September 26 2016

Is philanthropy future ready?

By Dr Squirrel Main

Last week, Philanthropy Australia’s national conference debated, ‘Is philanthropy future-ready?’ What was missing was a definition of ‘ready’. There are two definitions of the adjective:

  1. In a suitable state for an action or situation, fully prepared.
  2. Willing or eager to do something.

I agree, as a sector, we are less than fully prepared. But what about the second definition? Consider this: We are not Marty McFly trapped in 2015. It is 2016. The sector has woken up, the future is now, and we are ready, willing, and eager.

The sheer volume of funders at the conference, eager to learn about new trends and ideas is proof enough. We heard Jason Franklin caution of the wave of backlash drowning the credibility of American foundations. But I am hopeful; I contend Australian philanthropy can ride the crest and harness the power of the popular groundswell to propel us forward. We are eager, but how to translate that to being fully prepared? Being a self-professed data geek, I look to the data & insight section of Philanthropy Australia (PA)’s strategic map:

‘To facilitate openness and transparency, including the efficiency collection, analysis and sharing of data and information and to initiate and promote strategic research in order to inform the work and direction of the philanthropic sector.’

Clearly, this is a sector willing to tackle the future when our peak body is moving towards openness and strategic research. And we have the nimbleness to adapt as new practices and opportunities come our way. The broad goals are propelling us. Admittedly, I worry we might drown in the implementation. The stated outcomes are vague:

  1. Collaborative data collection — From whom? The entire sector? What are your targets? Will results be publicly available? And in terms of outcomes, the first step would be to assist/guide the efforts of the folks at SmartyGrants and Blackbaud to ensure that Australia has one unified taxonomy, preferably based on the Foundation Center Taxonomy. To borrow Mae Hong’s metaphor, we are beginning to pour the foundation for outcomes measurement—let’s do this properly so the building doesn’t sink. PA needs to take a leadership role to ensure a united outcome.
  2. Regular foundation maps – Define ‘regular’. What percent of Foundations are you targeting? Where will the data be hosted? If it is anonymously collected, how will that foster collaboration? And how will PA promote this as a vehicle for collaboration/funding diversification as opposed to being, in the words of Lani Evans, an ‘echo chamber’?
  3. Regular benchmarking of philanthropic and operational practices – Again, how regular? As a neophyte philanthrocrat, I am surprised at the sector’s lack of data on everything from maternity leave to acceptable travel expenditures. And—speaking as someone who will translate the salary data into my ability to pay rent—this data needs to be high-quality and representative of the majority of the sector. A low response rate is unacceptable.
  4. Impact projects clearinghouse – How to design this to be both future-ready and useful now? Traditional program areas like art and environment may be too anachronistic (note: AEGN’s clearinghouse is an excellent first step). A more vanguard structure centering around strategies like capacity-building, impact-investing and social enterprise may be too asynchronous with current mindsets to be of use. And who will contribute? And who will moderate? And how to curate—will outcomes matter? How can PA use this as a leadership piece as opposed to a clunky list of pet projects?

Despite my questioning, I remain optimistic. Change is afoot. The sector is ready. Jose Pedro Ferrao contended that we focus on dollars raised, but I promise you I spend every working day thinking and talking about the outcomes created. At The Ian Potter Foundation, we are looking at data and we agree with Mae Hong’s advice. Our data show that our fully-funded multi-year capacity-building grants have the best outcomes. My position exists, we are collecting the data, and there is huge interest in the sector.

I will conclude this rant with the observation that ready has a third definition (adverb form!): ‘done in advance of being needed.’ We are willing, we are eager. Yes, the outcomes are vague and need to be tightened. But if we are to ride the wave, it’s time to get on our boards, take our chances, don’t look back, and move forward to the future.

We’re ready.

This article was originally published in @lliance, 26 September 2016.