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.


Too much or not enough?

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the funder-grantee relationship.  Working in philanthropy, the issues of power imbalance, the burden of responsibility and questions around ‘how much support is too much’ come up daily.  And when I talk about support I’m not talking about financial support, but about helping organisations to apply for grants.  About encouraging and supporting them to ensure they’ve got the best shot at getting the dollars.

Obviously the question of how I allocate my time is a daily proposition, and so I read with keen interest (and rising frustration) a recent blog from Deep Social Impact.  In the blog entitled Three strikes and then what? Joanne Duhl talks about the dilemma of how we know when we’re asking too much of our potential grant recipients.  In Joanne’s blog, she tells the story of an organisation that underwent significant changes, including the appointment of a new director.  The funder decided it was essential to meet the new director before renewing the organisation’s grant.  Fair enough, I reckon.  In my view it’s essential to meet the director to ensure commitment to the project, organisational stability and so on – it’s just good due diligence.  After a few failed attempts at arranging a meeting, and no  demonstration of commitment from the grantee organisation, the funder decided to pull the pin.

In reading the story and the list of excuses of the grantee organisation, I sensed Joanne’s frustration.  And I recalled a number of similar experiences I’ve had, again, with frustration.  But reflecting on the lessons learned from CEP’s findings on relationships between Foundation staff and grantees, maybe I need to be a little more lenient.  I get to choose how to allocate my time in my day, so I have to accept that grant seekers get to make that exact same choice.  Returning a call from a funder might not be at the top of their list of priorities.

My question, and Joanne’s question is, how far do you go?  At what point does coaxing a potential grantee become harassment?  We might think that those who don’t have capacity to return our calls (because they’re putting out fires and are just too stretched to take on the extra work of a grant proposal) need our money the most.  But really, if we’re not running the organisation, who are we to decide?

I guess this makes the point again that relationships are so important in the funder/grantee relationship. If we know the organisations and sectors we support well enough, we have a better chance of understanding what sorts of pressures they are under.  And then I guess it’s just a case by case basis.  And maybe sometimes persistence is worthwhile, and other times it’s better to dedicate your time to another worthy organisation.

Crowd funding

I was on a panel recently chatting about funding with Rick Chen from crowd funding website Pozible.  Crowd funding is described (on Wikipedia, the font of all my knowledge) as “the collective cooperation, attention and trust by people who network and pool their money and other resources together, usually via the internet, to support efforts initiated by other people and organisations”.  Pozible is specifically for creative projects and ideas.  Creative types can load a project on the website for which they are seeking support, and anybody on the planet can give the project a small or large amount of money, or anything in between.

I was pretty excited about the Pozible model, and impressed by its success in its first year.  Rick said there’s been a 60% success rate, which means 60% of the people who’ve put projects up for support have successfully reached their fundraising target.  Not bad.

The first time I heard about this type of funding was at the Grantmakers in the Arts conference in Chicago last year.  There are a few different types of crowd funding.  Some sites house projects which have the capacity to offer tax deductions and others provide a ‘gift’ in return for your support.  At the conference I heard about some really amazing examples.  United States Artists was seeded with $22 million from a coalition of foundations (FordRockefeller, Prudential and Rasmuson) and in 2010, launched the first “micro-philanthropy” site for artists.  I also love the thinking behind Community Supported Art.  Combining my two loves – food and art – CSA was inspired by the increasing trend of consumers buying seasonal produce directly from local growers.  They’ve applied that same theory to the arts.  Community members can buy a ‘share’ which gives them three ‘farm boxes’ containing art works from local artists.  I may be getting away from crowd funding a bit here, but I think it’s a really innovative way to get a collective of funders to support an artist’s work.

I was excited about Pozible because I see it as part of a new wave of philanthropic initiatives.  It was pointed out during Rick’s presentation that the ‘donations’ are not really donations because, in Pozible’s case, you get something in return (called ‘Rewards’ on Pozible and ‘Perks’ on United States Artists).  In the legal sense, that’s absolutely correct.  You’re getting something in return for your dollars and therefore you’re not entitled to a tax deduction.  But philosophically, it sort of feels more like philanthropy to me.  What you’re getting in tangible terms is usually something small like your name on a website or a signed copy of a book or CD.  What’s far more valuable to the giver is that warm fuzzy feeling that you’ve been part of something.  Knowledge that you, along with many others, have contributed your small part to actually make something happen.  Given the sense of community it brings, I think there’ll be a lot more crowd funding, and models like it, to come.

How to make friends and influence philanthropy

A colleague has just returned from the Centre for Effective Philanthropy’s (CEP) conference Better Philanthropy: From Data to Impact in Boston.  The CEP provides data to philanthropic funders so they can “improve their effectiveness – and, as a result, their intended impact”.  She’s buzzing with new ideas, and was inspired by the people she met.

One of the areas CEP looks at is the funder-grantee relationship, or, whether we’re “working productively with our grantees”.  My colleague raved about the report Working with Grantees:  Keys to Success and Five Program Officers Who Exemplify Them. The CEP has looked at grantee survey data since 2004, and has tweaked their survey along the way to glean new insights.  Through this process, CEP has looked at over 9,600 suggestions from grantees on how foundations can improve.  That’s a lot of feedback…

In the introduction to the report, Paul Beaudet  from the Wilburforce Foundation says “At the very basic level, solid relationships with grantees are critically important because grantees are a very good source of information for us.  They are the ones doing the on-the-ground work.  They’re likely to have a much more nuanced and deeper understanding of the context for the work that needs to be done in the particular places that we care about.  If we have high-quality, long-term, trust-based relationships with grantees, we believe that we’ll have better knowledge around which we can make smart investments in their organizational and programmatic capacity, helping them to achieve their outcomes more efficiently and effectively.”  Yep, couldn’t have said it better myself.

I’ve been thinking about Caitriona’s recent blog on transparency, and I think a lot of the ‘how’ in transparency comes down to relationships.  And I mean relationships at all levels.  From the high level – for example the philanthropic sector’s relationship with government, and the perceptions of the philanthropic sector from the point of view of the not-for-profit sector – right down the nuts and bolts end – the relationship between the giver (whether that be the philanthropist, Foundation board director or philanthrocrat) and the asker (development manager, Board member of the NFP or fundraiser).  What Paul is talking about is transparency.  And a transparency that has a real benefit for both the Foundation and for those organisations it supports.

The CEP had four key findings of factors that contribute to a good relationship between Foundation staff and grantees.   Firstly, that Foundation staff understand the organisation they’re funding, including its goals and strategies.  Secondly, that the selection process of the Foundation helps strengthen the grantee organisation’s work.  Thirdly, that Foundation staff have expertise in the area they’re funding, and finally, communication between the grantee and the foundation staff, both who initiates it, and how often.

It sort of seems obvious, but I think there are still some take home lessons for us philanthrocrats.   For me it’s about keeping the door open, saying ‘yes’ to opportunities to learn, and doing my best to be engaged in sectors of interest.  In my experience, that’s where I’ve learnt the most.  And watching my peers, I think it’s also where the best projects are born.  So cheers to transparency.  May it make our sector stronger.


In a recent blog post, Jennifer Barry, CEO of Footscray Community Arts Centre ponders “how useful the multi-year business plan is as a management tool in a super-charged, fast changing world”.  While acknowledging that business planning is essential to understanding where you’re headed as an organisation, she questions whether our obsession with KPIs and outputs is necessarily the best use of our time.  Jen suggests a middle ground, “an intelligent and intuitive balance between Control and Chaos”.

As Jen rightly says, the need to find the balance between control and chaos is not just true for arts organisations, but across the entire spectrum of the not for profit, and for profit, sectors.  And I think it’s something particularly pertinent for philanthropic funders to consider.

I’ve been pondering the same questions as Jen recently, but from the other side of the fence.  While Jen talks about the reporting requirements of government funders, I’ve been thinking about the reporting we expect as philanthropic funders, and wondering if we could look at things differently.

When we’re assessing grants it’s necessary to do the due diligence.  We look at an organisation’s business plan, the leadership, the financials, and the nuts and bolts of the project we’re being asked to support.  While I think this is perfectly reasonable – we want to be sure we’re supporting good organisations – I think we could perhaps be a little more flexible when the project is actually in funding, and in our expectations at the completion of the project.

At the Grantmakers in the Arts conference in Chicago last year, Joi Ito, soon to be Executive Director of MIT Media Lab, gave a presentation entitled ‘Living the Pivot’. Pivot is the capacity to change direction when things aren’t working out as you’d planned.  And more than that, it’s the ability to use the things you’ve learnt along the way to inform your change of direction.  The Pivot concept is currently hot in techno-land.  Some well known techno-pivots include Flickr, which was originally an online game, and YouTube, which was originally a video dating site.

I like the thought of applying the Pivot idea to philanthropy.  Much of the time we expect our grant recipients to report against the objectives stated in the funding proposal.  But what if we encouraged the organisations we support to be creative?  What if we said that it’s ok to fail, or ok to change direction?  What if we allowed for the possibility of a Pivot mid-grant?  Both Jen and the Pivot-geeks acknowledge there’s a much bigger risk of failure when you don’t stay on the prescribed path, but that’s the beauty of it.  As Jen says, “the failures aren’t a waste of time… they just bring us closer to a better solution.”  If we allow for, and even encourage, creativity and flexibility, there’s a possibility we might stretch some boundaries.  We might start to think about things in different ways and create new possibilities.  And we might fail more often.  But isn’t philanthropy the perfect vehicle to take some risks..?

You can follow Debra Morgan on Twitter @debmorgan22

How to scramble eggs. Musings from Debra Morgan

I was never a great cook, or, more accurately, I was never a confident cook.  After undercooking, overcooking, and many years of not enough salt and butter, I realised that I just needed to relax in the kitchen and go with my gut instinct (too early for bad puns?).  I realised I needed to settle in with the froth and bubble, and respond to what my tastebuds, rather than the instructions in the recipe book, were telling me.  I guess it’s been the same for philanthropy.  There are so many rules about how to give and how to give well, and many of them conflicting.  And it’s so easy to be paralysed by indecision.  After four years working in philanthropy, I’m realising more and more that it’s the gut instinct that matters.  We can imbibe all the best practice, all the case studies and all the evaluation outcomes we want in order to inform our practice, but what’s really important is the human stuff.  How we feel about it.  What our heads and our hearts are saying.

My background is in the arts.  I completed an undergraduate degree in Music at the University of Melbourne, then went on to do a Masters of Management (Arts and Cultural Management).  I worked for a number of years in arts management, and then moved into philanthropy.  I’ve been a Program Manager at The Myer Foundation and Sidney Myer Fund for just over four years, and still love the daily challenges, the inspirational projects, and most of all, the people.  I look after the Arts and Humanities program of the Sidney Myer Fund, the Sustainability and the Environment program of The Myer Foundation, and the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards.  I also manage the Communications Portfolio for the organisations, and Chair the Arts Affinity Group of Philanthropy Australia.

Through my musings on this blog, I hope to share some of the heart moments and some of the head moments in my life as a philanthrocrat – from “in the shell”.    It’s a great opportunity to air some of my ponderings, question my own practice, and to start the conversations with those interested in the sector.

While I’m currently enjoying adding loads of butter and salt to my scrambled eggs, it’s likely that a few of you will remind me to watch my cholesterol and blood pressure.  And knowing my cooking history, I might just revert to the recipe book for the next Sunday brekky.  And that, for me, is what this is about – the conversation, the dialogue, and the push and pull of the complex issues we face in philanthropy.  Or maybe just a chat about how to scramble eggs.

You can follow Debra Morgan on Twitter @debmorgan22