Stories in philanthropy

Philanthropy that holds itself accountable: Philanthropic Impact Pioneers

“If you’re a philanthropist, it’s in everybody’s best interest to tell you that you’re doing a great job,” says Menzies Foundation CEO, Liz Gillies. The gap between perception and performance when it comes to philanthropic impact can tell a different story. Ten Australian foundations have signed on to a newly launched program that will help them take an unflinching look at the difference they’re making.

Nicole Richards, November 2018


The Philanthropy: Towards a Better Practice Model report, released in May this year by the Asia Pacific Social Impact Centre, provided some unflattering feedback to Australian funders.

Key among the report’s findings was a disconnect between grant seeker and grant maker perceptions about funding practices, impact and the health of their relationships.

“The report showed huge differences to the extent to which non-profits feel they can have open conversations with philanthropists,” explains report co-author and Menzies Foundation CEO, Liz Gillies.

“There were massive discrepancies in what non-profits were seeking and what philanthropists were funding, and there was a huge issue around evaluation.

“Most of these issues stem from the fact that nothing holds philanthropy to account.”

Gillies felt compelled to take action. In March this year she began developing the Philanthropic Impact Pioneers Program (PIPP) - a direct response to the reported lack of confidence by philanthropic funders in their ability to develop social impact frameworks that would help assess the true impact of their work.

“Among the research findings only 22 per cent of philanthropic respondents indicated that they had a social impact framework that provided insights on the impact of their practice models,” Gillies says.

“Very often there are conversations happening within foundations, especially among a foundation’s professional staff, about the need to identify the data and metrics that will help them develop their strategy, but these are complex and nuanced questions.”

“As I started reflecting on these questions at the Menzies Foundation, I realised that there was something to be said about creating a shared, safe platform to explore these conversations,” Gillies continues. “Everyone’s on their own journey, working with different experts and I thought wouldn’t it be great to bring all of that expertise into a shared space?”

“So, what started as one foundation’s desire to be rigorous in how it held itself to account evolved with the realisation that going on that journey with others would open up a rich and wonderful learning environment.”

Gillies says the Philanthropic Impact Pioneers Program is designed to draw out the nuanced conversation about impact, using data “to define and understand where we sit, using everyone’s shared desire to make an impact to guide us and create a space in which we can learn and improve.”

A consortium of ten philanthropic funders including Australian Communities Foundation, Australia Post, Besen Foundation, Equity Trustees, Fay Fuller Foundation, Ten20 Foundation and Menzies Foundation have signed on to participate in the three-year program, which launched on November 27.

“These people who’ve joined the consortium, aren’t just doing it for themselves,” Gillies says. “They’re making a very significant contribution to the sector because the project is linked to a research team at the Centre for Social Impact and we will be codifying our findings and sharing them with the sector with the genuine hope to have a conversation about where philanthropy finds itself.”

“We’ve got a great group with some really diverse points of view,” Gillies continues.

“What’s exciting is that we’ll be addressing these challenges as a cohort with shared values and, with guidance from some of the world’s leading impact experts, we will develop approaches that will benefit not only individual organisations in the program cohort, but also the sector as a whole.”

The opportunity to collaborate with, and learn from, peers underpinned the Besen Family Foundation’s decision to take part in the program.

“We’re very interested in collaborating with other foundations through the Impact Pioneer Program to consider the impact of granting in response to open grant rounds and programs as well as long-term partnerships with organisations,” says Besen Family Foundation CEO, Tabitha Lovett.

“In the last ten years, evaluation and impact measurement has gained momentum in the philanthropy sector and it has shifted the conversation from asking ‘What causes and organisations should we support?’ to ‘What is shifting as a result of philanthropic support?’ and ‘How do we get better at using that information to inform future granting and refine strategy and focus?’”

For Maree Sidey, CEO of Australian Communities Foundation, being able to confidently articulate impact was a key motivator for participating in the program.

“At this time, more than ever, there are many so pressing issues to tackle,” she says. “It’s important to be able to tell a compelling impact story that is coherent, has authenticity and includes the voices of those we partner with.”

Gillies is confident that the program’s rigorous interrogation of impact will help break down the silos in which funders often find themselve working.

“I think this is about genuinely wanting to collaborate in a way where ego becomes secondary to the desire to make a difference and have an impact,” Gillies says.


For more information about the Philanthropic Impact Pioneers Program, contact Liz Gillies at the Menzies Foundation.




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Photo: Levi Xu on Unsplash

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