Q&A with Penny Dakin, outgoing CEO of ARACY: ‘Philanthropy’s willingness to be brave and bold will be key’

Fri, 15 Dec 2023 Estimated reading times: 4 minutes

Philanthropy and government have come together to improve the wellbeing and opportunities of children and young people in what could be the largest ever structured collaboration between the sectors in the country’s history. The Investment Dialogue for Australia’s Children is shaping up as an unprecedented, long-term, integrated approach to support young people and their families to thrive – with community and First Nations voices to be at its heart. ARACY – Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth is acting as the Strategic Convenor of this important initiative.

1. Why is the Investment Dialogue for Australia’s Children (Investment Dialogue) such a groundbreaking collaboration between communities, philanthropy and government?

We know that governments, as major investors in the communities of Australia, are spending a significant amount of money to tackle entrenched disadvantage. We know that many philanthropists do the same and often they’re working towards the same objectives and outcomes. But up until this point, efforts have not always been connected and there hasn’t always been harmony or alignment to those goals and objectives. We also know more needs to be done to ensure the work is truly informed by the voices of community, and grounded in principles of self-determination. This is what the Investment Dialogue is aiming to achieve and what makes the Investment Dialogue collaboration unique.

2. At the roundtable in Canberra, $65 million worth of initiatives funded by philanthropy were announced. What else does philanthropy bring, along with the financial commitments?

The financial commitments from many of the philanthropists are significant, and even smaller funders spend a significant proportion of their endowments in these communities. So, we’ve got to celebrate those because they are really important, and philanthropy brings a number of other things as well. Philanthropy brings innovation and willingness to take risks. For example, we’re starting to see from philanthropy many more innovative approaches to principles around First Nations’ self-determination and community-led practice. Philanthropy’s willingness to take risks, to be brave, to be bold, to be innovative is going to be a key part of the Investment Dialogue.

3. What are your ambitions for what the Investment Dialogue for Australia’s Children will achieve?

The Investment Dialogue is not a pool of funding. It is genuinely about trying to bring alignment and different ways of working to both the way government and philanthropy are funding initiatives in communities. My greatest ambition is that we’ll be able to transform the way that investments are made in communities to actually allow communities to drive what investments are used for, and do it over the long-term to achieve a more inclusive and equitable Australia. This is a 10-year commitment, and it’s going to take 10 years to embed those different ways of working.

What I’m really excited about is that the Investment Dialogue is an acknowledgement of the unique roles that everybody has to play. There is a role for government, there’s a role for philanthropy, there’s a role for experts and researchers, and there is a fundamental role for the voices of the communities and the voices of First Nations Australians. What I really hope is that we are able to conduct the business of the Investment Dialogue in a way that privileges and allows each of those voices to articulate the roles at which they’re best.

4. What are you hoping for in terms of impact? What would Australia look like, if successful?

There are going to be different levels of impact. At that systemic level, coming up with these different models of working and funding investment is going to be a significant outcome. We’ll hopefully find innovative ways of disrupting some of the challenges that communities face in receiving funding from a variety of different investors. If we can create the environment where those type of disruptions become normalised, we’ll be able to overcome the barriers that are currently holding communities back from being able to utilise funding to the fullest of its potential. That will be a huge impact.

I hope that we will see population-level changes. One of the reasons behind the Investment Dialogue to begin with was that we looked at research by Jesuit Social Services, the ‘Dropping off the edge’ report. It showed that many communities in the lowest 30% of socioeconomic status have been the same communities for 30 years.

What we want to see ultimately is that this changes for those communities. There’s always going be people in the lowest percentiles, even if we lift everybody. But wouldn’t it be nice to change the story for some of those communities who have been really struggling with this entrenched disadvantage for decades?

From an ARACY perspective, as an organisation that’s driven to improving outcomes for children and young people, what happens if we can fundamentally change the trajectories of the kids so they have just as much chance of being able to do whatever it is that they dream to do as somebody who’s born in the eastern suburbs of Sydney or the western suburbs of Perth.

If the Investment Dialogue is successful, Australia would look more equitable. The fact that your postcode determines so much about your life experience is fundamentally the issue we want to change.

5. What’s ARACY’s role?

ARACY is the Strategic Convener for the Investment Dialogue. We’re basically the safe space in the middle with government and philanthropy. We’re not investors so we don’t have any financial skin in the game. We have an eye to what it means for children and young people to thrive, and what it looks like for a community to thrive.

ARACY’s role is to make sure that at every step of the way we’re grounding the work, the innovation and the evidence in community and First Nations voices. Our role is also to help facilitate our government and philanthropic partners to be curious and to push outside what’s comfortable in the current systems and structures that exist for them as two separate cultures.

6. What are the next steps?

Early in the new year, ARACY will be focussed on implementing the outcomes of the first Roundtable, which took place on 4 December 2023. This includes establishing a Community Leadership Council and a First Nations Leadership Council to elevate community and First Nations voices and embed lived experience in all facets of the Investment Dialogue.

It also includes establishing a Data Working Group to prioritise improvements to data practices, including community access to data, and a Place Working Group to investigate targeted, place-specific solutions that are community-led and to collaborate on work under way across government and philanthropy.

7. What was the feeling in the room at the roundtable? What does it feel like to have the Investment Dialogue formally under way?

It feels like Christmas! We’re really delighted to get the Investment Dialogue for Australia’s Children off the ground formally. The feedback has been that the roundtable was productive and fun. It’s very rare to get the CEOs of major philanthropies and senior government officials and ministers in a room for a serious discussion and they describe it as fun. We pushed them outside their comfort zone to work in slightly different ways, so I’m pleased that was the feedback.

We were really privileged to have April Lawrie, South Australia’s Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People, attend along with the Minister for Indigenous Australians, the Hon Linda Burney MP. The combination of collaboration and respect for community voice was palpable. There was a great shared spirit of commitment in the room.