Reflections on our best-case philanthropy

At the end of the week that we announced and celebrated some of the best examples of Australian philanthropy, there’s time to pause and reflect on what made the Australian Philanthropy Award recipients stand out. I spoke to all the recipients and during the interviews, various common themes started to emerge.

For many seasoned philanthropy practitioners and observers, these themes will be well known, but they are worth considering in the context of this week’s Awards and what they can tell us about charting the path towards more and better philanthropy. They are very much personal observations. Others may find different insights that will inform their philanthropy and thinking about giving.

  1. Place-based philanthropy: There is always plenty of discussion within the philanthropic community about this, but in this instance the work of the Inner North Community Foundation and the Fay Fuller Foundation provides two differing examples of its impact. The Inner North Community Foundation – recipient of the Community Philanthropy Award - covers three inner-city council areas in Melbourne and its COVID-19 rapid response grants demonstrated the value of those local connections. As the Foundation’s Grants Assessment Panel Chair Sylvia Admans pointed out, the years of making small grants to many organisations provided a ready-made network to engage with and support at a critical time. “We’ve only ever had the capacity to do quite small grants which means you meet lots of people, lots of organisations and so the knowledge was already there,’’ she said. The experience of Philanthropy Australia’s Better Philanthropy recipient, the Fay Fuller Foundation, was very different – it’s support for the Our Town initiative that is providing several local communities with the support to manage their mental health and well-being is a long-term play: officially 10 years, but by the time the consultation and preparation for the program is added in, it will represent perhaps a 12-13 years’ commitment. As Fay Fuller CEO Niall Fay noted, place-based philanthropy can often be a quick response, but Our Town is providing a different example of sustained exposure to a place-based approach. And there may be lessons there for boards who are prepared to wait for locally driven outcomes, rather than attach funding to a shorter time cycle.
  2. Partnerships/Collaborations: Everyone understands the value of this, and how central it is to effective outcomes. And if there was one thing that was common to all the award recipients, it was the strength of the partnership between the funders and recipients. It’s also fair to say that effectiveness of those partnerships had a bit to do with the following:
  3. Long-term commitment: Whether it was the Indigenous Philanthropy Award recipients the CAGES Foundation and Maari Ma, an Aboriginal community controlled regional health organisation in far west NSW, or Bolder Philanthropy Award recipients Smiling Mind and the Gandel Foundation, there is strong evidence of how a sustained long-term funding arrangement can have deep impact. Common to both Maari Ma and Smiling Mind has been a flexibility to the partnership that has enabled the organisations to develop and grow: for Maari Ma, it was initially a playgroup CAGES funded, but it was followed with funding for other initiatives. Similarly, Smiling Mind’s original iteration of its kids’ well-being and mental health app required different things from Gandel at different times: support to develop a teaching resource around the app and later, to help upgrade the app itself. Central to both examples is the clear willingness to discuss needs, strategies, and potential outcomes. As CAGES Executive Director Gemma Salteri said, they have learned more from Maari Ma than the organisation has from them. And Maari Ma Bob Davis said there were lessons for all funders in the way CAGES supported them. “A long time ago, Maari Ma had discussions with government about the need for longer term funding than just two, three or five years as is the norm.’’ he said. “In order to make a real difference in Aboriginal health and families, you need to invest for at least 10 years. Well, this is what CAGES has done. We are very grateful that CAGES shared our vision for supporting Aboriginal families.’’
  4. Scale and impact: If there’s one thing that makes for eye-catching philanthropy, it’s the capacity for supported organisations to grow and to keep having impacts. While it’s true of most of the award recipients, two in particular stand out: Smiling Mind launched its mindfulness and well-being app nine years ago but now has 6.3 million users. That’s both an endorsement of the app itself but also the demand among many Australians, especially with the pressures and stresses associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. The second example is the Eve Mahlab AO Gender-wise Philanthropy Award, which recognised the Trawalla Foundation, Women’s Leadership Institute Australia, and the University of Melbourne, for its Pathway to Politics program. The initiative to increase female representation in politics is a central element in greater gender equity across business, media, and politics. Since it started in 2016, 45 program alumni have run for election or stood for pre-selection. Thirteen of them have been elected across local, state, or federal government. It has also expanded to the Queensland University of Technology and the University of NSW. As Sarah Buckley, Chief of Staff to Carol Schwartz and CEO, Trawalla Foundation, said: “Everyone who works in philanthropy knows that social change can be so slow…There’s great satisfaction and it’s energising to be part of something that’s creating change remarkably quickly in the scheme of things.’’ 
  5. Granting small: If the COVID-19 crisis revealed anything about philanthropy it was that granting doesn’t have to be large to have impact. In fact, nimble grantmaking can achieve just as much, especially in crisis support or advocacy, as the Best Grant Program Award Rapid Response Grants shows. The joint initiative between Australian Progress', the Australian Council of Social Service, and the Australian Communities Foundation, worked with a pool of funders, provided an expedited application process, and a swift due diligence and disbursement approach, so that $150,000 went out the door to 25 organisations in eight months. The small grants funded targeted advocacy campaigns, which achieved significant change across a range of policy areas. As Australian Progress’s Executive Director Kirsty Albion explained the granting principles: “It had to be an urgent response to COVID-19 – we were looking for organisations that had bold changes and advocacy that they were prosecuting and that were also grassroots in nature - so small organisations, community-led organisations…and prioritized those with lived experience and were innovative, with best practice tools and tactics.’’ While that approach was ideal for advocacy, the marriage of “local’’ and small grants was equally applicable to the Inner North Community Foundation: funding small can still deliver impact.
  6. Trust: It comes in many forms. From one perspective, it’s the understanding that as a funder, you don’t have to be riding shotgun on every decision. As the recipients of the Environmental Philanthropy Award, the Limb Family Foundation and Guardian Australia, understood the need for an arms’ length relationship. Independence is at the heart of Guardian Australia’s identity and approach: and the Limb Family Foundation understood that completely. “We saw there were some synergies there and we also recognized the importance of there being a voice that was independent – we have no say over what they do – but what we were supporting was them having that opportunity to report and provide incredibly well researched information, not only to politicians and industry but everyday readers,’’ Julia Limb, Chair of the Limb Family Foundation said. In other ways, trust is a more obvious signal of equity in the relationship, exemplified by the relationship between Maari Ma and the CAGES Foundation. Rachel Kerry, CAGES Executive Officer, said: “We put trust, autonomy and self-determination on the table with the funding we give to Maari Ma.’’
  7. Capacity-building: One of 2021 Leading Philanthropist Tim Fairfax’s important philanthropic commitments is to capacity building. As he acknowledged, it’s not sexy but it’s critical to building organisational sustainability. It’s also true, in a broader sense, about the work with engineering firm Arup Australia and Engineers Without Borders Australia (EWB) have done in the world’s most disaster-prone nation, Vanuatu. The International Philanthropy Award recipient developed WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) Guidelines in the aftermath of Cyclone Harold in Vanuatu last year, with the goal of not only providing guidance for the nation’s emergency response but also a long-term public health solution. Arup worked with Vanuatu’s Ministry of Health to ensure local buy-in that also helped establish government support to commit to developing national capacity for a better public health outcome. It’s about finding a way to provide the resources – and that can range from personnel to strategic advice – to build that vital capacity.


Nick Richardson, Storyteller, Philanthropy Australia

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