What the?!

When the news broke a few weeks ago that Deborah Seifert, CEO of Philanthropy Australia, had resigned after being in the post barely two years I was really surprised.   I was even more surprised when it was announced more or less simultaneously that the Director of ArtSupport Australia, Louise Walsh, would be stepping into her shoes.  After initially being a little bit puzzled at the seamlessness of it all, I began to think about the possibilities that having Louise at the helm might represent and things felt quite positive.  Interesting, even.

But what has unfolded this past couple of weeks has left me a little cold.  I really don’t know what to make of it all.  Which is not being helped by the fact that PA is revealing nothing to its membership.  Where is the communication?  Where is the transparency?  Consequently the rumour mill is running wild and people are not happy about the whole situation. Certainly, if the rumours are true there are big changes on the horizon which, if they are to be accepted, need to be managed (which they haven’t to date).  And so, what was an air of possibility has now become a distinctly bad smell.

All this and then the Opposition’s opposition to the ACNC.  Obviously I can’t pretend to know the whole of the NFP sector, but what I can say is that I haven’t heard the same wide-ranging doubts and concerns that Kevin Andrews, Liberal spokesman for families, housing and human services was recently quoted by Fairfax Media as having heard. However if there are doubts and misgivings, it’d be great to hear them….

 


The administration obsession

You may have seen a couple of articles run in the Sydney Morning Herald a fortnight ago examining the administration and transparency of some of Australia’s better-known celebrity foundations.  In the firing line were the McGrath Foundation, The Shane Warne Foundation, the Cathy Freeman Foundation and others. The journalists rightly point out a number of inconsistencies regarding the required public transparency of the non-profit sector here in Australia. Both articles contend that without adequate transparency the donating public can never know how much of their dollar is actually making it to their cause of concern.

The inconsistencies raised in the articles are nothing new to non-profits.  The sector has long struggled under the burden of a fragmented regulatory system and been crippled under the red tape of multiple compliance obligations. It’s hoped that the establishment of the Australian Charities and Non-profit Commission (ACNC) will help to reduce the burden on the non-profit sector while providing a new level of transparency sector wide.

What the two articles also helped to highlight was that there continues to be a lack of wider public understanding around administration costs in the non-profit sector. Held up for high praise were those organisations with the bare minimum of administration costs, while those with professional staff and overheads were the inferred to be less effective and somehow less impressive.

It might well be that those organisations highlighted in the article are ineffective but examining administration and fundraising costs will only paint a partial and sometimes misleading picture.

I’ve worked for a grantmaking organisation that was incredibly strong on applicant organisations submitting ‘real world’ budgets. A budget submitted without a provision for administration costs and contingencies was considered poor, full stop.  Administration costs were considered realistic if they were in the 8%-25% field (depending on the project type).  Any lower or higher and it deserved some prodding. Equally, it was considered poor project management if an applicant didn’t factor at least 10% of the total project costs for contingency costs.

For that particular grantmaking organisation, low administration costs increased the risk of the project operating at the margins, which in turn increased the risk of the project failing.  As a grantmaker they decided to mitigate against that risk. When I called organistions to ask why they had submitted application budgets with low or no administration costs their responses were generally the same – most thought putting the actual administration costs in the budget would reduce their chances of success with the grantmaker.

I’m reluctant to suggest that there is any ‘right’ range for administration fees. What’s really important is that donors examine the administration figures within the context of the organisation’s activities and mission. There is no one rule.  As a donor you need to be more savvy and a donating public we need to expect that administration costs are a reality for charities.

I’d also encourage donors to recognise that staff within the non-profit sector deserve to be adequately reimbursed for the work they do. One of the great tragedies of non-profit sector is our high staff turn-over, and inadequate remuneration is partly to blame. Working in the most challenging of areas, doing the toughest of work, it’s imperative that the non-profit sector hold on to good staff. That includes senior managers and CEOs whose leadership is so valuable in ensuring the ship is pointing in the right direction.

You can follow the musings of Caitriona Fay on Twitter via @cat_fay


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 Follow Friday (#ff)!

Happy Follow Friday! Don’t know what Follow Friday is?  Well, it’s Twitter speak for these people are worth listening to.  Every Friday, tweeps (slang for people who use Twitter) share the list of people they think are worth following by using the hash tag #ff.

If you’re in the philanthropy game and are wondering why you’d even bother getting into Twitter, it’s worth checking out Lucy Bernholz’s (@p2173) blog Why Would A Foundation Tweet. Her advice is pretty simple, Twitter is a great listening tool.  When you start to get your Twitter legs you’ll begin to find it’s a great way to network, connect, share and talk with an incredibly diverse (and impressive) group of people.

So here’s a #ff list for those new to Twitter and for those interested in philanthropy

Influential Philanthropy Tweeps

#1 @Philanthropy – The Chronicle of Philanthropy is a must follow and considered one of the most ‘influential’ (there is a way of measuring that) philanthropy tweeps in the twitterverse

#2 @Kanter – Beth Kanter is the doyenne of all things social media and nonprofit

#3 @p2173 – Lucy Bernholz is fab, follow her on Twitter and follow her blog

#4 @phijo – The Philanthropy Journal online is a great source of nonprofit and philanthropy news

#5 @Newphilanthropy – From the best of the US to the best of the UK, I really enjoy the work of New Philanthropy Capital

#6 @Alliancemag – it’s the leading global magazine on philanthropy and social investment and definitely one to follow on Twitter

#7 @philaction – Another great news source for international philanthropy

#8 @tactphil – best way to follow Sean Stannard-Stockton, the man behind Tactical Philanthropy Advisors

#9 @philanthropy411 – Great philanthropy blog and if you follow this link you’ll find a some great resources on who else to follow on Twitter from philanthropy

#10 @fndcentre – The Foundation Centre, I absolutely love the work of this group, supporting trusts and foundations since the 1950’s, they are a great source of information, thinking and strategies for people who give.

There’s a significant international philanthropic presence on Twitter and there has been for a good couple of years now. Nonprofit organisations are embracing social media in Australia and while philanthropy has been a little slower, its fair to say the Aussie philanthropy contingent has been growing rapidly over the past 12 months.

So let’s get started on a list of the Aussie philanthropy tweeps we all should be following, connecting with, talking with and listen to.  I’ll kick us off, but I’d love to hear from, and of, those Aussie philanthrocrats who are tweeting their stuff

@PhilanthropyAus

@Thomstac

@jonmeyer

@CPNSinsides

@moutou

@VanessaMeachen

@ChristopherSWIN

@InnerNorthCF

@LBA412

@Absherd

@Grant_Hooper

@awesomemelb

@Myer_Foundation

@Artsupport

@AusPhilanthropy

 

@sharonnagoanna

@strategicgrants

@SciPhilanthropy

@stevenhlynch

@Artfuljohn

@mrgregjohnson

@AEMGartmann

And of course there’s the contributors of this site @ClaireMRmmer, @3Eggphil, @Debmorgan22 and me, @cat_fay. Share with us the tweeps you know that are talking about philanthropy on Twitter by leaving a comment. It will make the beginnings of a great resource.

Keep in mind that the above list is just those people who do a lot of talking on the why’s and how’s of philanthropy in Australia. Not included in that list are the wonderful nonprofits many philanthropics support across Australia.  Twitter is a wonderful tool for staying connected to those organisations.

If you still need to be convinced about social media and it’s value then watch the following 2min video:

So if you’re now convinced that it’s time to set up your Twitter account, check out this great infographic from @Partyaficionado.

I look forward to seeing you out in the twitterverse.

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


When the philanthropist met the filmmaker

I’ve been learning a little bit about Documentary Australia Foundation (DAF), an organisation bringing together philanthropic grantmakers, charities and filmmakers.  I love the concept, perhaps because I love the power of documentaries. Storytelling appeals to my Irish nature.

Documentaries today are helping to educate and advocate.  Yes, they can be controversial, but that’s why documentaries and philanthropy are potentially a really good fit. Like or loath, the water cooler power of films such as An Inconvenient Truth, Bowling for Columbine or Autism the Musical cannot be denied.

A really great example here in Australia is the Choir of Hard Knocks.  Established as a choir consisting of homeless and socially disadvantaged people from around Melbourne, the group came to public prominence as part of a five-part ABC documentary series in 2007. The choir, with the help of the series, brought the issue of homelessness into Australian homes, helping people to better understand how it can happen and the need for greater services and housing for those doing it rough.

All this thinking about documentaries and the power of the philanthropy/filmmaker partnership led me to an inevitable question – could a documentary about philanthropy increase the numbers of people giving in Australia?  Better yet, could a documentary about philanthropic partnerships and approaches improve the way the sector works?

In 2009 a number of US funders supported Kate Robinson in creating Saving Philanthropy a documentary profiling diverse organisations doing great, measurable and impactful work with the support of philanthropy. While I haven’t seen the full film, the trailer gives you a glimpse of some of the issues and questions that could get philanthropy in Australia talking. Check out a clip below.

Would Australian philanthropy be willing to open itself up in a similar way?  I can imagine that there are a number of philanthropists and trusts and foundations who would be willing and able.  All we need now are the funds….perhaps it’s time for a chat with the good folks of Documentary Australia Foundation!

For the record, the documentary that sits at the top of my top ten list is Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. What about yours?

You can follow Caitriona Fay on Twitter via @cat_fay


Time for Open Philanthropy in Australia?

I hinted in a recent blog that there was growing talk in the philanthropic sector about the need for increased transparency. At the recent Philanthropy Australia AGM, President Bruce Bonyhady AM, ended his yearly review asking philanthropy to look more closely at the role it plays in society.  Two things stood out to me in Bruce’s speech, first was his belief that philanthropy could play a greater role in the advocacy space and second was that the sector needed to find more ways to be transparent. Both issues, that of advocacy and transparency, are important areas for consideration in Australian philanthropy today. We’ll be tackling both in upcoming blogs and today I’ll kick us off we a few thoughts on transparency.

The timing is right for Philanthropy Australia to push the need for greater transparency among trusts and foundations and not simply because so many are working to solve the same problems.  With the announcement of the formation of the The Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission (ACNC) it is likely that we will see increased government interest in way the philanthropic sector is distributing its funds. Already established are minimum distribution requirements for private ancillary funds and a move to see the same placed on all their public ancillary counterparts. But to be honest, if the extending reach of government is the only incentive driving philanthropic transparency in Australia then we as a sector should probably be a little concerned.

The concept of ‘Open Philanthropy’ in the United States has been driving forward some interesting thinking and incentivising transparency in unique ways. The wonderful Lucy Bernholz (you must follow her blog) shared her modest manifesto on open philanthropy early last year and it really struck a chord with me at the time. Transparency improves our ability to address problems through the sharing of data, successes and failures but like all things in philanthropy the ‘how’ can be the really important bit.

The ‘how’ of transparency is something that the Foundation Center in the US has been looking closely at via the Glasspockets Initiative. The principle behind Glasspockets is, in the words of Janet Camarena, the Foundation Center’s  project lead, “all about creating a culture of transparency within foundations”. But in this digital age transparent philanthropy is no longer simply about sharing how much we fund, it’s about how we communicate openly with each other and the broader public. Glasspockets is a true resource for the community and grantmkers alike, providing functions such as a Heat Map showing the frequency with which information is shared by foundations and a tool allowing foundations to submit and post grant data electronically in near real-time (called eGrant Reporting).  Both functionalities are potentially important tools for grantmakers and the broader community, actively informing and mapping where philanthropy is working, who its engaging with and how engaged that conversation is with people at the coalface.

When I see the potential of initiatives such as Glasspockets for grantmaking I get a little excited.  Imagine the possibilities.  Imagine the potential for real collaboration and informed giving! We need to move away from a belief that transparency in philanthropy is simply about better reporting to government and the public via tax returns and annual reports.  I get the feeling that if the incentives are right for increased transparency in Australian philanthropy then the results could be game changing. But an investment needs to be made by philanthropy into itself, and the capacity of the sector, in order to undertake these initiatives and really drive them forward. I hope that this active transparency model is something the ACNC and Philanthropy Australia encourage among funders.

You can follow Caitriona on Twitter via @cat_fay