When is a wealthy entrepreneur a philanthropist?

I watched with interest a couple of weeks back as word hit that Graeme Wood and Jan Cameron had tipped in $10million to buy the Triabunna woodchip mill in Tasmania. While Wood and Cameron have already established outstanding philanthropic credentials, many environmentalists would argue that the acquisition of the mill, which they intend to transform into an eco-tourism site, is their greatest gift to the community to date.While some media used language to infer the purchase was philanthropic, others simply referenced Wood and Cameron as two wealthy, conservation-minded entrepreneurs. Environmental philanthropy has long been a game of semantics.

So was the purchase of the mill philanthropic?  If we believe that philanthropy is the love of mankind, or the desire to improve the well-being of humankind, then strictly speaking I’d suggest that the purchase certainly came from that place for Wood and Cameron.  Regardless of your beliefs or mine,  both Wood and Cameron would believe deactivating a native woodchip mill is for the benefit of all people; a healthy environment is good for us all. On the flip side, those in the forestry industry have argued that the purchase will lead to jobs loses, will do little to protect the environment and will be an economic failure as an eco-resort. But consensus on the value of the gift has never been required to define philanthropic acts.

The purchase of the mill has got me thinking; is this a sign of  philanthropy moving away from its passive roots? If the purchase of the mill isn’t philanthropy, what is it? Who is it that ultimately gets to define what constitutes philanthropy?

The growth of social enterprises, crowd funding, CSR and giving structures are mixing the world of philanthropy into the world around us. Apart from the Wood and Cameron example, I’ve heard recently of a number of unique approaches to funding and fundraising.  For example Anh Do’s gift to the Australian Cancer Research Council of 1% of his book takings looks set to reap some nice financial rewards – a definite act of altruism and philanthropy.  I’m also hearing more regularly about the establishment of investment circles, where a percentage of income earned goes to the circle’s charity of choice. And what about sponsoring a friend to grow a ‘mo’ in November, is that an act of personal philanthropy (by both the donor and mo grower)?

No doubt, when the figures are compiled at the end of the year many of these unique approaches and ways to give back to the community will not be recorded in our ‘giving’ data. So, how much should be considered philanthropy and how much should we disregard? Does it need to  pass all the public benefit tests before we can celebrate it as philanthropic?

In environment funding, litigation, advocacy and campaigning have always been the bedrock of funding approaches in the United States.  It’s been tougher here in Australia.  The approach taken at Triabunna Mill by Wood and Cameron is regularly at play in the United States and much of the time it is underwritten by philanthropic trusts and foundations. Perhaps what the environment (and the rest of the NFP sector) needs is less philanthropists and more wealthy, conservation-minded entrepreneurs?

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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


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