“Living in a more connected way isn’t just pleasurable, it enables us to tackle larger challenges. Problems such as climate change, inequality, inactivity and loneliness threaten our future. Solving them will require collective action. In all of human history, there’s few instances in which a crisis was resolved by one person acting alone.’’ Andrew Leigh and Nick Terrell, Reconnected: A community builder’s handbook.
Co-authors Andrew Leigh & Nick Terrell. Images: Hilary Wardhaugh
Nothing seems truer at the end of this year than the importance of being connected. Thousands of citizens around the globe found themselves cut off from family and friends, during pandemic-driven lockdowns. Others had to suffer the loss of loved ones alone and manage their grief from a distance. For Andrew Leigh, Federal Labor MP and co-author of a recent book about the importance of “reconnecting’’, the advent of COVID-19 demonstrated his point in a myriad of ways.
But it wasn’t just the countless examples of how many communities rediscovered their instinctive need to connect, but also just how integral the not-for-profit sector is to that sense of connectedness and how COVID-19 put such great pressure on so many of those organisations and associations.
“Reconnection isn’t simply about the number of friends we have or the neighbours we know: it’s also having more associations and more people joining them,’’ Dr Leigh explains. “And that work will be incredibly important and will be supported to a large extent by philanthropy.’’
Dr Leigh, who is the Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury and Charities, has spent many years observing how Australians engage with building a sense of community and studying the importance of social capital. A decade ago, he wrote Disconnected. Now, he and Nick Terrell have written a sequel of sorts, a wise, engaging and lucid plea for Australians to rediscover their sense of community and strengthen the social connections that make us more resilient.
The current circumstances provide philanthropy with an opportunity to play a bigger role, according to Dr Leigh.
“We know that government has stepped back from many community associations: [and] because [many of those associations] didn’t have significant cash reserves many found themselves teetering on the brink and will continue to do so in the next couple of years,’’ Dr Leigh explains.
“The foundations who have given more generously are, I think, making a wise decision – they’re recognising that a dollar given to charitable causes in 2020 probably does more good than a dollar given in 2019… and I hope there will be more individuals in Australia who choose to make that decision, although it’s tough given the squeeze the recession has on household budgets.’’
It is, however, the state of the social safety net that gives Dr Leigh pause for thought. Governments help the disadvantaged, but many still miss out, he says, and philanthropy has been the innovator in helping to cover some of the gaps.
“I think there’s a great role for philanthropy to be the research and development division of Australian social policy where philanthropists are looking at what might succeed and when initiatives are proven, then governments can step in and boost them up to scale,’’ he says.
But 10 years on from Disconnected, has philanthropy changed? Has it become more aware of its role and opportunities?
Another aspect of enthusiasm is setting bold goals for giving. In 2010, Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett created something they called ‘the Giving Pledge’, in which they asked billionaires to commit to giving away at least half their wealth. Beginning with forty signatories, the pledge now includes over 200 billionaires. Among them are Elon Musk, Sara Blakely, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Mo Ibrahim, Michael Bloomberg, and Australians Leonard Ainsworth, Nicola Forrest and Andrew Forrest. After committing to give away all but 1 per cent of his US$75 billion fortune, Warren Buffett said ‘I couldn’t be happier with that decision . . . my family and I will give up nothing we need or want by fulfilling this 99 per cent pledge’. Giving isn’t just for billionaires. Philosopher Peter Singer points out that if you are paying for something to drink when safe water comes out of the tap, then you have money to spend on things you don’t really need. Singer, who personally gives over one-third of his income to charity, tells his readers to try a level of altruism that is ‘significantly more than you have been doing so far’. Then, see how it feels. If it feels good, keep doing it.
“We’ve seen a rise in significant foundations, so Minderoo is playing a larger role, the Ramsay Foundation is on the scene: that’s been important and moved us more to where some of those larger US foundations are going,’’ Dr Leigh says.
“What I had hoped to see over that period though was more attention being paid to impact and to measuring what works on the grounds. There’s been some organisations that have carried randomised policy trials of their initiatives - Sacred Heart in Melbourne had a terrific randomised trial looking at intensive caseworker support for homeless people, but they tend to be the exception rather than the norm. so there’s not enough high quality evaluation for my taste.’’
Dr Leigh’s other observation is the need for more analysis of impact. “I’d love to see an Australian version of givewell.org. which I use to guide my giving when I’m looking at overseas causes. But if I want to give to alleviate poverty in Australia rather than poverty in Africa, there’s not a good equivalent of givewell to turn to. And I hope that won’t be the case in a decade’s time.’’
At the moment, however, the impact of COVID-19 on the social sector has been so profound, the building blocks of communities are under great strain. “I think we’re right on the cusp,’’ Dr Leigh says. “It’s entirely plausible to me to imagine that perhaps parts of Australia that underwent a short sharp shutdown might well see a surge in social capital and those that suffered a longer lockdown might see a decline in social capital. And that would be consistent with what we know about natural disasters and social capital – that it’s very much a question of how community groups respond and whether people are able to build a stronger sense of civic society in the aftermath.’’
What can be measured is Australia’s growing inequality, which has seen an uneven distribution of wealth during the past 50 years. “Australia going more towards the path of inegalitarian America rather than towards a more egalitarian Australian tradition,’’ Dr Leigh says. “We need to get that stronger sense of civil society if we’re to make sure people feel a stake in their communities.’’
Reconnected: A Community Builder's Handbook by Andrew Leigh and Nick Terrell.
Published by La Trobe University Press. Available here or wherever good books are sold.