November 5, 2018
Guest Blog

Reflections from An Aussie Guest

Sarah Davies

I knew I’d like Canada, and I knew I’d really like the PFC philanthropic community. You can tell a lot about people by the way they invite you in, communicate with you and then welcome you. My welcome was warm and friendly with an overlay of curiosity and excitement about what we were going to learn and discover together: the perfect environment for a philanthropic conference.

So first up, my sincere thanks to Hilary Pearson and her team at PFC and to all the PFC members I met with and talked with over the week.  I loved our discussions, the stimulation and challenge and exploring our philanthropic similarities and differences.

Secondly, I’ve chosen to be selfish in writing up my thoughts and reflections post conference, choosing to use this as a mechanism to examine how the conference extended my thinking and understanding, identify where the opportunities are to learn from the Canadian experience and how we might act on them, rather than write a considered summary of the conference content and discussion.

The similarities between what I saw and heard in Toronto and what I see and hear in Australia are significant. Many of the conversations mirrored exactly those of Australian philanthropy; we are all talking and thinking about the same key issues.  There were five stand-out themes which emerged for me during the Conference, and then five sets of implications relating to philanthropic strategy and practice that were explored.  All of which are also exercising our collective minds in Australia.

Five themes:

  • Power: how we understand and acknowledge our personal power and our power as philanthropy; how we are then deliberate and specific in how we use this power; and increasingly importantly, how we share it and transfer it to others;
  • Inclusion: how we move from ‘entry-level representational’ inclusion to authentic diversity of voices, influence and decision making and change our processes and systems to give authority to genuine inclusion and diversity? Caroline Fiennes gave a clear distinction between systemic inclusion and representational inclusion as a path forward and one of the killer-quotes I came away with was from Paulette Senior “the norm leaves people out”;
  • Systems: this has been and will remain, a long, on-going wrestle. How do we influence and change systems, how do the different agents (government, community, citizens, business) best interact and work together for systems change?  The pre-conference workshop on emergence and systems change with Fourth Quadrant Partners, described our frustrations and failures to get this right as “the edge of the system”;
  • Disruption: how our current political, environmental, cultural, economic and technological contexts are affecting and disrupting all aspects of our lives, including philanthropy and the for-purpose sector more broadly. Linked fundamentally with shifting power and trust, many conference speakers explored questions like, how is democracy evolving? What is digital capital? Even what is truth?  I recommended Jeremy Heiman’s book, New Power, to those I spoke with, as a terrific summary and description of what some of these changes look like and mean;
  • Legitimacy: how philanthropy itself is seen and positioned in the broader context. What is our ‘social licence to operate’? How do we need to evolve to continue to be legitimate agents of social change?  We are all struggling with questions such as (i) the tension and balance between privacy and transparency in philanthropy (who is giving, how much, to what and why?) and (ii) the balance between protecting our freedom to be the social risk capital but being undemocratic influencers of systems and policy.

Implications – many conference speakers then explored what these themes and trends mean for:

  • Philanthropic theories and approaches: how does this influence our theories of change, our approach to change? Are we clear about our role in and contribution to the relevant system?
  • Philanthropic practices and tools: how do we need to adapt our grant making practices? Our evaluation and reflection tools? Our partnerships?
  • Engagement: how do we develop our convening and engagement processes? Our language? What do we think about embracing participatory decision making? How transparent do we need to be?  What does this mean for the nature and extent of our relationships?
  • People: what does this mean for the people we employ – their experiences, backgrounds, skills and for their on-going growth and development? Tim Dixon covered this well, calling for leadership competencies such as active listening, empathy, to be deliberately nurtured and developed;
  • Timelines: how does philanthropy think about time – for example, duration of grant relationships and timeframes for relevant reflection and evaluation? Trust, capacity building, active listening and patience are critical ingredients to effective philanthropy, and all take time. How do we manage the tension between this and a wider urgency and impatience to see change, in an environment where outrage gets attention and nanosecond judgements are commonplace?

So if that’s what we have in common, what about the differences?

There are three major features of Canadian philanthropy that I would love to see in Australia to the same extent as I saw during my week in Toronto:

  • The diversity of people in the room: it was immediately clear that the demographics of the conference speakers and delegates were far more diverse than we currently see in Australia. The staff and trustees of philanthropic entities and the leaders of a whole range of represented organisations comprised a far wider age range (i.e. many more under 30!), first nations participation and multi-cultural participation in positions of influence and authority;
  • The relationship between philanthropy and first nations communities and organisations: it seemed much more cohesive, aligned and had greater momentum than it feels in Australia. The work of The Circle was so exciting and inspirational in bringing Aboriginal peoples and philanthropic organisations together. The Declaration of Action which followed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, is a collective call to action and commitment from Canadian philanthropy to advance the shared goal of reconciliation, providing clarity, unity and a tangible guide for philanthropy;
  • Systems thinking and funding system change: it seems as through Canadian philanthropy has more experience in and appetite for engaging in system change and funding the mechanisms to advance it. Funding innovation, systems analysis, intermediaries and market builders, as well as investing in people and infrastructure around system change seemed to be more prevalent and widespread.

On the other side, it’s always affirming to be reminded of our own assets and strengths and there were few things that I was very grateful for in terms of Australian philanthropy:

  • Our regulatory environment seems to be much more flexible, enabling non-profits and social change organisations to build new business models and blended approaches which are more likely to deliver sustainability. Limitations on Canadian charities in relation to ‘commercially’ earned income seem to be unduly limiting;
  • Our philanthropic sector seems to connect and engage more fluidly and easily with a wider diversity of players: all types of philanthropic and social change entities (private and family foundations, community foundations, trustee companies, corporate philanthropy, giving circles, social entrepreneurs, impact investors, non-profits, charities, professional advisers, academics, etc) coming together through Philanthropy Australia. This may be a function of the sector’s relative size but is certainly a feature I think we need to protect and maintain.
  • And on a bit of a tangent, there was much discussion at the Conference on the rise of populism and consequent stresses on the current form and shape of democracy. While this is equally relevant here, it made me wonder whether Australia’s compulsory voting system was some protection against the “exhausted majority” (Tim Dixon) who are opting out of the existing democratic processes thus giving more space to populism, from “the extreme wings”?

So what next?  There are four practical actions I want to follow up as a result of listening to and learning from the depth and breadth of expertise and experience so generously shared at the Conference:

  1. We plan to bring a study tour comprising a number of Australian family and private foundations to Canada in October 2019. We have much to share and learn and I’m excited to extend and deepen the conversations and even collaborations, working with Hilary and PFC to curate the program;
  2. To take energy and inspiration from Canada’s first nations philanthropy and try to enable Australian philanthropy’s approach to move us in the same direction;
  3. To explore how we build opportunities and access into philanthropic roles for a broader diversity of voices, experiences and cultures;
  4. To reinforce, protect and make sure we continue to maximise the strengths in having a more diverse and open set of connections between all the agents in the philanthropic and social change arena.

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  • Juniper Glass

    It was such a pleasure to meet you, Sarah. This window on the Canadian philanthropic sector is so very clarifying, thank you! Many of the strengths you saw in Canada are actually still quite tenuous and need deep commitment, especially partnerships with Indigenous communities and inclusion of people with diverse experiences in philanthropic organizations. But having these features be seen an acknowledged lends momentum to the ongoing efforts.

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