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


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