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

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Buzzword of 2011: Capacity Building

Ok, so it’s only May but I’m going to put my neck out early and call ‘capacity building’ the buzzword of 2011.  A big call, especially with so much talk of ‘transparency’ lately.  Call me cynical but I do worry that capacity building will be to 2011 what ‘collaboration’ was to 2008-2009.  We in the philanthropic sector can talk the good talk but turning the rhetoric into reality is actually bloody hard work. When I talk to my colleagues about ‘collaboration’ more often than not what we end up discussing is ‘co-funding’. And while there are excellent examples of genuine collaborations between trusts and foundations over the last few years, somewhere the definition of what collaboration is has been lost in the noise.

I don’t want to see capacity building lost from the philanthropic agenda.  It’s important for philanthropy in Australia to examine not just the ‘why’ of supporting non-profit capacity building but also the ‘how’.

But first the basics, what is capacity building? The Human Interaction Research Institute which operates the Philanthropic Capacity Building Resources (PCBR) Database describes capacity building as:

“the term used to describe funding, and services such as staff and board training, technology or other capital purchases, fund-raising strategy development, and other activities that help strengthen nonprofit organizations”.

In some circles you might hear ‘capacity building’ referred to as its evil alter-ego, ‘core-funding’.  In philanthropy speak, when someone says core-funding the response you’ll get from a foundation is likely to be ‘you should be funding this yourself’. So for some in philanthropy capacity building is simply a no go area and that’s ok. For those that are interested in the value of funding in the capacity space there are a number of challenges, the biggest of which is the question of how.

Building the capacity of grassroots environmental organisations was the focus of a number of sessions at the 2010 Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA) Fall Retreat in the US last October.  At the retreat Amanda Martin, Executive Officer of the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network, brought together a group of Australian funders to hear from Paul Beaudet of the Seattle based Wilburforce Foundation.  Paul explained that at the Wilburforce Foundation they recognised that in order to build the strength of the communities they were working in, they needed to build the strength of the orgnisations they were working with. Rather than develop a grants program to allow organisations to access capacity funds, the Wilburforce Foundation developed a network of service providers that their programmatic grantees could access for support in their own areas of identified need.  The Foundation’s grantees did not need to tell Wilburforce what providers they were accessing for support.  In fact, the Foundation created an entire new entity to ensure they were completely removed from the process.  This allowed their grantees the freedom to genuinely address their areas of capacity need without fearing what their grantmaking partner might think.

What I like about the Wilburforce Foundation approach is that they recognise the imbalance in the power dynamic between grantmaker and grantseeker. As a grantseeker would you feel confident in telling a funder that your organisation’s capacity needs were in financial management? What about seeking support for conflict mediation? Or support to develop your governance structure? As a grantseeker, these might be genuine capacity needs but it’s understandable that many might find it difficult to share these needs with a funding partner.  So with this in mind, can philanthropy ever be directly involved with capacity funding? The answer of course is yes, but the ‘how’ of funding capacity needs to be carefully considered before a foundation dives in.

Ultimately, investing in capacity building is investing in the strength of the non-profit sector and that benefits everyone. If the philanthropic sector in Australia wants to ensure that recent conversations around ‘capacity building’ don’t become empty rhetoric then we need to invest some time and thought (and maybe even some capacity funds of our own) into the ‘how’s’ and ‘why’s’ of funding in this space.

You can follow Caitriona’s other musings via twitter @cat_fay