Investing in understanding you

I had a chance recently to sit in on Philanthropy Australia’s Rural and Regional Affinity Group Meeting.  It’s a group ably led by Jeanice Henderson of the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal (FRRR) and links together funders from across Australia with an interest in supporting communities in regional, rural and remote Australia. I was there in my capacity as Co-Convenor of the Philanthropy Australia’s Education Affinity Group but I have subsequently signed up to participate more regularly as a member of the group.

I began wondering why it was that the Foundation I work for hadn’t been involved with the Rural and Regional Affinity Group up until that point.  It is a relatively new group and, like all in the philanthropic sector, I find myself ‘time poor’ a good deal of the time but the truth be told I think I may have actually dismissed the fact that I work for a foundation does make investments in those communities. Sometime when you are not explicit about what you fund (in this case regional and rural Australia) you can dismiss the role you should be playing in thinking about how to make better investments in that area.

Interestingly, I have noted the issue with ‘education funding’ too. I speak to a lot of philanthrocrats who aren’t involved in the Education Affinity Group and when we get talking about their funding priorities it’s clear that there is a genuine education cross over. Education is perhaps the broadest of all funding areas – what are we actually talking about when we say ‘education funding’? Is it simply schools support, numeracy and literacy and basic learning support for students? Or, as funders do we need to think about the wider diversity of education support we direct to young people via our arts, environment and health programs?

Last year’s Leading Learning in Education and Philanthropy survey picked up on the diversity of areas that philanthropy was making its investments to in education. A group of 25 funders actually agreed to identify themselves in the survey to outline the diversity of their education funding remit. The breath of funding priorities was impressive with areas as wides as support for the creative arts to vocational education for young people all supported. You can check out the full results via the Leading Learning in Education and Philanthropy (LLEAP) dialogue series.

In 2012 everyone involved in the LLEAP research is hopeful that the full diversity of philanthropic funders involved in education will complete the Philanthropy Survey to try to paint an even clearer picture of what funds are being directed to education by private and corporate funders. So I would urge all those funders who think they fit within the broad education remit to complete the survey and twist the arms of others they know to get involved too.  As a philanthropic sector it is important we invest our time and energy into knowing how we currently engage with our partners, so that we might in the longer term improve our practices, share our learnings and ultimately do better by those communities we are aiming to support.

The LLEAP Philanthropy Survey closes on Tuesday 21 August. If you have any questions about the survey or you involvement contact Emma or Michelle via tenderbridge@acer.edu.au.

You can follow the musings of Caitriona Fay on Twitter via @cat_fay or the blog via @3eggphil

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Gonski calls to philanthropy

In the 24 hours since its release the public response has been mostly positive to David Gonski’s comprehensive report on the funding of Australia’s schools. The independent and catholic school systems, state education proponents and unions are all urging the Gillard Government to act on the recommendations of the report. With 5 billion extra dollars being earmarked by Gonski to fund his reforms it’s not all together surprising.

One of the big surprises falling from the report was the focus on the need for greater partnerships between schools and philanthropy. The recommendations equally acknowledge the role philanthropy plays in our communities and the need to better equip schools to access that funding. We’ve raised some of the issues facing philanthropists wishing to support schools in a previous post and it was great to see some of the important voices on the issue, Ros Black, Michelle Anderson, Philanthropy Australia, Brian Caldwell, Myles McGregor-Lowndes et al, referenced in the Report.

So let’s take a quick look at the recommendations the Report makes on philanthropy and school partnerships.

1. A fund to encourage philanthropic giving to schools in low socioeconomic areas

The report outlines this fund as a DGR entity focused on assisting schools to develop philanthropic partnerships. As a staffed organisation, the fund would be responsible for facilitation of school-philanthropy partnerships while also building the capacity of individual schools to better partner with philanthropy. We have seen a number of organisations working actively in this space. For example, The Australian Council for Education Research (ACER) has established the Tender Bridge with the specific intent of assisting schools to develop the skills and knowledge required to better access and work with philanthropic and corporate partners. ACER and Tend Bridge have also been the key drivers behind the Leading Learning in Education and Philanthropy (LLEAP) initiative that is investigating the impact of philanthropy in education with the aim of building knowledge and improving outcomes for schools and their philanthropic partners.

2. Capacity building

Access is a critical issue for many schools when attempting to interact with philanthropy and other potential donors.

  • Access to philanthropy – understanding who is out there, how to approach donors and what a suitable partnership looks like
  • Access to individuals – building and growing alumni with a view to keeping former students connected to their school communities for longer
  • Access to DGR status– limitations around DGR funds, particularly for state schools means community partnerships must be developed with the non-profit sector
  • Access to knowledge – understanding different types of grantmaking and sponsorship partnership and what reciprocal obligations, if any, they create

Building the capacity of schools to improve their access to all of the above is imperative in allowing school-philanthropy-business partnerships continue to grow.

3. Increase taxation incentives for donations to government schools

Seen by some as a soulless altruism, tax incentives have been highlighted as a potential means to increase donations to government schools. Debate is still hot on whether these incentives actually work but as highlighted in the Report they could at the very least be an important conversation starter between some donors and schools.

There is a good deal to do before the vision and potential of  a more active philanthropy-schools collaboration is realised. Senator Jacinta Collins has been tasked by the Government with examining the Report’s philanthropy recommendations further and to continue a consultation process with the key stakeholders. The great thing however is that philanthropy has been slowly moving towards more sustained engagement with the school sector for some time. Organisations like the former Education Foundation and the Foundation for Young Australians have a wonderful history in this space. The development of the Business Working with Education Foundation is a further example of this movement as is the wonderfully engaged interaction of so many philanthropic funders with the Leading Learning in Education and Philanthropy (LLEAP) research project over the past 12 months. All of this serves as a reminder of the commitment many funders already have to finding better ways of working with schools. Let’s hope Senator Collins engages with them all.

You can follow the musings of Caitriona Fay on Twitter via @cat_fay or the blog via @3eggphil.


The LLEAP Survey Report: A conversation starter for education funders

It was exciting yesterday to see the release of the 2011 Survey Report for the Leading Learning in Education and Philanthropy (LLEAP) research study. The Report documents the responses to the inaugural LLEAP survey provided by 300 schools, non-profits and philanthropic bodies working in the education space.

The release of the Report marks the first real milestone for the LLEAP team and everyone involved in shaping the research program. Those organisations and individuals who have given their time generously to be involved in the interview phase, focus groups and in the completion of the survey have done so out of a commitment to finding better ways to work towards improving educational outcomes.

The LLEAP research is the first of its kind in Australia to bring together schools, non-profits and trusts & foundations to examine the role and impact of philanthropy in education.

For me, one of the more eye-opening aspects of the Report relates to the number of disconnects in priorities and target audiences among respondent schools, non-profits and philanthropic organisations. This is perhaps best demonstrated by schools clearly ranking teachers and teacher quality highly in terms of need for support and yet this need is not reflected in the highest priorities of philanthropic and non-profit respondents.

There are three main themes to come out of the Report with respect to the barriers faced by schools, non-profits and philanthropy.  For schools, it’s that their capacity to find and access philanthropic dollars is poor. For non-profits, the issue of short term funding and program sustainability is hindering their capacity to be as effective as they could be. For philanthropy the barriers are what the report refers to as “knowledge issues” (specifically the who, how and why of collaboration and best practice).

The great thing about the Survey Report is that it is a conversation starter.  The survey results are simply that; survey results. How we use and interpret the results however can potentially influence our practices and decision making. We’ll be exploring some of the issues the Report has thrown up on this blog in the coming weeks and would love you to join in the on the conversation.

Caitriona Fay is a member of the LLEAP Project Team. You can follow her musings on Twitter via @cat_fay and get the latest from the Eggs via @3eggphil


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 


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


Giving like Herb and Dorothy

They weren’t born rich. They didn’t get rich either. Quite the opposite in fact. But they are major American philanthropists. They’re Herbert and Dorothy Vogel.

I hadn’t heard of the Vogels until a couple of weeks ago when I was scanning the shelves of my local video shop for something to watch (why do we still call them video shops?!) and a title caught my eye: “Herb and Dorothy. The incredible true story of a postal worker and a librarian who built a world-class art collection”.

Using Herb’s salary alone (they lived on Dorothy’s) the Vogels managed to amass what is described in the film as “one of the most important contemporary art collections in history”.  They did this using just two selection criteria:

  1. they had to be able to afford the work, and
  2. it had to fit into their rent-controlled one bedroom apartment in Manhattan!

While the artists represented in the collection now reads as a who’s who of major Minimalist, Conceptual and post-1960s artists, the Vogels bought the works when no one else was interested, which meant they were able to buy them for virtually nothing. They bought passionately and compulsively for almost 30 years and by the early 90s their apartment was busting at the seams with works of art estimated to be worth millions of dollars.

In 1992, after being courted by some major art museums and made many lucrative offers for their collection, the Vogels gifted it to the National Gallery of Art in Washington. But what motivated them to do this? Why did they gift it? They may have been asset rich but in real terms they had no money!  They explain it as being because they’d both been government workers and they liked the idea of giving it to the American people.  Gorgeous!

Amazingly, they then went on to continue to collect art…..mainly using the small annuity the National Gallery had given them as a token of thanks for their gift (I love their story!!). Once again, the artworks outgrew the Vogels’ capacity to properly look after them and they decided to make another major gift to the American people. Unfortunately the National Gallery was unable to accept any more works, so instead they brokered an initiative which in the last couple of years has seen the distribution of 50 Vogel collection art works to 50 art museums around the US.  NY Times Vogel 50×50

Clearly it was all about the art and giving others the opportunity to gain as much from it as they had: learning from it and getting a huge amount of pleasure out of experiencing it. It’s such a human story and it’s so inspirational!

In the last week Australia has celebrated two major philanthropic gifts – one from John Kaldor and one from The Felton Bequest. The Kaldor Family Collection of 200 international contemporary art works was unveiled in its new home at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The collection, which John Kaldor gifted to the Gallery in 2008, is valued at AU$35 million and is the single largest donation of art to an Australian public gallery. John says that his benefaction was driven by the fact that he sees art as an essential part of life and that he felt selfish having the art in his own home where only he and family were able to see it. As he has demonstrated via his commissioning of major public art works in Australia since the 1960s, he has a deep commitment to enabling public to learn from, have access to and enjoy art. It’s a hugely important gift.  ABC Kaldor Gift feature

The Felton Bequest was left to the National Gallery of Victoria by Alfred Felton on his death in 1904. He left £378,000 in trust (about $30 million in today’s money) for the NGV to use for the purchase of works and objects judged ”to have an educational value and to be calculated to raise and improve public taste”. Hmmmm. Since his death over 15,000 works of art valued at over $2 billion have been purchased, accounting for 80% of the NGV’s collection, and growing….the purchase and commissioning of a further 170+ art works was announced yesterday on the Gallery’s 150th birthday! It’s such a shame Felton didn’t give in his lifetime, so he could have seen the very value of his benefaction. In fact with such a categorical goal to improve public taste, I’m surprised he didn’t want to be around to know if he’d achieved it!  NGV at 150/Felton Bequest

It is these gifts and those of the Rockefellers, Guggenheims, Besens, D’Offays and Duffields to name but a few, that give so much to the public in terms of their capacity to create opportunities to learn and give enrichment and pleasure. Long may they continue! The Vogel’s story makes it feel possible that it could be any one of us that can give a gift which makes all the difference. I wonder if I have it in me to “do a Vogel“?!

If you want to see the trailer for Herb and Dorothy directed by Megumi Sasaki, click here: Herb and Doroth 2008 movie