Is trying to do good, good enough?

Cat Fay

Caitriona Fay

General Manager, Community & Social Investments

At the recent Philanthropy Australia Conference, two teams squared off in a debate on whether philanthropy is future ready. The affirmative team contended that philanthropy’s track record speaks for itself. In Australia alone, philanthropic dollars have seeded the establishment of some of our most important institutions of research and health. It was philanthropy that provided free access to libraries, it’s given us the Human Rights Law Centre, the Miles Franklin Literary Award and even the prototype for the Cochlear implant. Based on philanthropy’s proven track record in Australia surely we should feel confident about its role in our future? 

On the contrary, the negative team argued that philanthropy still functions much like it did more than 100 years ago. Its systems of governance leave the decision making to the few, even though the grants themselves are to benefit the many. The negative team argued that in a world where we know diverse voices lead to better outcomes – everywhere from the corporate board table to the community sector – philanthropy lags behind. If we were to be given a blank page to design the structures and systems philanthropists used to enact their grant making – would they look like the ones we have today?

In the spirit of full disclosure I was in fact a member of the team arguing that philanthropy was not future ready. After the session, which was equal parts thoughtful and jovial provocation, a number of industry colleagues asked me how I could argue in the negative when I work with families and individuals in philanthropy today. The answer of course is that my role is to help the philanthropists I work with to maximise their impact and sometimes that means exploring how they actually go about their giving and trying to find ways to do that better.  

I’ve personally never met a philanthropist who is using their foundation for nefarious purpose; each and every one is trying not only to do good, but to do good as often as possible. If any of the families I work with thought they were giving in a way that created poor results for the community they’d be dismayed. So why don’t we have tougher conversations as a sector?

As philanthropy in Australia continues to grow in terms of money, influence and maturity, now is the time to question how foundations go about their giving and whether we need to improve.

This year, with support from our friends at Stanford’s Centre on Philanthropy and Civil Society, we’re going to start the ball rolling by posing the simple question of whether the intent in philanthropy to do good is good enough.

Late last year Rob Reich, Lucy Bernholz and Chiara Cordelli edited a book on the role of philanthropy in democratic societies. In it philosophers, sociologists, political scientists and history and legal scholars scrutinised the perception of philanthropy as being unequivocally good and tested assumptions about the role of philanthropy in functioning democracies such as ours in Australia. While many of the books’ chapters are centred in the US context there is much for us to learn in Australia, particularly as we see the continuing flow of mega gifts from generous families as well as the growth of endowed foundations.

What can we as a sector learn from some of the criticism the Gates Foundation has endured around its influence of education policy in the United States and health policy globally? 

Could the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s criticism of philanthropy’s influence in shaping national priorities for science in the US be leveled at foundations in Australia? As digital data become a giftable asset (sometimes knowingly other times not) as important as granting dollars, what can philanthropists and their trustees learn from the emergence of democratised governance processes in the digital world?

In July we’ll be hosting two of the editors of Philanthropy in Democratic Societies, Lucy Bernholz and Rob Reich in public sessions exploring these questions and more. Lucy and Rob’s work in this space is globally respected and we’re honored that both are giving their time to bring this conversation to our communities.

While in Australia Lucy and Rob will also be spending time with philanthropists across the country to discuss the role of foundations in our civil society. They’ll additionally be sitting down with our friends at the Australian Charities and Non-Profit Commission, leading discussion with civic tech leaders on the future of democracy and running workshops with non-profit leaders exploring issues around digital data governance. 

These are the conversations that a robust and healthy democratic society and philanthropic sector should have early and often. We’re looking forward to seeing the impact that sitting down together for these discussions might have. 

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