Is there a role for philanthropy in education?

Education is a tough space for philanthropy.  In my view, the only tougher area to support is environment. The things that make environment funding tough are the exact same in education.  In each you are faced with complex issues at a policy and local delivery level and ultimately, the things that impact on outcomes may have nothing to do with the context in which you are working.

So why would philanthropy even pretend to be a player in the education space? When you examine all the dollars governments put into schools annually any philanthropic commitment, singularly or combined, adds up to little more than small change.  It’s rare to speak with trustees of trusts and foundations who don’t wrestle with this underlying feeling of ‘what’s the point?’ 

I read with interest an interview with Bill Gates in the Wall Street Journal this week.  Gates is a learning philanthropist,  constantly looking at what’s working and what isn’t with his Foundation’s grantmaking.  This past week, in what is a rarity for philanthropy in general, he spoke about failure and more specifically, the Gates Foundation’s failures in its approach to supporting education in the United States.

The Gates Foundation approach to education funding was set around an objective of increasing college attendance. It included an investment of $100 million in 2004 into the establishment of 20 ‘small’ high schools across several States. The objective of the ‘small school’ model was simple – smaller classrooms provide higher levels of teacher/student engagement, which also promotes increased attendance, better classroom behaviour and the development of significant ‘adult’ relationships for students. While the programs they supported helped to increase outcomes for students on an individual level, they did not make a dent into the overall objective of improving college attendance.

There’s no point getting into a conversation about the approach the Gates Foundation decided to take in investing in education, or even the overarching value of supporting an objective of improving college attendance.  Here in Australia our education system and environment is vastly different, so it equates to comparing apples and pears.

Regardless of the differences between our policy contexts, there is an interesting issue for philanthropists on both sides of the Pacific to consider.  The Gate’s interview picks up on one of these issues nicely:

This understanding of just how little influence seemingly large donations can have has led the foundation to rethink its focus in recent years. Instead of trying to buy systemic reform with school-level investments, a new goal is to leverage private money in a way that redirects how public education dollars are spent.

“I bring a bias to this,” says Mr. Gates. “I believe in innovation and that the way you get innovation is you fund research and you learn the basic facts.” Compared with R&D spending in the pharmaceutical or information-technology sectors, he says, next to nothing is spent on education research. “That’s partly because of the problem of who would do it. Who thinks of it as their business? The 50 states don’t think of it that way, and schools of education are not about research. So we come into this thinking that we should fund the research.”

Education research is underinvested in here in Australia.  But worse still, the evidence and research we do have within the Australian context for improving outcomes for all students is too often ignored in policy and it’s here that the funding paradox exists for philanthropy.

Education research involves implementation within the classroom (or equivalent) setting and rarely can we say with any conviction after a typical 12 month trial whether any of these programs have worked. In philanthropy we often express the need to ‘prove’ innovation works so that government might come to its senses and fund these programs and approaches in the long term. But the reality is that there are very few trusts and foundations with the stomach and patience for the really long term stuff. Add to this the cost involved with genuine research and evaluation and what you create is a tough environment to be a philanthropist in. Even Gates, who is committed to backing research to influence education policy, recognises that the big bucks are required; he’s investing $335 million over the next five years to find the formula to ‘effective teaching’.

The real losers in this funding challenge are schools and their students. Schools that can identify their needs rarely have the resources to fund the solutions in the long term (or the short or immediate term). The schools that do know how to present a case to philanthropy for support are often hamstrung by tax issues or a simple lack of capacity manage the resources (financial and time) required to seek the support. On the flip side, philanthropic organisations who want to be effective in their education funding can find knowing how to find and work with school partners difficult. And under it all there remains at trustee level that underlying feeling of it all being just too big an issue for philanthropy to help.

It is for all these reasons that I am personally excited about the potential for the Leading Learning In Education and Philanthropy research that is being undertaken by ACER’s Tender Bridge.  I’ll declare my hand, I’m on the project team, but despite my obvious bias I am genuinely excited about this work for two reasons:

  1. It’s an investment in philanthropy in Australia
  2. It’s about learning how schools and philanthropy can better work together

Education is not an area philanthropy can walk away from.  Quite the opposite.  What we actually need is a philanthropic sector better equipped to understand how our limited resources might actually benefit the people that matter most; students.  But first, there needs to be a process of openness, we need to know more about what we do and don’t do well as a sector, but we also need to ask schools where they think our strengths are. There’s already too much ‘top-down’ in education policy, philanthropy should avoid adding to the noise without genuine reason and it’s my view that the only genuine reason to enter this space is in support of education partners.

So while it might be disheartening for some smaller philanthropists to see the Gate’s of this world despair about the role of philanthropy in education, I for one am more resolved about the opportunities the education challenge presents. To have an impact in the education space trusts and foundations are forced to be more thoughtful about their giving approach. The really innovative philanthropists will find new ways of working and will commit to longer term approaches with an ability to pivot when things aren’t going well. There’s a lot to be positive about and equally, when you consider the outcome potential, there’s a lot to be excited about too.

You can follow the musings of Caitriona on Twitter @cat_fay 

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It’s Follow Friday (#ff)!

Happy Follow Friday! Don’t know what Follow Friday is?  Well, it’s Twitter speak for these people are worth listening to.  Every Friday, tweeps (slang for people who use Twitter) share the list of people they think are worth following by using the hash tag #ff.

If you’re in the philanthropy game and are wondering why you’d even bother getting into Twitter, it’s worth checking out Lucy Bernholz’s (@p2173) blog Why Would A Foundation Tweet. Her advice is pretty simple, Twitter is a great listening tool.  When you start to get your Twitter legs you’ll begin to find it’s a great way to network, connect, share and talk with an incredibly diverse (and impressive) group of people.

So here’s a #ff list for those new to Twitter and for those interested in philanthropy

Influential Philanthropy Tweeps

#1 @Philanthropy – The Chronicle of Philanthropy is a must follow and considered one of the most ‘influential’ (there is a way of measuring that) philanthropy tweeps in the twitterverse

#2 @Kanter – Beth Kanter is the doyenne of all things social media and nonprofit

#3 @p2173 – Lucy Bernholz is fab, follow her on Twitter and follow her blog

#4 @phijo – The Philanthropy Journal online is a great source of nonprofit and philanthropy news

#5 @Newphilanthropy – From the best of the US to the best of the UK, I really enjoy the work of New Philanthropy Capital

#6 @Alliancemag – it’s the leading global magazine on philanthropy and social investment and definitely one to follow on Twitter

#7 @philaction – Another great news source for international philanthropy

#8 @tactphil – best way to follow Sean Stannard-Stockton, the man behind Tactical Philanthropy Advisors

#9 @philanthropy411 – Great philanthropy blog and if you follow this link you’ll find a some great resources on who else to follow on Twitter from philanthropy

#10 @fndcentre – The Foundation Centre, I absolutely love the work of this group, supporting trusts and foundations since the 1950’s, they are a great source of information, thinking and strategies for people who give.

There’s a significant international philanthropic presence on Twitter and there has been for a good couple of years now. Nonprofit organisations are embracing social media in Australia and while philanthropy has been a little slower, its fair to say the Aussie philanthropy contingent has been growing rapidly over the past 12 months.

So let’s get started on a list of the Aussie philanthropy tweeps we all should be following, connecting with, talking with and listen to.  I’ll kick us off, but I’d love to hear from, and of, those Aussie philanthrocrats who are tweeting their stuff

@PhilanthropyAus

@Thomstac

@jonmeyer

@CPNSinsides

@moutou

@VanessaMeachen

@ChristopherSWIN

@InnerNorthCF

@LBA412

@Absherd

@Grant_Hooper

@awesomemelb

@Myer_Foundation

@Artsupport

@AusPhilanthropy

 

@sharonnagoanna

@strategicgrants

@SciPhilanthropy

@stevenhlynch

@Artfuljohn

@mrgregjohnson

@AEMGartmann

And of course there’s the contributors of this site @ClaireMRmmer, @3Eggphil, @Debmorgan22 and me, @cat_fay. Share with us the tweeps you know that are talking about philanthropy on Twitter by leaving a comment. It will make the beginnings of a great resource.

Keep in mind that the above list is just those people who do a lot of talking on the why’s and how’s of philanthropy in Australia. Not included in that list are the wonderful nonprofits many philanthropics support across Australia.  Twitter is a wonderful tool for staying connected to those organisations.

If you still need to be convinced about social media and it’s value then watch the following 2min video:

So if you’re now convinced that it’s time to set up your Twitter account, check out this great infographic from @Partyaficionado.

I look forward to seeing you out in the twitterverse.

Lucky you!

I read an article in Arts Hub last week which shook me in my grant-making boots when I got to the final line – “There are certainly some ground rules, but if you think that getting a grant is not a lottery, I wish you luck”. The article, Heads or Tails? Getting that grant, was written by Tamara Winikoff (Executive Director of NAVA, the national peak body for the visual arts, craft and design sector). She writes regularly on the arts for Arts Hub and various other publications and, given her extensive knowledge and experience of the sector, she has an opinion which carries quite some weight. I think that’s why I was so surprised and disappointed when I read what she had to say.

Perhaps I’m an idealist, but I like to think that every funding decision I’ve ever helped a Board or Committee make has been a fair one, based on a set of known funding objectives and with a clear rationale. Will the project meet a clear need or demand? Is it viable? Is the organisation viable? Is project planning and management adequately well considered?

And no, it hasn’t been possible to support every good project – usually due to budgetary constraints – but in this instance the project that appears to offer most to its audience and the applicant organisation, and will deliver most strongly against my organisation’s funding objectives is the one that will be supported. And yes, funding rounds are hard work and can be draining, but the decision-making process is a multi-layered one where each recommendation is seen by more than one pair of eyes.

Before coming to Australia I worked as a Grants Officer for a UK lottery distributor. Part of my job was to review draft press announcements prepared by grantees about their newly awarded grants. I was forever having to edit out lines like “lucky lottery win for xxx!” and “what a stroke of lottery luck!” because it was considered that they gave the wrong idea: getting a grant wasn’t in any way about luck or lottery, it was about a lot of thought and hard work.  Every decision was a very robust one which had to be transparent and accountable to applicants and the lottery-ticket-buying-public because, after all, them buying the tickets was what enabled support for these projects to be considered in the first place.

I have to admit, reading Heads or Tails, I really got the sense that I was reading the words of someone who’d reached the end of their tether; jaded by a few really tough weeks at work. I could be wrong. If I am, perhaps I have to take solace from Tamara’s recognition that there are ground rules to grant-making and hope that others have faith that getting a grant is not a lottery.

I feel like I might have co-opted Caitriona’s high horse….


What’s innovation anyway?

I’m not embarrassed to say that much of my twenties was spent jumping from high-horse to high-horse. I had views on everything and felt that it was incumbent on me to share those views with any poor soul who would listen.  More often than not, like many twenty-somethings, what I lacked in eloquent reasoning I made up for in passionate rhetoric. Unfortunately, as well meaning as I was (and am) I was occasionally guilty of sweeping statements, the kind of which I had no real right to make.  I recall one occasion being in conversation with the eminent historian Professor Geoffrey Blainey, where I suggested to him my belief that the world had never faced an issue as critical or important as climate change.  He warmly, and without the slightest hint of denigration, suggested there were very few things the world had not faced before. It wasn’t that he disagreed with my views on the importance of action on climate change (I can’t actually speak to what his views are on that), it was simply my use of sweeping sentiments that he wanted to highlight.

There are a few years between me and my twenties now and my passionate youthfulness battles daily with my maturing sense of cynicism at the world around me. I’m still prone to jockeying my way on to the occasional high-horse or two but I have mastered the art of picking my battles much more carefully. All the while the words of Professor Blainey have manifested themselves into my thinking about philanthropy and specifically into the philanthropic obsession in Australia with ‘innovation’. Could it be the sector suffers from the same passion filled rhetoric that afflicted me in my twenties?

I was recently speaking with Stacey Thomas, from Myer Family Philanthropic Services.  She runs a weekly philanthropy popquiz that poses some of the questions facing philanthropy in Australia (you can follow Stacey and the quiz on twitter @thomstac). Stacey and I were having a chat over the meaning of ‘innovation’ and what it looks like in program or project form when philanthropy is asked to fund it.  Stacey kindly agreed to make the idea of innovation the focus of her popquiz in the week just gone and she increased her altruistic credentials further by sharing the results with me.

As I was reading over the comments left by the 29 respondents to the quiz there was one statement that caught my attention, I am always reminded that the innovation of contemporary dance is firmly rooted in classical ballet. For me this statement sums up some of my concerns with the philanthropic approach of supporting ‘innovative’ programs only. What actually constitutes innovation?  Is it something entirely new that’s never been seen before (which, as Professor Blainey alerted me to, is very hard to find)?  Or do we accept that innovation is more regularly built on the back of the work of many others. Is innovation a successful program that has worked in Fitzroy, rolled out in Sunshine?  In other words, how much innovation is enough?

My view?  Well it’s my position that innovation shouldn’t simply = new. If philanthropy wants to support innovation, then it should be the NFP sector and broader community that is dictating what that looks like.  If a community genuinely identifies that a well established program is the answer to its needs, then perhaps that should be innovation enough?

While I do believe philanthropy should be a little more flexible with what it defines as ‘innovative’, there will always be that passionate part of me that holds out hope for that one ‘thing’ that solves some of our most pressing problems.  It is important that philanthropy helps to keep the fires of creativity burning among our the leaders, thinkers and doers of our community. Just because the task appears impossible does not mean that it is.

The Innovation point is the pivotal moment when talented and motivated people see the opportunity to act on their ideas and dreams

– W. Arthur Porter

Everything that can be invented, has been invented

– Charles H. Duell, Director of US Patent Office 1899

You can follow the musing of Caitriona Fay on Twitter @cat_fay and the blog @3eggphil


Two little BIG words

I hate it when people don’t say thank you. Maybe it’s my upbringing? Whenever we were given anything Mum would always go – “what do you say?” – and me, my brother and sister would chime, “Thank youuuu“. After Christmas, birthdays, or any other occasion which involved us receiving a gift from someone, we’d be sat down to write thank you letters to let people know we’d got and liked their gift. The importance of saying thank you was instilled in us to such a degree that these days if I hold the door open for someone, for example, and am not thanked, it’s not entirely uncommon for me to say slightly sarcastically “no, problem, it’s my pleasure”. Or maybe it’s nothing to do with my lovely Ma and it’s just Curmudgeonly Claire rearing her head again?!

One of the things I love most about my job is when I get to tell someone they’ve been awarded a grant. If I’ve been in contact with an applicant during the review process, they’ll know when a decision’s being taken on their application and they’ll be expecting a call. There’s usually a nervous, anticipatory silence at the other end of the phone which, if I was sadistic, I’d draw out before letting them know the decision, but I’m not so I try to cut to the chase as soon as possible (and because I’m excited to tell them!). It’s so lovely when you hear a delighted “thank you!”. Makes all the hard work so worthwhile.  I can’t tell you how disappointing it is to call someone to let them know they’ve been given thousands of dollars if I get little reaction and no thanks.

I’m not saying grantee gratitude is the be-all and end-all in the decision making process. Of course it’s not. A poorly conceived project isn’t going to be supported simply because an organisation said thank you for a grant in the past. But it is important, and it is remembered. It comes back to that all-important grant maker/grant seeker relationship again (How to make friends and influence philanthropy and Too much or not enough?).

And it seems I’m not the only one that notices when someone says thank you. The June/July edition of Fundraising and Philanthropy Australasia had a story about a donation of $1m to Queensland University of Technology, recently gifted by Peter and Heather Howes.

The Howes’ have a long association with QUT: both are ex-QIT students (QUT’s immediate predecessor) and have a daughter who graduated from QUT; both were lecturers at QIT; and Peter was a member of QUT‘s School of Management Advisory Board.  They first contributed financially to QUT in 2009 and 2010 in its annual alumni appeals, when they gave relatively small amounts of money in support of the Learning Potential Fund – an endowment fund to support bursaries and scholarships for QUT students in financial need.  They began discussions with the University about the potential for them to make a larger gift after July 2010 when they sold the very successful human resources consultancy business they had jointly founded in 1982 (the sale giving them greater capacity to consider giving more significantly to QUT).  Before the year was out, these discussions came to fruition in the form of The Howes Family Gift: a $1m donation which was added to the larger LPF endowment, but to be used to fund discrete Howes Family Learning Potential Scholarships for disadvantaged students.

One of the factors behind the Howes’ decision to increase their philanthropic engagement with QUT was the phone calls they received from LPF fundraising staff thanking them for their 2009 and 2010 appeal gifts. Apparently this was the first time they’d got such personal thanks from an organisation they’d given financial support to.  As a consequence of this very simple gesture, the very neediest of QUT students can now apply for annual scholarships of $5,000 to support the cost of their study (more than standard LPF scholarships and bursaries offer), and there is also talk of the Howes contributing more money to QUT in the future to enable more scholarships to be offered. I wonder if LPF fundraising staff had any idea how powerful those two little words would be?!

While we’re on the subject of saying thank you…. thank you!!  Since we launched 3eggphilanthropy back in April, we’ve had almost 2,600 views of our site and enjoyed some fantastic thoughts and opinions on the blog site, and on Twitter and Facebook. We’ve also had some amazing contributions from fabulous guest bloggers which added so much to the conversation. It’s been a fantastic first couple of months and we look forward to everything that’s to come.  Scrambled, boiled, or poached….  Thanks again!!

If you haven’t subscribed to the blog yet, why not do it now?! That way you’ll be first to know when our latest musings have been hatched!


It’s a question of validity

I’ve noticed lately a few really interesting and exciting surveys are circulating the philanthropic sector, trying to track how much and where Australian philanthropy is giving.  I’ve enjoyed seeing an increasing research presence in the sector.  It feels in many ways that it’s the next phase of sector growth and maturity, as we attempt to learn more about our giving practices as a nation.

Last week I attended the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network (AEGN) 2011 Conference.  The AEGN is a great organisation supporting environmental philanthropy in Australia and the conference was a special day focusing on Indigenous environmental granting. Sitting at the conference among a committed band of environment funders I was reminded that it was not long ago that the AEGN launched the 2010 Green Philanthropy Report. The report, supported by a survey filled in by a a touch over 50 funders, demonstrated to the Board of the AEGN that they needed to up the ante in trying to attract philanthropists to environmental grantmaking. That is what capturing this basic information should do, it should inform our practices, our approaches and our priorities as a sector. We should be looking at areas to improve and grow but data is critical to understanding the current landscape.

It is this need for data that has got me thinking. What is the quality of the information philanthropy is currently capturing?  Sure, it’ easy to talk broad figures e.g Foundation X distributes $1million in grants annually. But what if  we wanted to scratch the surface of that giving a little more, is philanthropy in Australia currently equipped to provide accurate data genuinely reflective of its giving practices? I work for a Foundation that has spent the better part of the last 3 years trying to better ‘code’ or ‘categorize’ the grants we make.  I can tell you it’s not been an easy process, there have been a lot of staff hours poured over what information we should capture and still we are left with the reality that the coding process is ultimately subjective. One persons ‘Youth’ program is another persons ‘Education’.

Thankfully Philanthropy Australia (PA) has provided an outline for a grant classification system that encourages funders to capture data using a common sector language. PA’s website states that The intention (of the classification guide) is to standarise the terms used across the Australian philanthropic sector as far as practical, so that grantmaking can be documented and useful statistics on philanthropy collected in ways that contribute to shared understandings. I highly recommend this document as a starting point for those philanthropists or trusts and foundations looking to better capture their data.

While I know the process that my organisation has undertaken to record and capture basic data, I am less clear about the practices and consistencies across the rest of the sector.  And this is, in a lot of ways, the source of some of my discomfort. We as a sector need to be able to rely on the validity of the data that is being captured.  Equally, if we want researchers to continue to take an interest in where and who we are funding, then it’s important that they too feel that foundations aren’t working to a guesstimate. Again and again I feel it comes back to the issue of philanthropy needing to invest in itself to improve it’s value and credibility to the not-for-profit sector.

I’d love to hear your views on how the sector might better capture its basline data.  The work of organisations like the AEGN and Philanthropy Australia in undertaking membership surveys, is slowly helping to shape and influence practice. I just hope the we can provide them and our research partners with increasingly better quality data.

You can follow the musings of Caitriona Fay on Twitter via @cat_fay


The complex ecology of philanthropy

On Wednesday I attended the ever-inspiring Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network conference.  The conference is an annual event, and brings together a passionate bunch of environmental grantmakers to discuss meaty issues relating to the whats, whys and hows of environmental philanthropy.  This year’s theme was environmental and indigenous philanthropy.  We were lucky enough to hear from inspiring speakers such as Joe Morrison from NAILSMA, Kerry Arabena from the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, and  Diane Christensen from the Christensen Fund.

As much as I love hearing from the speakers, what I really love about AEGN conferences, and, well, any conference, is the conversations in the breaks.  It always makes me feel like I’m part of something big and exciting.

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is the diversity of the philanthropic sector.  Like any healthy ecosystem, I think the sector’s strength is in its  diversity.  I’m talking about the diversity of organisations we fund, the diversity of scales we fund at, and the diversity of tools we use to affect change.   We often trumpet our own grantmaking decisions as being the ‘right’ decisions, but actually, all grantmaking decisions are ‘right’.  And if a grant turns out to be ineffective, that’s just an opportunity to learn, and do more of the ‘right’ stuff and less of the less ‘right’ stuff.

A really good example that comes to mind is two organisations who work to use surplus food (which would otherwise be bound for the bin) to feed hungry people.  FareShare and  SecondBite both have a healthy list of supporters.  And so they should – they’re both doing fantastic work.  Supporting one and not the other is not wrong or right, it’s just a decision the funder has made, for whatever reason.  It might be that the funder has a closer relationship with one of the organisation’s staff, or likes the management structure of one better than the other, or their model of program delivery.  Whatever it is, if there’s a bit of due diligence and a bit of heart involved, you can’t go too far wrong.

I think the same applies to scale as well.  My $10 donation is valuable, particularly when there’s lots of ‘me’ equivalents supporting the same cause.  Equally, the $10 million donation is quite valuable (obviously!) too.  But each donation will meet a different sort of need in a different way.

The tools we use are also important.  Speaking with a handful of funders on Wednesday, we talked about the ability for some funders to support the capacity development of not for profit organisations.  We all acknowledged this takes a particular skill set on the part of the funder, and is not for everyone, but nobody would dismiss the value of the work.  To me, the funders that do the hands on capacity development work are crucial in making organisations sustainable and (cash) grant ready.

In the same way that genetic diversity allows populations to adapt to changing environments, funding diversity will allow not for profits to adapt to the ever changing pressures in society.   And thank goodness for that.  I hope the conversations continue to foster, encourage and support the many and diverse views and approaches.