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The Liffman Provocations - Australian Philanthropy Awards 2018

July 31st, 2018

With the results of the 2018 Philanthropy Australia Awards now having been announced, the stories of their passionate and committed winners, and the innovative work they supported or initiated, is now known. So what do they tell us about the successes, challenges, and future directions of contemporary giving, and what might lie ahead?

Dr Michael Liffman 31 July 2018

As the Awards are only in their fourth year, a perspective on patterns and priorities in philanthropy can be found by speculating on how such awards might have looked, say, forty years ago. The following are therefore guesses (with the caveat that the observations on 2018 are based on the winners, and not the entire field of applicants, and in large part reflect the criteria valued by the judges).

  • It is most unlikely that there would have been gifts of of over $400million (in current dollar terms) to be being recognised (Andrew and Nicola Forrest), and even a gift of $2 million would have been unusual.
  • Rarely would it be young, or even mid-life, individuals, still at the wealth creating stages of their lives, who were making substantial gifts; more commonly, major gifts would come from established foundations or bequests, where the decisions about those gifts were made by descendants or trustees (perhaps former business associates) of the original benefactor, or by trustee companies.
  • Typically gifts would be directed at the charitable or service activities of well-established and sometimes properous, high profile, often faith-based charities, or be expressed in new  buildings or capital appeals. Naming rights might be attached to such donations.
  • Catalytic gifts, aimed at expanding, or developing capacity in, an embryonic or infant ngo, would seldom appear. Nor would contributions seeking to bring together emerging ngos, self-help and lobbying to create coalitions and networks.
  • Policy development and change, empowerment activities, and lobbying would be most unusual, and donations would be more likely to seek to augment government priorities where delivery fell short, rather than to challenge those priorities.
  • The personal passions and enthusiasms, and world views, of donors would not be articulated,  or if so, obliquely and usually in benevolent terms. Remedies for social distress and injustice, and support for social progress, would be seen as best achieved through the  provision of funds for charitable and relief work, and art and culture, and the aims of donors would be couched in terms of empathy for misfortune, and devotion to artistic heritage, rather than fundamental critique of societal directions.
  • Trust in the good intentions and distinguished reputations of organisations receiving funds did not require the  language of accountability and outcomes,  and the effectiveness of a donation would be expressed in terms of what it bought ie its outputs, rather than what it actually achieved ie its outcomes.
  • The ultimate beneficiaries of philanthropy were seen as individuals or families who were poor, ill, or otherwise disadvantaged. Indigenous status was recognised as a frequent accompaniment of distress, though not necessarily one amenable to specific policies or services; the notion of a 'gender lens' would have been understood by very few. Importantly, the difficulties faced by the recipients of philanthropy were not shared by the wider community: universal threats to the well-being of all - rich or poor, first- or third-world - in the form of climate change, environmental disturbance, problems arising from affluence, political instability, global displacement and human movement - were only minimally perceived and not seen to require the attention of philanthropists.

To my eyes, and very likely, those of most others in the PA community, the contrasts between the past and the present, and the  trends and reassessments these contrasts embody, are positive and to be commended, and are an improvement on the blind spots of the past. However, I would suggest a few cautions in too confident a verdict along these lines.

First, every contemporary perspective comes to be seen as flawed by those who come just a few years later.

Second, it is through  self-critical and evidence-based evaluation, rather than through conformity with current tends, that a sound understanding of what works and what doesn't, will be found.

Third, the mantra of innovation and novelty carries with it the assumption that past practice is necessarily inadequate, and newness an improvement. There is no reason to assume that is always so - sometimes the tried can be true! - and where the belief in newness has elements of personal vanity, or a boredom with the past, it can be a misleading path to take.

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