Bennelong Foundation

More and more there is a movement in philanthropy to support programs that create long-term sustainable change – a movement away from crisis support and welfare and for many good reasons. If you empower a person to create their own means, or change policy and systems, there is the potential to break cycles of disadvantage and create ongoing impact – forever.

The term ‘a hand up, not a hand out’ is a common expression of a theory of change among contemporary philanthropic trusts and foundations. It can almost be considered ineffective philanthropy to provide welfare and crisis support. The old adage ‘Give a person a fish, and you feed them for a day. Teach a person to fish, and you feed them for a lifetime’ is the perfect and oft-used example of this concept.

But before we run off teaching everyone experiencing disadvantage to fish, I think it is important to take the time to understand why a person is not already fishing for themselves. Taking a systems approach – a handout coupled with a hand up and addressing the issues and challenges in a holistic manner – is the most meaningful way to effectively create change.

Here are some things to consider for a systems change approach to grantmaking using the theory of teaching a person to fish.

Before you even cast a line

Take the time to consider external factors and the person’s basic needs before presenting them with the opportunity to learn to fish.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs lists air, food, water, sleep and safety (among others) as the basic motivations that drive us. A person may not have the capacity attend fishing lessons if these needs are not met and so they should be addressed before lessons begin. And for the lessons to be a success, you may need to give the person a fish while they are learning to fish.

What other factors affect a person’s ability to learn to fish? If the person is a carer of young children, do they have childcare? Do they speak the language the lessons will be given in? Are there drug or alcohol issues? Mental health? Physical disability? These are all barriers to attending lessons, let alone being able to fish in the future. Again, these issues should be addressed first.

Where are the fish?

It may seem like a great idea to teach someone to fish, but if they do not have access to fishing equipment or a place to fish it would be time wasted.

Other factors to consider include: Where is the nearest body of water in relation to the person? Will the person actually be able to get to the river, lake or ocean? Will they need and/or have access to a fishing boat? Are there actually any fish to be caught?

And once the person knows how to fish, what next? Will they be able to borrow, make or buy the fishing equipment? Is there transportation to their local fishing spot?

Take offering a student experiencing disadvantage a scholarship to attend a prestigious school or university as an example. Can they afford transportation to get there? Is accommodation part of the scholarship, and if not, will they have somewhere to live? Is food included? And what about a uniform, books, laptop and all the other expenses related to attending school or university? If the answer to any of these questions is no then a scholarship will not have the impact intended or, worse, the student may not be able to take up the scholarship.

What if the person can’t eat fish or know doesn’t know what a fish is?

Before thrusting a fishing rod into someone’s hand, it is important to consider if fishing is actually relevant to the person. Does this person even know what fishing is? Do they require support to understand what fishing is and why it would be a beneficial skill? Perhaps they don’t even like fish and so there is no motivation to go fishing? Or perhaps there is a cultural conflict. Maybe they don’t have the strength to go fishing every day. Perhaps they are allergic to seafood.

It is important to take a moment to listen and really understand the person’s needs and find out if teaching them to fish is the right thing for them and the best way to support their needs. Perhaps another skill would be more meaningful. Don’t assume that because fishing worked for one person that it will work for everyone.

Are there too many people fishing?

If everyone is being taught to fish, we should ask the question: Are there enough fish to support all these people fishing? Are there too many fishing schools and not enough students? Is there a need to teach people to fish or do we just think it’s a great idea because the saying is famous! Who else is teaching people to fish and what can we learn from them? Is there an opportunity to collaborate? Do the research on what opportunities are already available.

If you set out with a goal of feeding a person for a lifetime or any other long-term social change, it is important to recognise that there is no silver bullet. Often there are many interventions required to address the complex issues around why a person is not fishing for themselves already. There will always be a need for welfare, intervention and preventative programs, and advocacy. Ensuring they are all working together by taking a systems approach is how meaningful change is achieved.

So before you go off and fund or establish a fishing school, take the time to understand the needs of the intended beneficiaries and if those needs are being addressed. Understand why these people are not already fishing for themselves. Take the time to listen. What are the personal, cultural, environmental, family, housing, history or health barriers. If these needs are not being addressed, then the systems are not there to effectively create change and perhaps it is not the right time and place to set up a fishing school.

By taking a systems approach to addressing a person’s needs, you will significantly increase the potential for that person to feed themselves for a lifetime.

Sandra Jacobs is the CEO of Bennelong Foundation.