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From grandmothers’ stories to a changed world for giving

September 09th, 2022

By Nick Richardson, Storyteller, Philanthropy Australia

It started with grandmothers. Catherine Liddle, an Arrente/Luritja woman, leaning forward in her chair, talking about her inspirating grandmother, a gifted ringer, who with her grandfather, helped build the roads and sink the bores in what were once the remote places, a long way distant from the coast dwellers who rarely thought about the nation’s heart. And Kristy Muir recalling her grandmother, a kitchen table-social justice warrior, who saw her ambition for an educated life denied by the cruel coincidence of an attack of appendicitis on the day of her final exams.

When hadn’t reached lunch on the first day of the Philanthropy Australia national conference and we were already feeling the steady pull of the great force of human connection, the galvanising influence of who we are and where we come from, and how those forces shape us. Here was the love of humanity in practice, the most compelling evidence of how our foundations are integral to how we build our lives.

And running parallel to this was the challenging idea of how who we are reconciles itself with the wicked modern problems – how do we navigate the profound inequalities that Stan Grant identified, the corrosive impact such inequalities have on our system of government, and the profound challenge to finally find the appropriate way to move forward with our First Nations’ people.

Against this backdrop, the exploration of philanthropy’s own challenges takes on a distinctive hue – whether it’s about understanding the impact of such giving as Kevin Starr argued, or if actually committing to the idea of the good that philanthropy can do as Dr Beth Breeze explained. 

If there was a mood indicator outside the Plenary at the ICC, at the end of Day One the arrow might have pointed to “Restless and Inquiring’’, tilting toward “Preparing for Action’’. 

And on Day Two, the world shifted again, from Peter Shergold’s crisply distilled analysis of rise of a new kind of non-partisan political advocacy in Australia to Andrew Leigh’s rendition of the Ancient Greek concept of ‘agape,’ the highest form of love, that embraced the conference’s big picture. 

Could there have been a more appropriate time for such considerations than the conference appearance of the Ukrainian Ambassador to Australia, Vasyl Myroshnychenko?

To a hushed and packed room, the Ambassador recounted how the war with Russia had turned his countrymen and women into soldiers and refugees, many staying to fight with whatever they could bring to hand, others to find sanctuary elsewhere. And behind each of his grim stories of loss and resistance was the understanding that only with international support, from Australia, and Ukraine’s other allies, would the country find its way to rebuild. 

It was in the break-out sessions – and in Tuesday’s masterclasses – where the rich evidence and engagement took place, across the breadth of philanthropy, by cause, or function, from grantmaking, to grantseeking, to advocacy, to community foundations.

Running like a ribbon through all of the discussions was the notion of us working in a world changed by conflict and the pandemic, a shifting context for philanthropy, a place where a new set of opportunities presented themselves.

But there was no escaping the moments of inspiration: Lourdes Inga’s irresistible insights and advice to philanthropy to “…own its mistakes’’. And Naomi Anstess, a proud Aboriginal (Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay) and Torres Strait Islander (Erub/Darnley Island) woman’s profound call-out in the final conference session: “My challenge to you is to see us.’’

It was a conference conclusion steeped in the challenges for the future. The echoes of humanity and humility were implicit in all that was said and unsaid. But it was also a moment that captured the deliberations from the days that preceded it, and the roads the conference had traversed to arrive at that point. And perhaps, after all of that, the grandmothers would have approved.

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