Leadership opportunities in philanthropy have always been there for the taking.

In the last two decades, people have stepped up to shape and define giving as it has become more public and codified, moving on from random acts of generosity based on private initiative, good intentions, hunches and common sense.

These changes have resulted in common practices and policies in Australian philanthropy, along with pressure for bold and fearless leadership to recognise and learn about the impact of well-placed philanthropic dollars.

A recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review reported on the top three priorities of US foundation CEOs for realising the potential of philanthropic foundations to have significant impact in society in the coming decades.

The top three approaches are:

– learn from the knowledge or experience of those people that foundations seek to help

– learn from the knowledge or experiences of grantees

– embrace risk.

Anyone involved in contemporary philanthropy—the givers, the doers and the advisors—must want to see the transaction of philanthropic money as the most effective and efficient it can be, and are, no doubt, doing their best to make it so. But, despite this common aspiration and hard work, people too frequently operate in their own worlds, constrained by limited time and resources and defined by practices which could be up for an overhaul. And risk taking can be tricky to weave into plans.

Many people seeking funds from philanthropic giving programs can be driven to despair, or walk away rather than waste precious time and effort trying to find the YES button from donors and grant making programs. And many donors and people operating giving programs are aware that they do not have the time for relationships which allow for learning and exchanging on the multitude of funded activities they support.

It was this topic of ‘healthy’ approaches to reporting on outcomes that was the focus for a range of givers and doers who came together for a roundtable at Donkey Wheel House, hosted by Portland House Foundation and Donkey Wheel Ltd in November 2016.

Of the 30 people present at the roundtable, givers and doers were equally represented. A straw poll on the day revealed a huge variation in the number of funding relationships being managed by grant makers, ranging from as few as six to as many as 400. Between them, the grant makers present managed roughly 1700 reports annually.

Grant seekers present also reported considerable variation in the number of reports they were required to deliver to donors and grant makers, ranging from as few as three up to 80.

Susan Biggs (Adara Development) and Helen Christensen (Opening the Doors Foundation) got the discussion started by sharing their own experiences of reporting on their funded activities to a range of donors.

The problem of attribution of outcomes, raised by Susan, struck a chord with many participants.

When reporting on impact, there is a risk of pressure to attribute success to a project because of particular funding or program activities, where success may, in fact, be due to a range of factors. An example from an Adara Development program promoting infant and child health in Nepal, is understanding the reduction in paediatric admissions of young babies in any given year. It might be safely assumed to be due to their immunisation program. In fact it could be many factors, such as less rain and therefore lower rates of malaria, or a good crop so better nutrition, or perhaps a sanitation program has ensured more children are drinking clean water.

So it is important that doers feel okay about reporting success that they might only have contributed to. Givers need to understand that too, and not expect that the doers will be 100 per cent sure that their activities alone have been responsible for a particular impact. This also resonated for staff of giving programs, who are often reporting on outcomes to their donors and boards, and cannot be categorical about how success is framed.

Helen Christenson spoke about the importance of philanthropy giving her organisation the freedom it needs to respond to its communities, to offer choice to many Aboriginal families who want to support the spiritual wellbeing of their children through education.

“This is not just about school fees being paid, there are many more outcomes that can be reported as a result of children participating fully in their education, and feeling ‘whole’”, Susan explained.

Being able to report with an open exchange and shared curiosity ensures these wider outcomes are understood and valued.

From a free flowing discussion on the multiple challenges associated with reporting, trust emerged as a key theme.

The approach to reporting developed by the Portland House Foundation is captured in the memorable catchphrase: high trust, low docs, face to face, and no surprises. A number of participants around the table, both grant makers and recipients, spoke passionately about the difference it makes to have trust built into the reporting process.

The experience of those present suggested that there is no shortcut to building this trust—that face-to-face conversations and personal interaction, however brief, are the most essential ingredients in building trusting relationships over time. This also ensures that the voice of the people delivering value from the money given is heard clearly, and that people can share design, risk and learning from the funded activity.

However, even with the best intentions, grant makers with large and complex distributions described the logistical challenge faced in cultivating this type of relationship with hundreds of grant recipients. In this context, there was agreement on the value of IT systems and processes that made it as easy as possible for grant recipients to fulfil their reporting requirements. Other ways of creating the environment for relationship building are also under consideration.

Grant seekers equally expressed their frustrations with lack of accessibility of grant makers, and not knowing how to create strong personal exchange and relationships if donors and grant makers did not provide an opportunity for them to do so.

The intention of the Roundtable at Donkey Wheel House was to facilitate sharing of ideas among people with different roles and responsibilities, and to become more familiar with common practice and different challenges which emerge depending on where people fit in the giving continuum, and what their particular giving program involves.

Rather than attempting to identify a one-size-fits all solution, the intention was to begin unpacking and identifying options available to grant makers and grant seekers alike. Participants at the Roundtable generated and shared a range of answers to three key questions. Highlights included:


What is working well?

– One report, similar to an annual report, delivered to multiple donors.

– “No stories without numbers, no numbers without stories”.

– Starting with clear expectations on both sides.

– Personal communication such as phone calls and face-to-face meetings, rather than – or in addition to – online reporting.

– Opportunities to allow the possibility of mid-course corrections, and to discuss and agree on these corrections with the grantor.

– Both parties being aware of what can be learned through flexible reporting and frank feedback.

– Allowing for trend reporting over a five year horizon.


What is not working well?

– Difficulty of understanding how to get face-to-face meetings.

– Lack of operational capacity available for personal and face-to-face reporting.

– Short term grants which don’t allow time for establishing relationships.

– Detailed reporting requirements on low value grants.


What ideas could improve reporting into the future?

– Funding initiatives to help organisations to simplify data collection and build reporting capacity.

– Agreement on regular phone calls to complement other reporting.

– Grantor jointly providing funds for evaluation of suitable activities.

– Clearer information from grant makers on their preferred format and content, to clarify and simplify reporting expectations.

– Ensuring reporting is mutually valuable, particularly that the doer is reporting on things that matter and that are intrinsically important to their business model.

– More ‘show and tell’ reporting samples and templates, matched with simplicity of application formats.


As contemporary philanthropic practice evolves to meet current challenges and opportunities of the future, approaches to reporting on outcomes must simultaneously evolve. Leaders from grant making programs and grant recipient organisations working together to design what this looks like must result in cost efficiencies and stronger partnerships, plus learning for both sides.

If we accept the priority to learn from each other, and design and embrace the calculated risks that can deliver better outcomes, it is not sufficient to sit in isolation in our offices, developing technically beautiful or minimalist solutions for reporting which may tick boxes but teach us little.

Collaboration with grantees is essential to find out what works and what doesn’t, and is a fast track to understanding how we can collectively continue to improve the practice of philanthropy in 2017. The Roundtable at Donkey Wheel House was a valuable example of how to build such collaboration.


The authors wish to thank all who attended the roundtable discussion and, in particular, those attendees who also gave valuable input into earlier drafts of this article.


Col Duthie is Chair of Donkey Wheel Ltd and Ethical Property Commercial Ltd, Principal at Vocate and a director of STREAT Enterprises.

Genevieve Timmons has been active in the Australian grantmaking sector since the 1980s and is the author of Savvy Giving: the Art and Science of Philanthropy. She is Philanthropic Executive at Portland House Foundation, a member of the Philanthropy Australia Council and Generosity’s Editorial Advisory Board.




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