Time for Open Philanthropy in Australia?

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


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