Ian Darling epitomises a special type of leadership. Anyone who had the good fortune to watch him orchestrate a Good Pitch Australia event over the last three years will have felt it.
It’s an uplifting mix of compassion, commitment and vision that brings the best out of people. All sorts of people.
Seeing Darling MC the final Good Pitch Australia event in November 2016 was like watching a master assuredly uncap and diffuse a bottle of magic.
A kind word here, an empathetic gesture there—he brought hundreds of people together in the moment and compelled them to connect: with each other, with their better natures, with the six documentary films and their causes.
People laughed, cried, cheered and hugged. People who’ve never given to the arts, gave effusively.
By the end of the day, $6.6 million dollars had been raised.
It’s not all magic, of course. Darling and his team put in a tremendous amount of work behind the scenes to create each success.
Since 2014, Good Pitch Australia has raised more than $14 million for 19 documentary films and their social impact campaigns, and leveraged untold value from more than 300 strategic partnerships.
Through it all, humility and grace have been hallmarks of Darling’s approach. He admitted that his response to being told in a phone call that he had been named Philanthropy Leader of the Year was one of utter surprise: “Really? How has anyone heard of me given how many amazing contributors there are out there?”
On the eve of the Australian Philanthropy Awards, Ian Darling spoke with Generosity editor Nicole Richards.
NR – Good Pitch Australia brought people and organisations into documentary film who’d never ventured into the space before. Did the response surprise you?
ID – The short answer is yes! At the first event we congratulated everyone for being there but we thought this will either work really well or it will fail miserably, but we raised over $2 million.
Then the second year was in part about managing expectations. I think the second year is always really difficult—it’s like the second album or the second film or the second act. We thought there was a fair chance we might end up closer to $3 million if everything went well. We ended up raising closer to $5 million.
The third year, we thought matching that would’ve been an enormous result and yet we ended up at $6.6 million.
As the years went on, we spent more time working with the philanthropic community and preparing them for what they’d see and I think the more everyone, including the film makers, prepared, the more it helped to increase the pie.
That said, there really is something magical about the live event. When you get a group of like-minded individuals together you get a powerful collective response and that’s something we’ll miss. People were comfortable to pledge, feel vulnerable and show their emotions and feel incredibly hopeful and proud of what we can collectively do. It produced both financial and pro bono levels of support far greater than we imagined but also profound and honest conversations from both the table and the room that we perhaps didn’t expect.
The vast majority of people at the events had their first experience with documentary and I think they realised that, while on one hand, it can be supporting the arts, it’s also supporting a mechanism for humanising these really important social issues. It puts a human face to these really complex stories in ways that I haven’t seen.
First time funders see that it’s so strategic and so collaborative and that it has scale—all these important elements. It’s a living example of collaborative philanthropy.
There’s such deep affection for Good Pitch Australia among the philanthropic community. Will there be new ways for funders to engage with documentary films and their makers in the post-Good Pitch era?
We’re still committed to all 19 campaigns for the next five years and donors can support these films at any time. Shark Island Institute provided a five-year capacity grant of $2 million to support this work.
We’re also establishing the Good Pitch Impact Labs, where 20 filmmakers each year, for the next five years, will attend residential filmmaker labs, where they will learn all about impact and working with the philanthropic and not-for-profit community.
So many more filmmakers and donors now fully understand how they can work together, to not only fund the films and campaigns, but achieve a high return on social capital. I’m hoping in a post-Good Pitch era that the market will be self-determining and that many collaborations are made at the individual film level.
I’m also directing and producing my own films again and we will be applying the Good Pitch model to our Shark Island Productions films too.
Can you elaborate on this notion of a high return on social capital?
I guess it goes back 10 years when I set up Documentary Australia Foundation and I’d been in the US in 2004 and had seen at the end of the documentary films there were all these credits for philanthropic foundations that had funded the films.
The penny suddenly dropped and I realised that private sector investment, which was the area we’d been trying to target, was the wrong pool of capital. It’s virtually impossible to get an investment return in Australia on documentaries. With the right strategic approach it’s highly possible and indeed likely that you’ll get a very high social return.
There’s a huge multiplier effect for every dollar that’s a philanthropic investment—time and again you’re getting 20x and 30x multipliers on that social investment. It’s hard to put a value on it, but on a case by case basis I think the returns are incredibly high and that’s helped the success of Good Pitch.
In your many years of giving, what’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned about philanthropy?
I’d say there are three:
– You must take a long-term and a highly strategic approach.
– Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate (with other philanthropists and the sector).
– Try to do more with less (ie focus on one area or one project and really try to make a big impact over the long term).
When all’s said and done, what kind of social impact do you hope to achieve with your philanthropy?
One that gives voice to the voiceless and to the marginalised members of the community. And an impact that is achieved through a high level of collaboration with the sector—collective impact can be far more effective and sustainable.
What are your top three tips for effective giving?
Fund capacity (overhead). This is still all about people and the best people and their organisations need to be adequately funded. It’s not sexy and you don’t get your name on a building, but backing the right people can create the highest return on social capital of any donation. Funding capacity should be an important part of every single gift giving strategy.
Give more to less. Focus your portfolio and give more to fewer organisations/causes over a longer period of time.
Collaborate with the sector. Scale, leverage and sustainability are vital to creating effective and sustainable long-term giving.
There’s been a lot of talk recently in the sector about the importance of funding capacity. Do you think the tide is turning in terms of supporting these unsexy things or will it take determined effort?
I think it will take determined effort. You can see in the philanthropic sector that there’s donor fatigue and often donors require some new program or new innovation. Whereas at other times, actually just supporting what works is the best use of capital.
I think with human nature being what it is, everyone likes to move onto a new thing but sometimes it’s a trade-off. I’m definitely not saying support capacity indefinitely, but I think it has to be a part of everyone’s gift giving.
This is probably like asking you to choose a favourite child, but with all the campaigns and all the impact you’ve achieved with the films, is there one that stands out to you for making inroads on a particular issue?
The greatest impact I suppose is often going to be the first one which was That Sugar Film. The return on that in terms of awareness and direct action and changing eating habits and the way the sector is talking about it and the notion of sugar tax being put on the agenda—I think this film will still be watched in 10 years’ time. I think that’s one that stands out.
They all stand out in their own way, for instance Frackman, to me, was as much a film about community as it was about fracking. It’s led all sides of the political debate and every company in the energy space to rethink the consequences of gas fracking. I think there’s a much greater understanding that you can’t just go into a community without consultation and without an understanding of the environmental and health consequences of what you’re doing.
Then there’s Gayby Baby and the way that’s helped frame the debate about same-sex parenting by bringing children into it was really important.
One of the interesting ones was The Hunting Ground which is still a work in progress. It’s the only US film of our 19, but it’s had a profound impact for a modest amount when one thinks of the return on social capital. The fact that it’s engaged peak bodies—Universities Australia has brought $1 million to the issue of sexual assault on campus—the fact that it’s engaged the Human Rights Commission, the fact that every university in Australia is now working out how they deal with the issue of sexual assault on their campuses, and educating all their faculties and colleges and students alike.
It’s not going to eradicate the issue, but it’s meant there’s a staggering level of attention suddenly brought to the issue. This one powerful film has been able to bring the sector together in a way that’s never happened before and I think that’s extraordinary, especially within an 18-month period.
Looking back, is there anything you would’ve done differently? Any failures you’d care to share?
We’ve got a huge war chest of scar tissue but I think, rather than doing it differently, the things we were doing well were reinforced.
We realised there was no substitute for really briefing the film makers and continuing to work with them before, during and after the event.
Perhaps we didn’t fully factor in how many years we’d need to be at the coal face with all of this—we probably didn’t realise how many years we needed to stay connected with the film makers and the campaigns and the donors. That’s why we made this capacity grant for five years.
I think we probably could’ve done a better job at informing the investors about what the finished films would look like. In a couple of instances, there were some donors who were expecting a lot more science in Frackman for example and people’s expectations can differ but there was a very strong strategic direction that film took when the film makers realised it was about an individual and the community, rather than the science.
Everyone has their own idea in their mind’s eye about what a film is going to look like, but I think in a couple of instances we could’ve done more to inform the donors pre-screening. We learnt from that and tried even harder to keep the donors informed about how the stories were evolving every step of the way.
What’s the one leadership trait you’d like to see more of in Australian philanthropy?
A willingness for the leaders to be bolder, and take more risks, and be more strategic. The problems we face in the community are going to take far more creativity and courage to solve, and the philanthropic sector must be prepared to lead the charge here.
I get the sense that some parts of the philanthropic community are still very reactive rather than proactive—ticking boxes and responding to applications. And don’t get me wrong, there is a real need to support these applications more than ever. But I think there’s also a role for being bold and putting yourself out there too, and getting other foundations to come along and collectively tackle the areas that don’t traditionally get a lot of attention and support.