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The Liffman Provocations: Michael’s Mystery

November 14th, 2018

As this is the 6th post in a series somewhat mysteriously called 'The Liffman Provocations', I think that it’s time I introduce myself and further elaborate on my role at Philanthropy Australia.

It was with great pleasure that earlier this year I accepted the invitation to join Philanthropy Australia to add content to the wealth of material it already offers to members. My role in this very part-time and evolving position is not just to add to this output, but rather to encourage you as members to discuss, question and extend the information and ideas PA offers, to relate it to your own concerns and priorities, and to be enriched by sharing your practice issues with your colleagues.

In part, I have been doing that through writing what are intended to be conversation starters for the various themed forums that you will find in the Better Giving Hub, and I would invite you to read, respond to, and challenge the thoughts posted here.

It is as another way to promote conversation within the Philanthropy Australia community, that 'The Liffman Provocations' have been initiated - again, with the aim of promoting discussion, reflection, and critique so that we are open to new ideas (even - maybe especially - those we might find challenging, uncongenial or at odds with our own). This, I believe, is essential for us all if we are to improve our practice, avoid complacency, and involve as many diverse people and organisations as possible in our work.

The perspective I bring to this is shaped by the years that I have been working in this field - initially in community organisations, later as CEO of The Myer Foundation, and then establishing the Asia-Pacific Centre for Philanthropy and Social Investment (now the Centre for Social Impact) at Swinburne University.

Over that time I have, in common with us all, seen the staggering change in the way we receive information, that the internet and social media have brought about. From time immemorial the search for knowledge has been a time-consuming challenge: information has been in short supply and hard to access. Our generation is the first to face the opposite one: how to cope with and make use of the flood of material that threatens to engulf us every day, and how, in the face of the increasingly complex, polarised and adversarial world we live in, can we remain open-minded, reflective and self-critical?

While my provocations (and those of others who I hope will contribute to these posts) may at times raise uncomfortable perspectives on aspects of our work, I very much hope that it will be understood that I offer them as a 'critical friend'. The meaning of the idea of a critical friend is, it seems to me, obvious, but it is also increasingly accepted in professional development. The following definition from Wikipedia describes the purpose I envisage for my provocations and the spirit in which I hope they will be received. 

'The Critical Friend is a powerful idea, perhaps because it contains an inherent tension. 'Friends' bring a high degree of unconditional positive regard. 'Critics' are, at first sight at least, conditional, negative and intolerant of failure. Perhaps the 'critical friend' comes closest to what might be regarded as 'true friendship' – a successful marrying of unconditional support and unconditional critique.

A 'critical friend' can be defined as a trusted person who asks provocative questions, provides data to be examined through another lens, and offers critiques of a person’s work as a friend. A critical friend takes the time to fully understand the context of the work presented and the outcomes that the person or group is working toward. The critical friend is an advocate for the success of that work.'

Philanthropy Australia is, of course, a committed and diverse community with a rich range of experiences. There are many within it who, I very much hope, will also post provocations in this series, whether in critique of mine, or drawing on their own views; indeed, the success of this series will depend on it becoming conversation, not a monologue.

And now, a teaser for a forthcoming Provocation: I invite any of you to offer your speculation on what the following somewhat cryptic comment, contained in an article in Alliance by one of America's most interesting commentators on philanthropy, might mean?

'the question of how to survive spiritually a prolonged spell in the velvet environs of philanthropy is one that many thoughtful funders struggle with...'

Any ideas? I encourge you to email me at with your thoughts, ideas and challenges, and continue to watch this space for the next 'provocation'... 

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