As promised this post is going to continue to examine some of the trends for 2012 highlighted in Philanthropy and Social Investment Blueprint 2012 – the annual industry forecast produced by Lucy Bernholz. In my last post I looked at the first of three major shifts identified in the Blueprint, today I’ll be moving on to trend number two: the implications of the US Supreme Court‘s Citizens United ruling on philanthropy and social investing.
There is no doubt that grantmakers here in Australia have a lot to learn from philanthropy overseas. I am often reminded however that much of how and why we practice philanthropy is unique. By constantly casting an eye towards North America and Europe we risk failing to recognise and value the innovation taking place in our own backyard. So what can we here in Australia possibly learn from examining the potential implications of the Citizens United US Supreme Court decision?
Before I address that question in detail, it probably serves to give a quick rundown on what that Supreme Court decision actually amounts to. In short Citizen United removed prior restrictions on spending by corporations on election campaigns; in essence allowing these bodies the similar first amendment rights to free speech as everyday American citizens. These newly available dollars will certainly come into play in 2012, the first presidential election year since the ruling was handed down. Rather than promoting and opposing political candidates or parties directly, much of the funding from corporations is likely to flow via non profit organisations advocating on issues that serve their purpose. It is the implication of that funding process has some interesting cross over with Australia.
Around the same time that Citizens United was taking it’s case to the US Supreme Court, here in Australia an international aid watch dog called Aid/WATCH was taking its fight to hold on to its charitable tax exemptions to the High Court. In Australia, like in the US, the judges ruled in their favour. The decision asserted that Aid/WATCH, as an independent watch-dog examining how aid is distributed, may well be involved in political advocacy. Because the generation of public debate created by Aid/WATCH through their advocacy focused on the relief of poverty through foreign aid, the Judges ruled that it should not be excluded as a charitable activity. This ruling opened up direct funding of political advocacy by charitable trusts and foundations, ensuring that neither the donor, or the non-profit they were supporting, put their charitable status at risk. The Eggs have posted previously on the new place for advocacy in the Australian non-profit sector, but perhaps we have not explored the potential implications for donors in full.
In an environment more open to political advocacy from our non-profits, what are the potential implications on donors and ultimately donations? In the US, it’s likely that the Citizens United decision will lead to not only more political advocacy from non-profits but also more non-profits being created with a focus on raising money for or against their preferred candidates and issues. Here in Australia, the likelihood is that we’re gong to see a greater intensity of out and out advocacy. For some funders, the thought of seeing their long supported charities engaged in the political might be too much to bear. For other funders it will open up spheres of influence like never before.
I’ve spoken with people on both sides of the advocacy fence, those that find philanthropic support of political advocacy unseemly and those that see it as critical vehicle in mission based philanthropy. Not all philanthropic organisations in Australia believe or want to be mission driven, the warm heart of benevolence for many is still the greatest motivator. There will always be a place for both. I do sense however, that the new wave of youth and online philanthropy in this country will drive a new era of donor funded advocacy.
Should you wish to learn more about the trends in philanthropy and social investment for 2012, I’d encourage you to get your hands on a copy of Blueprint 2012:
- Hard copies from Lulu
- PDFs at Scribd
- Kindle version from Amazon
- eBook from Smashwords. Also available for Amazon Kindle, B & N Nook and others.
You can follow the musings of Caitriona Fay on Twitter via @cat_fay or the blog via @3eggphil
Education is a tough space for philanthropy. In my view, the only tougher area to support is environment. The things that make environment funding tough are the exact same in education. In each you are faced with complex issues at a policy and local delivery level and ultimately, the things that impact on outcomes may have nothing to do with the context in which you are working.
So why would philanthropy even pretend to be a player in the education space? When you examine all the dollars governments put into schools annually any philanthropic commitment, singularly or combined, adds up to little more than small change. It’s rare to speak with trustees of trusts and foundations who don’t wrestle with this underlying feeling of ‘what’s the point?’
I read with interest an interview with Bill Gates in the Wall Street Journal this week. Gates is a learning philanthropist, constantly looking at what’s working and what isn’t with his Foundation’s grantmaking. This past week, in what is a rarity for philanthropy in general, he spoke about failure and more specifically, the Gates Foundation’s failures in its approach to supporting education in the United States.
The Gates Foundation approach to education funding was set around an objective of increasing college attendance. It included an investment of $100 million in 2004 into the establishment of 20 ‘small’ high schools across several States. The objective of the ‘small school’ model was simple – smaller classrooms provide higher levels of teacher/student engagement, which also promotes increased attendance, better classroom behaviour and the development of significant ‘adult’ relationships for students. While the programs they supported helped to increase outcomes for students on an individual level, they did not make a dent into the overall objective of improving college attendance.
There’s no point getting into a conversation about the approach the Gates Foundation decided to take in investing in education, or even the overarching value of supporting an objective of improving college attendance. Here in Australia our education system and environment is vastly different, so it equates to comparing apples and pears.
Regardless of the differences between our policy contexts, there is an interesting issue for philanthropists on both sides of the Pacific to consider. The Gate’s interview picks up on one of these issues nicely:
This understanding of just how little influence seemingly large donations can have has led the foundation to rethink its focus in recent years. Instead of trying to buy systemic reform with school-level investments, a new goal is to leverage private money in a way that redirects how public education dollars are spent.
“I bring a bias to this,” says Mr. Gates. “I believe in innovation and that the way you get innovation is you fund research and you learn the basic facts.” Compared with R&D spending in the pharmaceutical or information-technology sectors, he says, next to nothing is spent on education research. “That’s partly because of the problem of who would do it. Who thinks of it as their business? The 50 states don’t think of it that way, and schools of education are not about research. So we come into this thinking that we should fund the research.”
Education research is underinvested in here in Australia. But worse still, the evidence and research we do have within the Australian context for improving outcomes for all students is too often ignored in policy and it’s here that the funding paradox exists for philanthropy.
Education research involves implementation within the classroom (or equivalent) setting and rarely can we say with any conviction after a typical 12 month trial whether any of these programs have worked. In philanthropy we often express the need to ‘prove’ innovation works so that government might come to its senses and fund these programs and approaches in the long term. But the reality is that there are very few trusts and foundations with the stomach and patience for the really long term stuff. Add to this the cost involved with genuine research and evaluation and what you create is a tough environment to be a philanthropist in. Even Gates, who is committed to backing research to influence education policy, recognises that the big bucks are required; he’s investing $335 million over the next five years to find the formula to ‘effective teaching’.
The real losers in this funding challenge are schools and their students. Schools that can identify their needs rarely have the resources to fund the solutions in the long term (or the short or immediate term). The schools that do know how to present a case to philanthropy for support are often hamstrung by tax issues or a simple lack of capacity manage the resources (financial and time) required to seek the support. On the flip side, philanthropic organisations who want to be effective in their education funding can find knowing how to find and work with school partners difficult. And under it all there remains at trustee level that underlying feeling of it all being just too big an issue for philanthropy to help.
It is for all these reasons that I am personally excited about the potential for the Leading Learning In Education and Philanthropy research that is being undertaken by ACER’s Tender Bridge. I’ll declare my hand, I’m on the project team, but despite my obvious bias I am genuinely excited about this work for two reasons:
- It’s an investment in philanthropy in Australia
- It’s about learning how schools and philanthropy can better work together
Education is not an area philanthropy can walk away from. Quite the opposite. What we actually need is a philanthropic sector better equipped to understand how our limited resources might actually benefit the people that matter most; students. But first, there needs to be a process of openness, we need to know more about what we do and don’t do well as a sector, but we also need to ask schools where they think our strengths are. There’s already too much ‘top-down’ in education policy, philanthropy should avoid adding to the noise without genuine reason and it’s my view that the only genuine reason to enter this space is in support of education partners.
So while it might be disheartening for some smaller philanthropists to see the Gate’s of this world despair about the role of philanthropy in education, I for one am more resolved about the opportunities the education challenge presents. To have an impact in the education space trusts and foundations are forced to be more thoughtful about their giving approach. The really innovative philanthropists will find new ways of working and will commit to longer term approaches with an ability to pivot when things aren’t going well. There’s a lot to be positive about and equally, when you consider the outcome potential, there’s a lot to be excited about too.
You can follow the musings of Caitriona on Twitter @cat_fay
I was on a panel recently chatting about funding with Rick Chen from crowd funding website Pozible. Crowd funding is described (on Wikipedia, the font of all my knowledge) as “the collective cooperation, attention and trust by people who network and pool their money and other resources together, usually via the internet, to support efforts initiated by other people and organisations”. Pozible is specifically for creative projects and ideas. Creative types can load a project on the website for which they are seeking support, and anybody on the planet can give the project a small or large amount of money, or anything in between.
I was pretty excited about the Pozible model, and impressed by its success in its first year. Rick said there’s been a 60% success rate, which means 60% of the people who’ve put projects up for support have successfully reached their fundraising target. Not bad.
The first time I heard about this type of funding was at the Grantmakers in the Arts conference in Chicago last year. There are a few different types of crowd funding. Some sites house projects which have the capacity to offer tax deductions and others provide a ‘gift’ in return for your support. At the conference I heard about some really amazing examples. United States Artists was seeded with $22 million from a coalition of foundations (Ford, Rockefeller, Prudential and Rasmuson) and in 2010, launched the first “micro-philanthropy” site for artists. I also love the thinking behind Community Supported Art. Combining my two loves – food and art – CSA was inspired by the increasing trend of consumers buying seasonal produce directly from local growers. They’ve applied that same theory to the arts. Community members can buy a ‘share’ which gives them three ‘farm boxes’ containing art works from local artists. I may be getting away from crowd funding a bit here, but I think it’s a really innovative way to get a collective of funders to support an artist’s work.
I was excited about Pozible because I see it as part of a new wave of philanthropic initiatives. It was pointed out during Rick’s presentation that the ‘donations’ are not really donations because, in Pozible’s case, you get something in return (called ‘Rewards’ on Pozible and ‘Perks’ on United States Artists). In the legal sense, that’s absolutely correct. You’re getting something in return for your dollars and therefore you’re not entitled to a tax deduction. But philosophically, it sort of feels more like philanthropy to me. What you’re getting in tangible terms is usually something small like your name on a website or a signed copy of a book or CD. What’s far more valuable to the giver is that warm fuzzy feeling that you’ve been part of something. Knowledge that you, along with many others, have contributed your small part to actually make something happen. Given the sense of community it brings, I think there’ll be a lot more crowd funding, and models like it, to come.
I’ve been learning a little bit about Documentary Australia Foundation (DAF), an organisation bringing together philanthropic grantmakers, charities and filmmakers. I love the concept, perhaps because I love the power of documentaries. Storytelling appeals to my Irish nature.
Documentaries today are helping to educate and advocate. Yes, they can be controversial, but that’s why documentaries and philanthropy are potentially a really good fit. Like or loath, the water cooler power of films such as An Inconvenient Truth, Bowling for Columbine or Autism the Musical cannot be denied.
A really great example here in Australia is the Choir of Hard Knocks. Established as a choir consisting of homeless and socially disadvantaged people from around Melbourne, the group came to public prominence as part of a five-part ABC documentary series in 2007. The choir, with the help of the series, brought the issue of homelessness into Australian homes, helping people to better understand how it can happen and the need for greater services and housing for those doing it rough.
All this thinking about documentaries and the power of the philanthropy/filmmaker partnership led me to an inevitable question – could a documentary about philanthropy increase the numbers of people giving in Australia? Better yet, could a documentary about philanthropic partnerships and approaches improve the way the sector works?
In 2009 a number of US funders supported Kate Robinson in creating Saving Philanthropy a documentary profiling diverse organisations doing great, measurable and impactful work with the support of philanthropy. While I haven’t seen the full film, the trailer gives you a glimpse of some of the issues and questions that could get philanthropy in Australia talking. Check out a clip below.
Would Australian philanthropy be willing to open itself up in a similar way? I can imagine that there are a number of philanthropists and trusts and foundations who would be willing and able. All we need now are the funds….perhaps it’s time for a chat with the good folks of Documentary Australia Foundation!
For the record, the documentary that sits at the top of my top ten list is Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. What about yours?
You can follow Caitriona Fay on Twitter via @cat_fay
They weren’t born rich. They didn’t get rich either. Quite the opposite in fact. But they are major American philanthropists. They’re Herbert and Dorothy Vogel.
I hadn’t heard of the Vogels until a couple of weeks ago when I was scanning the shelves of my local video shop for something to watch (why do we still call them video shops?!) and a title caught my eye: “Herb and Dorothy. The incredible true story of a postal worker and a librarian who built a world-class art collection”.
Using Herb’s salary alone (they lived on Dorothy’s) the Vogels managed to amass what is described in the film as “one of the most important contemporary art collections in history”. They did this using just two selection criteria:
- they had to be able to afford the work, and
- it had to fit into their rent-controlled one bedroom apartment in Manhattan!
While the artists represented in the collection now reads as a who’s who of major Minimalist, Conceptual and post-1960s artists, the Vogels bought the works when no one else was interested, which meant they were able to buy them for virtually nothing. They bought passionately and compulsively for almost 30 years and by the early 90s their apartment was busting at the seams with works of art estimated to be worth millions of dollars.
In 1992, after being courted by some major art museums and made many lucrative offers for their collection, the Vogels gifted it to the National Gallery of Art in Washington. But what motivated them to do this? Why did they gift it? They may have been asset rich but in real terms they had no money! They explain it as being because they’d both been government workers and they liked the idea of giving it to the American people. Gorgeous!
Amazingly, they then went on to continue to collect art…..mainly using the small annuity the National Gallery had given them as a token of thanks for their gift (I love their story!!). Once again, the artworks outgrew the Vogels’ capacity to properly look after them and they decided to make another major gift to the American people. Unfortunately the National Gallery was unable to accept any more works, so instead they brokered an initiative which in the last couple of years has seen the distribution of 50 Vogel collection art works to 50 art museums around the US. NY Times Vogel 50×50
Clearly it was all about the art and giving others the opportunity to gain as much from it as they had: learning from it and getting a huge amount of pleasure out of experiencing it. It’s such a human story and it’s so inspirational!
In the last week Australia has celebrated two major philanthropic gifts – one from John Kaldor and one from The Felton Bequest. The Kaldor Family Collection of 200 international contemporary art works was unveiled in its new home at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The collection, which John Kaldor gifted to the Gallery in 2008, is valued at AU$35 million and is the single largest donation of art to an Australian public gallery. John says that his benefaction was driven by the fact that he sees art as an essential part of life and that he felt selfish having the art in his own home where only he and family were able to see it. As he has demonstrated via his commissioning of major public art works in Australia since the 1960s, he has a deep commitment to enabling public to learn from, have access to and enjoy art. It’s a hugely important gift. ABC Kaldor Gift feature
The Felton Bequest was left to the National Gallery of Victoria by Alfred Felton on his death in 1904. He left £378,000 in trust (about $30 million in today’s money) for the NGV to use for the purchase of works and objects judged ”to have an educational value and to be calculated to raise and improve public taste”. Hmmmm. Since his death over 15,000 works of art valued at over $2 billion have been purchased, accounting for 80% of the NGV’s collection, and growing….the purchase and commissioning of a further 170+ art works was announced yesterday on the Gallery’s 150th birthday! It’s such a shame Felton didn’t give in his lifetime, so he could have seen the very value of his benefaction. In fact with such a categorical goal to improve public taste, I’m surprised he didn’t want to be around to know if he’d achieved it! NGV at 150/Felton Bequest
It is these gifts and those of the Rockefellers, Guggenheims, Besens, D’Offays and Duffields to name but a few, that give so much to the public in terms of their capacity to create opportunities to learn and give enrichment and pleasure. Long may they continue! The Vogel’s story makes it feel possible that it could be any one of us that can give a gift which makes all the difference. I wonder if I have it in me to “do a Vogel“?!
If you want to see the trailer for Herb and Dorothy directed by Megumi Sasaki, click here: Herb and Doroth 2008 movie
A colleague has just returned from the Centre for Effective Philanthropy’s (CEP) conference Better Philanthropy: From Data to Impact in Boston. The CEP provides data to philanthropic funders so they can “improve their effectiveness – and, as a result, their intended impact”. She’s buzzing with new ideas, and was inspired by the people she met.
One of the areas CEP looks at is the funder-grantee relationship, or, whether we’re “working productively with our grantees”. My colleague raved about the report Working with Grantees: Keys to Success and Five Program Officers Who Exemplify Them. The CEP has looked at grantee survey data since 2004, and has tweaked their survey along the way to glean new insights. Through this process, CEP has looked at over 9,600 suggestions from grantees on how foundations can improve. That’s a lot of feedback…
In the introduction to the report, Paul Beaudet from the Wilburforce Foundation says “At the very basic level, solid relationships with grantees are critically important because grantees are a very good source of information for us. They are the ones doing the on-the-ground work. They’re likely to have a much more nuanced and deeper understanding of the context for the work that needs to be done in the particular places that we care about. If we have high-quality, long-term, trust-based relationships with grantees, we believe that we’ll have better knowledge around which we can make smart investments in their organizational and programmatic capacity, helping them to achieve their outcomes more efficiently and effectively.” Yep, couldn’t have said it better myself.
I’ve been thinking about Caitriona’s recent blog on transparency, and I think a lot of the ‘how’ in transparency comes down to relationships. And I mean relationships at all levels. From the high level – for example the philanthropic sector’s relationship with government, and the perceptions of the philanthropic sector from the point of view of the not-for-profit sector – right down the nuts and bolts end – the relationship between the giver (whether that be the philanthropist, Foundation board director or philanthrocrat) and the asker (development manager, Board member of the NFP or fundraiser). What Paul is talking about is transparency. And a transparency that has a real benefit for both the Foundation and for those organisations it supports.
The CEP had four key findings of factors that contribute to a good relationship between Foundation staff and grantees. Firstly, that Foundation staff understand the organisation they’re funding, including its goals and strategies. Secondly, that the selection process of the Foundation helps strengthen the grantee organisation’s work. Thirdly, that Foundation staff have expertise in the area they’re funding, and finally, communication between the grantee and the foundation staff, both who initiates it, and how often.
It sort of seems obvious, but I think there are still some take home lessons for us philanthrocrats. For me it’s about keeping the door open, saying ‘yes’ to opportunities to learn, and doing my best to be engaged in sectors of interest. In my experience, that’s where I’ve learnt the most. And watching my peers, I think it’s also where the best projects are born. So cheers to transparency. May it make our sector stronger.
I hinted in a recent blog that there was growing talk in the philanthropic sector about the need for increased transparency. At the recent Philanthropy Australia AGM, President Bruce Bonyhady AM, ended his yearly review asking philanthropy to look more closely at the role it plays in society. Two things stood out to me in Bruce’s speech, first was his belief that philanthropy could play a greater role in the advocacy space and second was that the sector needed to find more ways to be transparent. Both issues, that of advocacy and transparency, are important areas for consideration in Australian philanthropy today. We’ll be tackling both in upcoming blogs and today I’ll kick us off we a few thoughts on transparency.
The timing is right for Philanthropy Australia to push the need for greater transparency among trusts and foundations and not simply because so many are working to solve the same problems. With the announcement of the formation of the The Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission (ACNC) it is likely that we will see increased government interest in way the philanthropic sector is distributing its funds. Already established are minimum distribution requirements for private ancillary funds and a move to see the same placed on all their public ancillary counterparts. But to be honest, if the extending reach of government is the only incentive driving philanthropic transparency in Australia then we as a sector should probably be a little concerned.
The concept of ‘Open Philanthropy’ in the United States has been driving forward some interesting thinking and incentivising transparency in unique ways. The wonderful Lucy Bernholz (you must follow her blog) shared her modest manifesto on open philanthropy early last year and it really struck a chord with me at the time. Transparency improves our ability to address problems through the sharing of data, successes and failures but like all things in philanthropy the ‘how’ can be the really important bit.
The ‘how’ of transparency is something that the Foundation Center in the US has been looking closely at via the Glasspockets Initiative. The principle behind Glasspockets is, in the words of Janet Camarena, the Foundation Center’s project lead, “all about creating a culture of transparency within foundations”. But in this digital age transparent philanthropy is no longer simply about sharing how much we fund, it’s about how we communicate openly with each other and the broader public. Glasspockets is a true resource for the community and grantmkers alike, providing functions such as a Heat Map showing the frequency with which information is shared by foundations and a tool allowing foundations to submit and post grant data electronically in near real-time (called eGrant Reporting). Both functionalities are potentially important tools for grantmakers and the broader community, actively informing and mapping where philanthropy is working, who its engaging with and how engaged that conversation is with people at the coalface.
When I see the potential of initiatives such as Glasspockets for grantmaking I get a little excited. Imagine the possibilities. Imagine the potential for real collaboration and informed giving! We need to move away from a belief that transparency in philanthropy is simply about better reporting to government and the public via tax returns and annual reports. I get the feeling that if the incentives are right for increased transparency in Australian philanthropy then the results could be game changing. But an investment needs to be made by philanthropy into itself, and the capacity of the sector, in order to undertake these initiatives and really drive them forward. I hope that this active transparency model is something the ACNC and Philanthropy Australia encourage among funders.
You can follow Caitriona on Twitter via @cat_fay
Ok, so it’s only May but I’m going to put my neck out early and call ‘capacity building’ the buzzword of 2011. A big call, especially with so much talk of ‘transparency’ lately. Call me cynical but I do worry that capacity building will be to 2011 what ‘collaboration’ was to 2008-2009. We in the philanthropic sector can talk the good talk but turning the rhetoric into reality is actually bloody hard work. When I talk to my colleagues about ‘collaboration’ more often than not what we end up discussing is ‘co-funding’. And while there are excellent examples of genuine collaborations between trusts and foundations over the last few years, somewhere the definition of what collaboration is has been lost in the noise.
I don’t want to see capacity building lost from the philanthropic agenda. It’s important for philanthropy in Australia to examine not just the ‘why’ of supporting non-profit capacity building but also the ‘how’.
But first the basics, what is capacity building? The Human Interaction Research Institute which operates the Philanthropic Capacity Building Resources (PCBR) Database describes capacity building as:
“the term used to describe funding, and services such as staff and board training, technology or other capital purchases, fund-raising strategy development, and other activities that help strengthen nonprofit organizations”.
In some circles you might hear ‘capacity building’ referred to as its evil alter-ego, ‘core-funding’. In philanthropy speak, when someone says core-funding the response you’ll get from a foundation is likely to be ‘you should be funding this yourself’. So for some in philanthropy capacity building is simply a no go area and that’s ok. For those that are interested in the value of funding in the capacity space there are a number of challenges, the biggest of which is the question of how.
Building the capacity of grassroots environmental organisations was the focus of a number of sessions at the 2010 Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA) Fall Retreat in the US last October. At the retreat Amanda Martin, Executive Officer of the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network, brought together a group of Australian funders to hear from Paul Beaudet of the Seattle based Wilburforce Foundation. Paul explained that at the Wilburforce Foundation they recognised that in order to build the strength of the communities they were working in, they needed to build the strength of the orgnisations they were working with. Rather than develop a grants program to allow organisations to access capacity funds, the Wilburforce Foundation developed a network of service providers that their programmatic grantees could access for support in their own areas of identified need. The Foundation’s grantees did not need to tell Wilburforce what providers they were accessing for support. In fact, the Foundation created an entire new entity to ensure they were completely removed from the process. This allowed their grantees the freedom to genuinely address their areas of capacity need without fearing what their grantmaking partner might think.
What I like about the Wilburforce Foundation approach is that they recognise the imbalance in the power dynamic between grantmaker and grantseeker. As a grantseeker would you feel confident in telling a funder that your organisation’s capacity needs were in financial management? What about seeking support for conflict mediation? Or support to develop your governance structure? As a grantseeker, these might be genuine capacity needs but it’s understandable that many might find it difficult to share these needs with a funding partner. So with this in mind, can philanthropy ever be directly involved with capacity funding? The answer of course is yes, but the ‘how’ of funding capacity needs to be carefully considered before a foundation dives in.
Ultimately, investing in capacity building is investing in the strength of the non-profit sector and that benefits everyone. If the philanthropic sector in Australia wants to ensure that recent conversations around ‘capacity building’ don’t become empty rhetoric then we need to invest some time and thought (and maybe even some capacity funds of our own) into the ‘how’s’ and ‘why’s’ of funding in this space.
You can follow Caitriona’s other musings via twitter @cat_fay
In a recent blog post, Jennifer Barry, CEO of Footscray Community Arts Centre ponders “how useful the multi-year business plan is as a management tool in a super-charged, fast changing world”. While acknowledging that business planning is essential to understanding where you’re headed as an organisation, she questions whether our obsession with KPIs and outputs is necessarily the best use of our time. Jen suggests a middle ground, “an intelligent and intuitive balance between Control and Chaos”.
As Jen rightly says, the need to find the balance between control and chaos is not just true for arts organisations, but across the entire spectrum of the not for profit, and for profit, sectors. And I think it’s something particularly pertinent for philanthropic funders to consider.
I’ve been pondering the same questions as Jen recently, but from the other side of the fence. While Jen talks about the reporting requirements of government funders, I’ve been thinking about the reporting we expect as philanthropic funders, and wondering if we could look at things differently.
When we’re assessing grants it’s necessary to do the due diligence. We look at an organisation’s business plan, the leadership, the financials, and the nuts and bolts of the project we’re being asked to support. While I think this is perfectly reasonable – we want to be sure we’re supporting good organisations - I think we could perhaps be a little more flexible when the project is actually in funding, and in our expectations at the completion of the project.
At the Grantmakers in the Arts conference in Chicago last year, Joi Ito, soon to be Executive Director of MIT Media Lab, gave a presentation entitled ‘Living the Pivot’. Pivot is the capacity to change direction when things aren’t working out as you’d planned. And more than that, it’s the ability to use the things you’ve learnt along the way to inform your change of direction. The Pivot concept is currently hot in techno-land. Some well known techno-pivots include Flickr, which was originally an online game, and YouTube, which was originally a video dating site.
I like the thought of applying the Pivot idea to philanthropy. Much of the time we expect our grant recipients to report against the objectives stated in the funding proposal. But what if we encouraged the organisations we support to be creative? What if we said that it’s ok to fail, or ok to change direction? What if we allowed for the possibility of a Pivot mid-grant? Both Jen and the Pivot-geeks acknowledge there’s a much bigger risk of failure when you don’t stay on the prescribed path, but that’s the beauty of it. As Jen says, “the failures aren’t a waste of time… they just bring us closer to a better solution.” If we allow for, and even encourage, creativity and flexibility, there’s a possibility we might stretch some boundaries. We might start to think about things in different ways and create new possibilities. And we might fail more often. But isn’t philanthropy the perfect vehicle to take some risks..?
You can follow Debra Morgan on Twitter @debmorgan22