Collaborating with government

I recently had the opportunity to sit with other representative from across the philanthropic sector at the formal launch of the Guiding Principles for Collaboration Between Government and Philanthropy. The development of the principles was in and of itself a collaborative working effort between many within the philanthropic sector and representatives of the Victorian Government’s Office for the Community Sector. The launch of these guiding principles was an Australian first, and a point of much pride for those involved in what was at times a difficult and challenging process of documentation.

It is not a surprise that the Victorian State Government is advanced in the development of its relationship with philanthropy.  The vast majority of traditional philanthropic foundations in Australia are centred here in Melbourne.  To those of us that work in the sector, Melbourne has and always been and will always Australia’s philanthropic centre. With such a high density of philanthropic foundations comes a high density of philanthropic distributions to Victorian based or centred organisations.

For some within philanthropic circles, guiding principles or not, the role of philanthropy is to avoid where government works not to duplicate it. I have had views expressed to me suggesting that in working closely with government philanthropy is simply absolving government of its responsibilities, its duty. I don’t count myself in the anti-government camp. For me the role of philanthropy has always been to work where there is need and opportunity and sometimes that means working with or beside government.

The education sector has long been hamstrung by philanthropic philosophy that believes the workings of our schools, the training of our teachers and the wellbeing of our students are best left in the hands of government. Slowly that wheel of thinking has turned and today more and more foundations are donating directly into schools or through nonprofits who work directly in support of schools. I have heard fewer and fewer debates around the merit of such an approach.

My experience of working with government, the Victorian or otherwise, has been mixed. Like many professions the government bureaucrats who we philanthrocrats rely heavily on in the development of relationships and understanding, are controlled by the politics of, well… politics. The political cycle is one of the greatest challenges facing the development of meaningful relationships between government and funders. What incentivises the behaviour of a philanthropic foundation is ultimately very different to what influences the behaviour of a government.

So is there a secret working formula these guidelines have produced?  Of course not, nor did the working group intend produce one.  That said, I tip my hat to those involved in the development of the Guidelines, as they are a comprehensive set of principles.  The key Guideline for me is engaging early. All of the projects that I have seen where philanthropy and government have worked together have had that one shared characteristic. Trying to get philanthropy to buy into a government supported program half way down the track is challenging, equally, governments seem to engage best when they are involved in projects (as cash supporters or otherwise) from the beginning.

Of course every guiding principle is defunct without a willingness by both government and philanthropy to at least be open to exploring how they might support the work of the other.  The Victorian Government, through the Office for the Community Sector is more willing than most. It often surprises me how little other state government across Australia have considered leveraging philanthropic support. Hopefully these Guidelines lead more government to look at their own working practices and their willingness to engage with philanthropy.
You can follow the musings of Caitriona Fay on Twitter via @cat_fay or the blog via @3eggphil

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