The complex ecology of philanthropyPosted: 1 July 2011
On Wednesday I attended the ever-inspiring Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network conference. The conference is an annual event, and brings together a passionate bunch of environmental grantmakers to discuss meaty issues relating to the whats, whys and hows of environmental philanthropy. This year’s theme was environmental and indigenous philanthropy. We were lucky enough to hear from inspiring speakers such as Joe Morrison from NAILSMA, Kerry Arabena from the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, and Diane Christensen from the Christensen Fund.
As much as I love hearing from the speakers, what I really love about AEGN conferences, and, well, any conference, is the conversations in the breaks. It always makes me feel like I’m part of something big and exciting.
Something I’ve been thinking about lately is the diversity of the philanthropic sector. Like any healthy ecosystem, I think the sector’s strength is in its diversity. I’m talking about the diversity of organisations we fund, the diversity of scales we fund at, and the diversity of tools we use to affect change. We often trumpet our own grantmaking decisions as being the ‘right’ decisions, but actually, all grantmaking decisions are ‘right’. And if a grant turns out to be ineffective, that’s just an opportunity to learn, and do more of the ‘right’ stuff and less of the less ‘right’ stuff.
A really good example that comes to mind is two organisations who work to use surplus food (which would otherwise be bound for the bin) to feed hungry people. FareShare and SecondBite both have a healthy list of supporters. And so they should – they’re both doing fantastic work. Supporting one and not the other is not wrong or right, it’s just a decision the funder has made, for whatever reason. It might be that the funder has a closer relationship with one of the organisation’s staff, or likes the management structure of one better than the other, or their model of program delivery. Whatever it is, if there’s a bit of due diligence and a bit of heart involved, you can’t go too far wrong.
I think the same applies to scale as well. My $10 donation is valuable, particularly when there’s lots of ‘me’ equivalents supporting the same cause. Equally, the $10 million donation is quite valuable (obviously!) too. But each donation will meet a different sort of need in a different way.
The tools we use are also important. Speaking with a handful of funders on Wednesday, we talked about the ability for some funders to support the capacity development of not for profit organisations. We all acknowledged this takes a particular skill set on the part of the funder, and is not for everyone, but nobody would dismiss the value of the work. To me, the funders that do the hands on capacity development work are crucial in making organisations sustainable and (cash) grant ready.
In the same way that genetic diversity allows populations to adapt to changing environments, funding diversity will allow not for profits to adapt to the ever changing pressures in society. And thank goodness for that. I hope the conversations continue to foster, encourage and support the many and diverse views and approaches.