10 Questions with...Wendy Scaife

“Like the Beatles, getting by with a little help from our friends…’’

This week in 10 Questions, ACPNS Associate Professor, Wendy Scaife, reflects on the Centre's 20-year journey and discusses donor stagnation, an open role for more high net worth Australians and trying to understand why people give - and don't give.

A lot has happened in philanthropy since the Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies was established at QUT 20 years ago. What was the state of play for the sector back then? What are the challenges for the next two decades? Here ACPNS director Associate Professor Wendy Scaife reflects on the journey and speculates on the road ahead.  

1. The ACPNS has just turned 20: what have you learned about the sector in the past two decades? How have those lessons shaped the way ACPNS engages with the sector?

It’s tough to distil learnings across philanthropy, nonprofit and social enterprise over so many years! And before becoming a Centre in 2001, ACPNS operated for a decade as the Program on Nonprofit Corporations. But drawing from the 22,000 outputs, 1500 free tools, resources, events, webinars, podcasts and more four learnings include:

  • Nonprofit specific leadership remains the Xfactor in our sector’s success or failure.
  • The sector is constantly evolving (think social enterprise, B Corps and crowdfunding as some examples). But not so great that too much evolution has been more in response to external pressures than internal direction or strategic thinking/acting/speaking as a sector.
  • Good evidence creates sector change faster, and also wards off some of those kneejerk and uninformed pressures from the government (think the advocacy debate) or from community misperceptions about the sector (think the tired and constraining administration costs issue).
  • Giving is both wonderful – and underpotentialised in our country.

Such lessons have shaped our theory of change to be that:

  • the best sector (and therefore) community return comes from working with leaders/emerging leaders in sector organisations – of all sizes, grassroots upwards.
  • as one of only a handful of dedicated education/research organisations in our sector, we know we need to collaborate with one another, and with the different minds across our universities who can help solve complex issues.
  • working on projects where possible that benefit the sector as a whole, or the major subsectors of philanthropy, nonprofit and social enterprise sees all boats rising on a rising tide of benefit.
  • ​co-creating evidence-driven solutions with sector individuals and organisations will build stronger voice and impact.

​When our founding director Emeritus Professor Myles McGregor-Lowndes created this centre there was no nonprofit/philanthropy studies discipline in Australia. Myles and the late Professor Mark Lyons (University of Technology Sydney) carved out that thinking/research/training agenda that has made sector organisations more productive, data savvy, internationally connected and well led. They dug the well.

2. Take us through the ACPNS journey – how hard was it to find support and engagement with the concept of an academic centre of research and learning two decades ago?

ACPNS was no ‘overnight success’. Myles and colleagues from the sector and universities forged the Program On Nonprofit Corporations across a decade to prove the scale of the knowledge gap and what would happen when a collaborative sector/university partnership started to dig up that knowledge and fill that hole. Literally 100 working papers later in 2001, the Atlantic Philanthropies, the Myer Foundation, John T. Reid Charitable Trusts, and QUT generously donated funds to ensure the work could scale up, a course could be created for sector leaders/emerging leaders and more co-created knowledge could be applied to the knowledge gap.

One barrier was a belief by some that such a Centre should only operate in Melbourne - an attitude much changed these days.

3. What were the pivotal moments that made you realise that the ACPNS was here to stay?

Before charting those pivotal moments I would say that any entity that assumes it’s ‘here to stay’ is a potential dinosaur. If you are not agile and seeking to transform your own organisation, how can you be transformative for and with others? That said, we are one of only two QUT Centres who have survived for 20 years. Why have we made it through four lifetimes of a typical university centre so far?

Like the sector we serve and come from, we are a values-based organisation and our core values are Generosity, Integrity and Collaboration.

We take QUT’s University for the Real World ethos seriously. Success for our team genuinely has never ended at acceptance of a journal paper – powerful as an endorsement of substance and independent review that process is. We have always been focused on research priorities that create needed solutions and opportunities and taking this into our teaching and the sector. The proof is in impactful research such as examples highlighted in Question 4 below.

Pivotal moments have been:

  • realising the difference specialized philanthropic, nonprofit and social enterprise study made to leaders and their organisations. Giving people new skills, confidence, networks and knowledge has changed the course of many organisations, individuals and communities. Hearing their organisations were no longer operating illegally after students sat through certain classes for instance!!
  • when our research/resources downloads reached the position of being second only to Robotics across the university – we knew we were meeting a widespread need.
  • experiencing other countries (e.g. Canada) adopting our evidence-based NSCOA.
  • like the Beatles, getting by with a little help from our friends - the hearty ongoing friendship of major industry leaders and peak bodies across two decades  from the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal (FRRR) to Philanthropy Australia, Fundraising Institute Australia, Creative Partnerships Australia, the Community Council for Australia, Australians Investing in Women, the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network to name a few, alongside the guidance of a dedicated Advisory Board with household names in our sector. We thank them all.

4. Over the 20 years, what are the innovations and collaborations that you believe helped shift thinking, and perhaps behaviour within the sector?

The ATO data.

The most perennial collaboration is the memo of understanding with the Australian Tax Office to annually crunch the tax deductibility data. This has created Australia’s most consistent giving research database, back to 1978. Trend data is golden, and this analysis has charted the impact of disasters, the global financial crisis, stock market dips and the power of new structured giving forms such as PAFs.

World class thinkers.

Working with international colleagues who are friends of the Australian sector has seen a leapfrogging of Australian knowledge and research capability. It’s linked the Australian sector and researchers to international thinking through the generous vision of funding Myer and Potter Foundation Scholars who have brought the world’s leading thinkers to this country. Dr Diana Leat, Professor Helmut Anheier, Professor Susan Phillips, Professor Mark Sidel and many others.


Making the National Standard Chart of Accounts available to the sector has been a significant step forward in professionalising and standardising the sector’s accounting and financial systems. It has created data dictionaries and systematic, benchmarkable acquittals that save significant time and money for the sector by axing red tape.

Nonprofit Carfleet Safety

Hundreds of thousands of nonprofit dollars – and likely some lives – have been saved since ACPNS’ early work on the high accident rate of nonprofit car fleets.

Ideal NPO Reserves.

Recent work with Potter Foundation Scholar Dr Renee Irvin includes innovative analysis of the still evolving ACNC data to determine the levels of reserves needed (and held or not held) by Australian nonprofits of different sizes and cause areas. The results are astounding and will be released soon.

5. What have been the challenges confronting philanthropy that you’ve helped identify in the past 20 years? And how many of those challenges are still an issue?

Donor stagnation and the open role for more high net worth Australians.

The ATO data analysis has highlighted the giving participation slump despite the dollar amount of giving going up. It also points to the stubborn statistic of nearly half of $1m+ tax deductible income earners not claiming a tax-deductible donation. Robust numbers carry weight and warn of looming issues and opportunities and these two issues are still very live.


Accountability has been an ongoing theme in our research around charities, philanthropic organisations and social enterprises – and it remains a burning issue.

Understanding giving needs and opportunities.

Another ongoing theme for ACPNS has been understanding why people give – and don’t give. The nation’s two Giving Australia studies have set the agenda for what will grow giving across all sources in the decade to come. For instance, after the first Giving Australia study in 2005, we collaborated with Perpetual to unpack the role of planned versus spontaneous giving, having found that people who plan their giving donated four times as much! By the second Giving Australia in 2016, this had grown to six times as much. Great guidance and impetus for the collaborative effort Philanthropy Australia is leading to double structured giving in this country by 2030.

6. How hard is it to actually bring an academic framework to the simple act of giving, in whatever form that giving takes?

It’s not bringing an academic framework that’s hard. That is joyful and liberates thinking. What is tough is communicating it and engaging with time-poor practitioners and boards for whom new ideas may require energy/time their work and volunteer lives don’t allow. There is still the nonsense thinking from some that academics are about pointless theory. This irks me because it stifles the sector’s innovation. Many academics bring deep nonprofit/philanthropic real life experience to our research. Research is about value adding and as Lewin said, there is nothing so practical as a good theory.

7. What do you think (or what does your research tell you) is the biggest impediment to stimulating growth in Australian giving?

It comes down to awareness of need, exposure to giving as a great way to fill it and showing people it is easy and doable at whatever level they can manage.

Giving Australia work (with our CSI Swinburne friends Distinguished Professor Jo Barraket, the late Dr Christopher Baker and team) established philanthropists and foundations believed more affluent Australians would give if:

  • they were exposed to giving and its impacts
  • giving were supported, encouraged and celebrated in this country
  • easier pathways existed (technology, giving circles etc)

The household survey in turn pinpoints people:

  • feel they can’t afford to give
  • prefer to volunteer
  • feel the government should shoulder need through taxes
  • are concerned about the privacy of information shared with charities.

8. If you could wave a magic wand, what (government or private) data or insight would you most like to have access to? Why is it so important and why is it currently off limits or too hard to access?

If we are to grow more structured and planned giving it is important to have more data on those who do this already. This means ideally the chance under strict university research ethics to know more for instance about structures such as charitable Will trusts and sub-funds within PubAFs.

Such valuable data has been off limits due to privacy concerns (or the belief there are privacy concerns) and because it costs money to analyse data properly and accurately communicate findings. So this is not a priority for the ATO or the ACNC, who hold the data.

9. It’s also 20 years of the establishment of Private Ancillary Funds – many hail the PAF as one of the best things to happen in a generation. Has it been? Has it lived up to its promise?

Change and a shot in the arm was needed and full marks to David Gonski and his Prime Minister’s Community Partnership for this innovation. Growth in PAFs is steady but far from exponential, so no, it hasn’t yet lived up to its promise. Awareness remains a barrier. A big succession issue is also looming for PAFs, as founding trustees age.

10. What should be the next innovation for Australian philanthropy? Does it come from government or the sector itself?  

Innovation is welcome from wherever it comes but ideally it should spark from the sector itself or be co-created. Of course, we would all like to see donations enabled from superannuation. But innovation means many things. It can be thinking differently. We have chosen to back different thinking in the form of joining with other centres to act also these days as the Centre for Future Enterprise – which means we envision and test future forms of enterprise. Currently we are looking at concepts such as Agile Trust, Transformative Governance, External Enablers to Social Entrepreneurship and How Enterprises can ‘enfranchise’ (versus disenfranchise). An approach we hope can transform the sector and its thinking across the next decade.

“Without ACPNS the sector would not be anywhere near as knowledgeable, robust or dynamic as it is today. The Centre has assisted in much-needed policy reform through credible research and paved the way for a capable and influential nonprofit sector here in Australia.” - Dr Ursula Stephens | Former Australian Senator, Former Parliamentary Secretary for Social Inclusion and the Voluntary Sector, CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia

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