite structure that had to evolve. 

“We can jump right past that in Australia because so much of the field is still to be built. And we can draw on the Australian ethos of directness and openness. There’s a propensity to share in a team sport way here that seems natural to the country,” said the former Olympian, who represented Canada in field hockey at the Summer Olympics in Sydney in 2000 and at Seoul. 

Having arrived from Canada only days before the Summit, once he is in post, Ian is keen to meet with community foundation practitioners across the country and hear their diverse stories of local action. 

Top of his priorities is developing the network so that all Australians have access to a community foundation. That would be done with an “ethic and integrity” that centres people in that process who wouldn’t normally have participated. “Then we create not just a local community philanthropy in one place after the other, but a ‘network of purpose’ that can be an Australian asset that will work at scale countrywide. That’s the invitation, that’s what I’ve been hired to do,” he said. 

“The only way to do that is a tonne of hard work within the community foundation field. But then to invite all the partners from private foundations to governments, to universities, to local authorities. It’s only ever worked by having a real co-operative, collective undertaking.” 

‘Australia would be more fair and equitable’ 

The country would look quite different if CFA achieves its aspiration. “We would see a more fair and equitable Australia, meaning communities would have a sense of self-determination to generate solutions on the ground that come with their own capability, their own resources, their own local relationships and their own patterns of making a difference.  

“There are all sorts of things that CFA can do once and make available to all the foundations rather than each one having to create its own set of capabilities. Then foundations can spend their energy engaging with the community around local issues and needs. And when facing issues that transcend any one community, such as climate change or housing challenges, if there is a strong network of purpose built on local leadership and understanding, that’s the sweet spot,” said Ian. 

The community foundation movement is 100 years old in Canada but there was a real “inflection point” after the financial downturn in 2007 that galvanised all sorts of efforts, he said. “There’s now $8 billion in the overall capability of the network of 200-plus community foundations. As it matured, it became serious about equity and its commitment to reconciliation with First Nations peoples.”  

The way that the model expanded in Canada has a natural synergy with the Australian double giving agenda and a national giving campaign. “The Canadian experience says when you have that highly trusted local institution, it allows a neighbour to see a neighbour contributing to giving. And behavioralists will remind us that at the end of the day, having an actual place to make your gift really matters. In Canada, people at the community level were able to pass on the baton in a way that accelerated the pace of giving in a way we never anticipated,” said Ian. 

“That’s the social messaging that goes with the social infrastructure. Jack Heath [Philanthropy Australia CEO] was right when he said at ​the ​Summit that there will be a point in the future when we look back on this moment and say this is when Australians got serious about creating a different future for themselves with one another by sharing resources and an infrastructure of true community support. And over time, that message goes out that encourages more giving,” he said. 

The network ‘becomes a flywheel for private funders’ 

The community foundation infrastructure in Canada developed significant partnerships with universities, health authorities and other major civil organisations, along with private funders, which were attracted by the network’s socially minded civic leadership that was helping shape community outcomes for the better.  

Ian said that the network infrastructure became a “flywheel”. “Private foundations looked at community foundations and said, ‘We want to start working with them because the issues we’re dealing with show up in multiple places’. Say it’s a regional strategy, private foundations can work with 10 local community foundations and make significant progress around a bigger issue, such as the environment,” he said. “It’s almost like a ladder.” 

“Australia has some amazing infrastructure that already exists, such as ​the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal​. We didn’t have that in Canada.” 

Ian ​described coming​ away from the Canberra Summit feeling that philanthropy was “a portrait of readiness for all the fields to be fundamentally shifted and changed”. “The day was an emphasis of what’s possible and, for me, a surprising alignment of political leadership across representatives of all the parliamentary parties saying, with some nuances, that they’re on board. It’s a shared agenda. That’s really powerful.” 

Ian said that change driven from a grassroots distillation can be a “protective argument” in times of growing populism, pressure on democracy and increased inequality and disconnection. “Having a sense of community-based self-determination creates agency, empowerment and a belief that actually we can create our future. That kind of Australia will be much more resilient, and if we achieve it, we’ll probably look at some of the big issues on the table now quite differently.”