“We aren’t the ones with the expertise’’

10 Questions with...Deborah Barlow, CEO, the Barlow Impact Group

The Barlow Impact Group recently launched its new vision, including an annual $1 million grant through its BIG Change Program to address inequality in our region. Deborah Barlow, CEO, the Barlow Impact Group, talked to Philanthropy Weekly about what’s behind the vision and what it means to reimagine philanthropy.

PW: “Philanthropists are the mere facilitators of change, simply those holding the money. The front line is where the answers lie,’’ your new vision statement says. How big a change in approach does this statement represent for your group? And more broadly, how widespread a view do you think it is among Australian philanthropy?
 

Deborah: It’s all been a huge change for us. We knew through established research that supporting women and girls multiplied impact, so we did that. Don’t get me wrong - having a clear mission is very important, However, we have come to realise through recent events that it can limit the greatest strength that philanthropy has – that is, our ability to pivot to the everchanging needs of the world. We had too much of our granting funds tied up and were not able to respond as quickly as we would have liked. We also felt spread too thinly: we funded, and we trusted, but we didn’t feel we were really partnering with any of our grant recipients.

We wanted to be able to focus and respond to their needs more immediately. I had also felt very nervous about tackling certain issues because we didn’t have the expertise or knowledge. However, I came to the realisation that I was looking at this all wrong: although philanthropists should always turn their mind to the real possibility of doing more harm than good, we aren’t supposed to be the ones with the expertise. We are the ones with the big cheques.

It is, in fact, that arrogant way of thinking that can lead to bad Philanthropy: Philanthropy that is more about the giver, and not addressing the most important problems in our society. It also, could lead to bad behaviour on the part of the NFP – I started to see examples of bending programs to fit in with the remit of the foundation.

We are supposed to trust and learn from our partners, but with smaller grants I wouldn’t want to ask a not-for-profit to take time away from their important work to teach me all I should know on a hugely complicated issue. So single, larger grants and closer partnerships seemed like the obvious solution. Asking those doing the work where the answers lie also seemed obvious. Admitting we don’t know the answers is just smart and leads you to be able to uncover those that do.
 

What’s your expectations about the impact you can make by changing your approach?

Deborah: One large million-dollar grant hopefully will make the partnership exactly that; a partnership. For us, we hope to learn how to be better philanthropists, by looking closely at an organisation and all its needs. We don’t prescribe how they spend the money, instead the recipient will tell us what they need in order to grow, to deliver more and therefore to become better at what they do. For our partner, our hope is that they feel supported and can shift the grant money through different parts of their organisation based on immediate need, not on what was promised to a donor. We are also asking applicants to identify how much of the grant will be dedicated to leveraging other funding which will further multiply the potential for impact. Furthermore, we hope issues that aren’t on the front page of the paper might emerge, those that are not being well funded right now and in need of attention.
 

You mention that COVID has energised your organisation – how has the pandemic helped to shift your thinking?

Deborah: The COVID crisis exposed the need for flexibility beyond a singular mission at times of crisis when all humanity is in need of support. It also has highlighted the need to address inequality more broadly. Not just gender inequality, but financial, geographical and racial inequality for example. We, like everyone, have felt desperately hopeless and as a foundation we felt like we should be in a position where we actually could do more to help.
 

How much of the new focus is also about sending a signal to some others in philanthropy that it needs to shift power and trust to those who are on the ground?

Deborah: I certainly hope the shift of our corpus to 100% impact/ESG investments influences the sector. As far as our grants program is concerned my hope is that we can prove the model that shifting the balance of power to the grant recipient results in more impactful outcomes. Philanthropists often fail to recognise the power they have to influence not-for-profits in the competition for the dollar. Understanding what their role is, and probably more importantly, what it isn’t is central to good philanthropy. In my opinion, if you understand that your role is to serve the not-for-profit by allowing them to work to their highest capability then you are well on your way.
 

How hard was it to shift to this new thinking? Or was it one of those things that was actually something of an epiphany?

Deborah: It was more like a slowly evolving epiphany. Working as a refugee lawyer myself, attending philanthropy and impact investment conferences all over the world, endless webinars, reports, industry sessions, being “schmoozed” by charities, “luncheons” we were clearly all making a lot of mistakes and we didn’t seem well aligned, even though everyone had the best of intentions. I also always hated to see how much time talented not-for-profit leaders have to spend on ‘doing the sell’ and I wanted to make it easier for them to just get on with what they did. I’m not sure how far this change will go to achieving that, but it has always been my hope to be part of the solution and not another thing that they have to manage.
 

What is your million-dollar idea to solve the biggest issues of inequality in our society?

Deborah: There will probably be quite a few different definitions of this – what are your biggest issues of inequality? And why haven’t we been able to shift the dial on them? The honest answer is I don’t know what the biggest issues are, it will be different for different people. This is why I am putting the question out to the experts. What I do know for sure is that inequality is the biggest problem we face, whatever the issue is. The fact that we don’t all have equal access to the same things. The pandemic, the climate crisis, natural disasters, wars, civil unrest, incarceration or mental health, our status determines our outcomes. We want to do our small part to address our vision of equal opportunity for all.
 

You mentioned you’re looking for “big hearted’’ applicants for the $1m grant –what does that “big hearted’’ idea look like?

Deborah: I would hope all not-for-profits are all big hearted, after all they dedicate their time to working for the benefit of others. But I guess, more specifically it means a change-maker who is innovative, bold, excited by a new way of looking at an old problem with energy and enthusiasm.
 

B.I.G Investments – where do you see the growth here? And how does it complement this new approach?

Deborah: Looking for great impact investments is an ongoing job. We have employed an impact manager who is closely monitoring our investments and holding them to account if they don’t meet their claimed impact targets. We are very aware of the potential for impact washing as the term has become more well-known and so watch that very closely. As we moved all our money from traditional investments to impact and ESG, we are now looking to replace all our ESG investments with 100 percent impact investments.

We are also looking at where we bank to make sure our cash is working for social change. I am particularly enraged when philanthropists use their greatest power – their corpus – to invest in things that cause society the most damage, and then move the required 5 percent of it over to something that does some good. That maths just doesn’t add up. The balance is so wrong and continues the same patterns that cause the inequalities we are fighting against. There are so many opportunities to make money while also doing good, it is up to us to find them, demand them and chose to support them. PAFs have such a vital role to play here as they can have a higher risk profile if they chose to. Although it is important to note that since we have moved our entire corpus over to values aligned investments we have actually done better financially. So it is win-win all round and a no-brainer for a philanthropist to use all their available resources towards social outcomes.
 

B.I.G Future is a great idea – only two percent of philanthropic funding goes to environment-related causes and issues. Why do you think that is? How does this initiative help shift the figure do you reckon?

Deborah: B.I.G. Future is run by our younger generation. When you reach 16-years-old in our family you can join the group and help decide who to fund in support of climate action. Their future is in danger, so it is very real for them. In addressing why only two percent of funding goes toward these causes, perhaps traditional philanthropists don’t see how it will affect them personally - I hope that’s not the case. It would seem an outrageous idea to me that a philanthropist is motivated by what affects them personally - we are “lovers of human-kind” after all. This is why the impact investments we make are so crucial. This is why who we bank with is so crucial. Who our super is with is so crucial. We all have the power to decide where our money is spent every single day. We just all need to make better choices for our future in every choice we make. I also would hope that many of our applicants for the $1 million B.I.G. Change grant will be looking at climate solutions. I don’t know if this initiative will shift the figure and get more philanthropists involved in environment-related causes, but the younger generation sure will. So, I would encourage all philanthropists to engage their younger generation and listen to them. They are smarter than us and their impatience is what we need right now.
 

Tell me how you think this will look in three years’ time – what do you reckon will have changed? Or is this a far longer play?

Deborah: I have no idea. But hopefully for us, we grow, learn, and then be better and more helpful philanthropists - and then do more of it. More support for big change makers with BIG ideas via BIG grants and BIG investments. For philanthropy generally I would hope to see more impact investing and more bottom-up and less top-down granting.

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