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The Liffman Provocations - Challenge your outlook at National Conference 2018

August 07th, 2018

What do people hope for when they spend money, and time, in attending a conference? What do they regard as a successful conference? Should we apply the same sort of tough output/impact lens to conference attendance that we urge our members to apply to their giving strategy?

By Dr Michael Liffman - Content Curator at Philanthropy Australia  ​

I have attended many conferences over many years, and, to be frank, have rarely asked these questions of myself or others in more than a casual, conversational way. Moreover, I suspect that, more often than not, when I have enjoyed a conference, or a particular speaker or session, it is because the view they were promoting reinforced my own - and indeed I may have selected that session in anticipation of this.  Is this more generally true of conference attendees? And is this the best way of gaining the most value from a conference?

I would like to suggest that those of you who attend this year's National Conference (and any of the many other seminars, workshops and the like that come our way), approach its rich menu of speakers and sessions in a slightly different manner, and that you deliberately seek out sessions that you expect to find less congenial to your own point of view. This may not be all that easy, as the philanthropic community is one in which there is a good deal of collegiality and sharing of outlooks. Nevertheless, within that community there are different values and perspectives, even if they are not always articulated all that openly; and certainly beyond that community there are dramatically different views of what is required to make the world better, and the role played by philanthropy in this. (A glance at the Age, the Herald-Sun, and the Australian, or a switch from the ABC to a commercial network, will make that obvious.) Moreover, if you can identify perspectives on matters dealt with at the conference that are not even aired - even if you do not agree those perspectives - perhaps you could raise them in discussion.


Let me be clear as to why I am suggesting this. It is natural for us all to have opinions, to prefer our opinions to others, and to dismiss those that are different, especially if they clearly come from a different community of concern from our own. But engaging seriously with those opinions is, it seems to me, vital, whether it is to strengthen our understanding of our own position and to better defend it against those who disagree, or because sometimes the opposing view actually has some merit from which we can learn. Attention to contrary opinions is also necessary if their proponents are to remain in the ring with us. This is particularly so in the current climate where, as we are constantly reminded, we seem to operate out of own social media bubbles, where debate is adversarial and polarising rather than consensus seeking, and in which the disenfranchised are choosing to discover an alternate voice. Our sector is certainly not immune to this. (That Obama was followed by Trump is, I would argue, not a coincidence, and we need to learn from it.)

How might this apply to the Conference?

A good place to start will be the pre-conference Master Classes. Those classes offer an array of concrete, how-to-do-it skills sessions on measurement, due diligence, systems thinking and more; the building blocks of effective and reflective practice. They require some serious discipline from those attending.

Encouragingly, the main program over the following two days promises that much of the questioning which my earlier comments are recommending will in fact be taken on by the speakers, and by the themes they are to address. This is exciting and suggests that the conference will be important, mature and provocative, and that, as well as being open to challenging scrutiny from attendees, may serve as platform for extending its questioning mode to our post-conference work.

As the Conference Program shows, important, often timeless, questions are to be asked.

Purpose, trust, and generosity, are to be discussed for instance, by such distinguished authorities as Larry Kramer, David Gonski and John McLeod, together with high-profile opinion leaders outside the sector such as Jeff Kennett and Lenore Taylor. Will Kennett and Taylor perceive our issues differently and question the success of our endeavours? Can they be provoked to do so? Might there be a discussion about what philanthropy, and its engagement with social policy, has achieved over recent years, and where it could have done better?  At a time when there is so much questioning about the directions of affluent, western societies, is there reason for a deeper questioning of the effectiveness of philanthropy that goes beyond a re-affirmation of the need for purpose, trust and generosity? 

Advocacy will be discussed; will that discussion assume that the traditional view of many that the proper work of philanthropy is direct service and relief, and not interference with policy, no longer has any supporters in the community and the argument has no merit?...and if there are such views amongst some attendees, will they feel comfortable in raising them?

Day 2 is similarly rich in important questions. None, it seems, is more timeless and elusive than the head-heart tension, which pits empathy, compassion and emotion against metrics and ruthless prioritising. Will the approaches to be revealed by three leading philanthropists explore these contrasts and assist with our answer to this most enduring of all the questions facing donors?

The case study on refugees will doubtless move and persuade us all. But there remain powerful forces in the community that question that priority should be given to the human needs of refugees: will the discussion on refugees do anything to persuade them otherwise, and do their very different views on the issue require our consideration? Will all those attending the conference share the assumptions made by the case study and if not, will they feel that the conference is a 'safe place' in which to raise their different perspectives? 

Other topics - poverty; the media - also offer opportunities both for identifying exciting ways forward for philanthropy, and for searching engagement with fundamental questions as to whether philanthropy can really make serious progress in these massive arenas, or should even try.

Finally, to give a boost in the concluding session to the impetus to question deeply, Philanthropy Australia President Alan Schwarz is to unwrap a new way of thinking with an organisational plan that rethinks the nature of profit and that takes philanthropy to a new level.  A fervent believer in free-ranging discussions, Alan will surely be disappointed if the idea he will unveil does not stimulate some challenge from the conference!

So, in summary, participation at the 2018 PA Conference is highly recommended, and, as organisers at PA, we will measure its success according to the maxim once proposed by national treasure Phillip Adams when comparing ABC ratings with those of the commercial networks: 'bums on seats and minds in gear'.

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