Philanthropy Meets Parliament Summit 2019

What we learnt at #PASummit2019: Sarah Davies

The 2019 Philanthropy Meets Parliament Summit - hosted by Philanthropy Australia at Parliament House and Hotel Realm in Canberra last week - examined the myriad of questions surrounding philanthropy in the service of democracy. After two days of intelligent, challenging, wide-ranging and deeply informed debate and discussion, a number of themes emerged that connected the disparate speakers, panels and philosophies.

By Sarah Davies

The three strong messages that underpinned the content of the Summit were:

  • the importance of sustaining and enabling the much-needed infrastructure of democracy;
  • ensuring all voices, especially those of the marginalised or minority, are sought, valued and heard, and
  • philanthropy is nothing if not active and deliberate participation in the deliberations of society. So much of philanthropy’s work is focussed on building this agency and capacity in others.

We looked at the roles and the relationships of and between, government and philanthropy: their respective characteristics; their power and influence; questions around legitimacy and trust, and we started to identify and explore some of the stresses and strains on the current operating model.

We interrogated the causes and effects of the declining trust in government and politics, and asked ourselves, if “trust is the glue that enables collective action for mutual benefit” (Professor Mark Evans), what then are the consequences when trust is gone? And in that situation, what is philanthropy’s role?  Is there an opportunity for philanthropy to flex its muscles and do what it does really well?

The premise was made and generally accepted, that the mechanics and patterns of government and politics are “ripe for disruption and ready for renewal and reinvention” (Carol Schwartz AO). We saw it as philanthropy’s role and opportunity to consider and implement new forms of decision-making, participation and power-sharing - all of which philanthropy is well positioned to explore and understand.

At the core, we identified the question of power – who decides? In the end, we concluded that the people with the resources - whether public or private – still decide. 

So, if we are not confident that these people with the resources are always the right people to make the decisions, what then? Perhaps we should re-frame the Summit’s question so it is less about the relationship between philanthropy and government and more about the relationship between government and its citizens and the role philanthropy can play to provide a bridge and connection between them.

How should philanthropy enhance, enable and model active citizenship through contemporary democratic processes and mechanisms?

The Summit conversation then turned to influencing, advocacy, lobbying and policy participation. We examined the purpose of influence and agreed it is “to make it easier for politicians and decision-makers to make the right choices for society” (Grahame Morris)

Our speakers shared terrific case studies demonstrating how to influence decisions through using the parliamentary processes. They stressed the importance of understanding these patterns and rhythms and of working within them in order to successfully influence. 

The characteristics of philanthropy were boldly and visibly on display from all our speakers and conversations: nimble, agile, responsive, not tied to timelines, not bound by politics, unfettered, innovative, uninhibited, independent, courageous.

A picture started to form which one of our keynotes, Karl Zinsmeister, pithily described: the “shape of government is inherently uniform, unitary, focused on the sum not the parts, with a one-size-fits-all approach”; whereas the shape of philanthropy is “localised, personalised, driven by values and human individuality”.  

Across the two days, the role of philanthropy emerged clearly and coherently in terms of its service to democracy. Sevaun Palvetzian staked the claim “we are pioneers, we have to be leaders. That’s the mantle that the privilege gives us and our obligation in return for that privilege to be the pioneers”.

Philanthropy’s role as defined during the Summit is:

  • to challenge government;
  • to present solutions, enable the competition of ideas, “crowdsource change on a daily basis” (Sevaun Palvetzian);
  • policy participation - to fill the capability gaps in civil society and community organisations so they can participate in lobbying and advocacy effectively. We need to be the channel for all the voices to be heard and amplified;
  • to be the “ecosystem of trials” (Karl Zinsmeister) – to learn faster;  
  • to fill the fact-gap and the values-void – to find the source of the problem and dig down to the solution.  


Overall, eight key themes played out across the speakers, panels and discussions:

  1. Stop thinking about problem solving with a ‘one-size-fits-all’ mentality.
  2. Resist homogenisation: diversity, diversity, diversity, a key to solving wicked problems.
  3. The absolute criticality of trust and relationships: almost every conversation we had came back to the core tenant of trust in a relationship.
  4. Agree on what we’re there for.
  5. Nurture and support the wisdom of crowds (properly tested) in decision-making.
  6. Be the champions of expertise: facts and expertise matter, whether through lived experience, evidence-base or data: bring expertise into the centre of our thinking.
  7. A really powerful message around civility and balance, and dare I say it, love. Mutual respect.
  8. Resist the urge to polarise, resist the urge to be binary.  It's not a win-lose, it’s not an either-or. Be the natural convenor that allows all the voices to come together and provide the platform where people find their common humanity and therefore, share their common goals and find what unites them.

In conclusion, we hope that in some way we entertained, stimulated, provoked, inspired or, at the very least, helped our members think about their philanthropy and gave them a chance to reflect, challenge and regroup and also connect with peers and colleagues, old and new. Jesse Jackson said: “Deliberation and debate is the way you stir the soul of our democracy” – I think our souls were well and truly stirred!

It was Benjamin Franklin who said: “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb, contesting the vote.” We sincerely thank all our speakers, panel members, moderators and participants who debated with us about whether philanthropy is a wolf or a lamb, and who showed us how philanthropy in the service of democracy can ensure “an equal dispensation of protection, rights, privileges and advantages is what every party is entitled to and ought to enjoy” (Benjamin Franklin).

Thanks to all the official Summit partners and supporters: Paul Ramsay Foundation, Cooper Investors, MaiTri Foundation, Teach for Australia, Australian Executor Trustees, Australian Parliament House, Hotel Realm & Museum of Australian Democracy.



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