Is philanthropy future ready? The short answer is no, but at the 2016 Philanthropy Australia conference: Evolution or Revolution—Is philanthropy future ready? there was plenty of evidence to suggest that giving in Australia has come of age.

Though the gap between thought leadership delivered on a conference stage and practice in the real world can be significant, the conference was characterised by a willingness to examine giving through a critical lens and a growing appreciation that the traditional segregation of funders and nonprofits (and resulting power imbalance) is problematic.

One of the strongest themes to emerge from this year’s conference, which attracted almost 700 delegates, was the value and necessity of capacity building.

It was a recurrent and pronounced theme in almost every one of the first day’s panels and keynote presentations, including the dynamic and captivating Mae Hong from Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors whose heavy hitting wake-up call to funders (“Nonprofits are working on issues that are disasters in slow motion”) was delivered with the grace and aplomb of a smiling assassin (“How can your work elevate the field overall?”).

Mark Gunton from Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership gave an exhaustive analysis of why every philanthropist should be investing in social enterprise, suggesting that if funders want to change the world in a sustainable way, the role of social enterprise and social business is increasingly important.

Based on his experience at Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership, Gunton said that every dollar spent on overheads was five times more powerful than a dollar spent in the field and urged funders to support core operations.

Rather than reciting statistics, Australia’s 2016 Leading Philanthropist, Audette Exel AO, demonstrated impact by sharing powerful stories of “good giving saving lives” at Adara and encouraged delegates to “move beyond boundaries, beyond barriers” in order to change the world.

Seed Mob’s Amelia Telford drew rousing applause as she shared her journey as a young Indigenous change maker, acknowledging that climate change “is an issue of human rights and social justice,” and that “We can’t afford for climate change to be an issue that divides us—we have to stand up and make it an issue that unites us.”

On the impact investing panel, Allan English implored funders not to make the mistake of dismissing impact investors who’ve chosen the path of divestment as “tree-hugging hippies” and urged them to instead remove the fear of failure; John Tindall challenged funders who hadn’t divested from fossil fuels to “ask yourself why not?”; and Fabienne Michaux ventured that “people feel much safer not doing anything, but if you’re standing still, you’re going to get caught out.”Generosity_PA-conference

Dr Jason Franklin, W.K. Kellogg Community Philanthropy Chair in the US, noted that the critical role of philanthropy is “fostering and sustaining hope” and outlined five mechanisms of foundation influence as: Capacity builders; Movement accelerators; Network enablers; Credibility enhancers and Issue channelers.

Ahead of the networking drinks, Day One ended with a hopelessly one-sided debate on the topic of “Is philanthropy future ready?” during which the negative team (Lani Evans, Jose Pedro Ferrao and Caitriona Fay) trounced their affirmative counterparts (Tony Kalm, Sue Cunningham and Michael Lynch).

Day Two, with a line-up of 125 speakers (yes, 125!), was designated “deep dive” day and though some of the sessions were more robust than others, the quality of discussion was often first rate.

A highlight was the morning’s Citizen-centric Philanthropy session in which Cat Fay led the discussion by challenging the “cultural assumption that people with assets have superior knowledge about making things better”. Lani Evans from Vodaphone NZ Foundation agreed that the “traditional funding process promotes competition, not collaboration” and Josephine Cashman from Riverview Global Partners emphasised the need for “cultural capital” to aid understanding of complex community environments.

In the Co-designed Systems Change session Ten20’s Seri Renkin spoke of the importance of having a gender lens when addressing early childhood disadvantage and stressed the necessity of having a diversity of views. Sue McKinnon from the McKinnon Family Foundation gave what was possibly the boldest and most unapologetic examination of philanthropy’s role in advocacy (complete with props and placards) that has ever graced a Philanthropy Australia stage. Her straight talking, take no prisoners approach was met with whistles and cheers.

In the deep dive “Is philanthropy future ready?” session, Sidney Myer Fund and Myer Foundation’s Leonard Vary floated the idea of the reintroduction of death duties in order to change the culture of giving in Australia while Gemma Salteri from CAGES Foundation asked “What do we want the role of philanthropy to be in shaping the future? Who are we accountable to?”

Questions and comments from the floor during the session came from an encouraging cross-section of high profile philanthropic names through to representatives from nonprofits and the next generation of givers. The discussion ranged from the practical to the philosophical (Do you call yourself a philanthropist or a change maker?) and showed how far philanthropy had come in being open to tough conversations.

In wrapping up the session, moderator and PA CEO Sarah Davies captured the spirit of the discussion: “We need courage to have conversations without knowing what the answers are. We can’t fear disagreement.”

In the Democratisation of Giving session, Australian Communities Foundation’s Maree Sidey pursued thought provoking conversation with her talented and insightful panellists: The English Family Foundation’s Belinda Morrissey: “At the end of the day, it’s not just about the dollars, but the value you can add as a foundation”; Start Some Good’s Tom Dawkins: “Failure is the opportunity to figure out what WILL work”; Good Mob’s Sarah Wickham: “Collective giving helps skill up the next generation of givers”; and The Funding Network’s Lisa Cotton: “The zeitgeist is collective giving.”


More ‘notable and quotable’ from the 2016 Philanthropy Australia conference:

“Through your giving you are expressing your mission.” Daniel Madhavan, Impact Investing Australia

“Let’s call them performance enhancing grants rather than capacity building grants.” Mae Hong, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors

“Is philanthropy part of the problem or the solution?” Caitriona Fay, Perpetual

“Ditch the ‘Mars and Venus’ binary thinking—funders and charities are all social agents.” Fiona Higgins, Australian Philanthropic Services

“Philanthropy will never be future ready until we take a breath and step out into the storm.” Lani Evans, Vodaphone NZ Foundation

“Where is philanthropy engaging with front line leaders for social change?” Dr Jason Franklin

“Talent is spread evenly around the world, opportunity is not.” Mark Gunton, Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership

“As funders, if we don’t fund capacity, we fail.” Michael Traill, SVA

“It’s time to drop every barrier, innovate and reach across the divide.” Audette Exel, Adara