Giving Philanthropy Back to the People
11 March 2019 at 8:30 am
Maree Sidey is the CEO of the Australian Communities Foundation, an organisation connecting donors to causes that matter, and working to make philanthropy more democratic by creating a community of donors. She’s this week’s Changemaker.
Most people would associate philanthropy with wealthy individuals and families, donating money to causes they care about and want to help.
But Sidey, and the Australian Communities Foundation, is trying to harness the power of smaller, collective giving, connecting donors to organisations and issues of social importance.
She’s aiming for a democratic form of philanthropy, one where everyone can play their part and call the shots to create change.
In this week’s Changemaker, Sidey talks about how she got started, the community foundation movement on a global scale, and where it will go from here.
How did you get started in the role?
For over 20 years, I worked in leadership positions in large not for profits, and I really developed a passion for thinking about how we work together as NFPs to try and communicate effectively to the Australian public about how things could be and should be different, particularly around inequality. Then the opportunity came up to take on a leadership role in a philanthropic organisation and it was fantastic to think about what role philanthropy plays in creating systemic change.
I think I have the best job in philanthropy, because we have an incredibly engaged vibrant community of donors across Australia, who have a really strong, ethical commitment to the work, and a strong passion for social justice.
You connect donors with NFPs to fund social issues. Is it ever difficult to get the sectors to agree?
We think about ourselves as the broker of change, so creating a space for funders and changemakers to tackle solutions. We do that by giving them a place to meet and talk, but also by putting lots of really inspiring work that is happening in the community in front of funders who want to fund it. I don’t think it’s difficult at all, I think what is sometimes really challenging, in any part of the for-purpose sector, is that the issues can feel overwhelming, and hard to tackle.
Philanthropy certainly can’t effect change on its own so I think it’s important a vehicle like ACF is accessible. NFPs feel they can call us when they need funding quickly, and we can put those calls out to our donor community, and often they get things funded in a really timely way.
How is the community foundation movement going in Australia and the world?
There’s a growing interest and rise globally, particularly in the US with donor-advised funds, which is a key vehicle community foundations offer. Essentially they allow people to set up a structured giving entity that’s similar to operating your own private foundation but without all the administration that sits behind it. They’re the fastest growing vehicle in the US by far, and outstrips everything in the philanthropic sector.
I think there is a whole lot of future promise and opportunity around the growth of donor-advised funds in Australia. It’s interesting because, private foundations are the fasting growing vehicle here, so donor advised funds are, at the moment, an under-known offering.
Tell me about the ACF impact fund.
That’s a really special entity we’ve built out of bequests that have been left to the foundation by long-term donors to tackle social justice.
We use it around four impact areas: inequality, environment, democracy and empowering Indigenous communities. We use it as a means to leverage funds to really important issues within the donor community. For example, we’re currently in discussion with a whole lot of organisations in the refugee sector who are trying to raise funds to support the timely evacuation of refugees under the medivac legislation. That is a really good example of where they have come to us and said, the legislation has passed, there’s no resources in the sector to make this happen effectively, we need to raise funds quickly, and this is a really important issue for Australia.
That’s the kind of role ACF plays, which is that we use the impact fund to put some dollars into it, ask our community of donors to match it, then go out to trusts and foundations in the sector to see who else would like to co-fund around the issue. I call it an agile fund, because philanthropy is sometimes quite slow to move.
Is that something that needs to change? Does philanthropy need to move faster?
Large foundations can often be time bound around committee and board meetings. The NFP sector can find that really frustrating because we’re not able to move funds quickly. I think that’s also changing, because there’s a growing understanding about the role Australian philanthropy can play in advocacy, and supporting social movements. So I would say it probably was true, but I think there is a real change sweeping through the philanthropic sector.
What is special about giving collectively?
It allows people who feel like they are not uber wealthy to make a difference to their giving. If you think about the large, very well-known philanthropists in the world, the Zuckerberg’s, the Gates’, it’s their individual philanthropy people talk about. If you give through a community foundation, you can actually make a meaningful difference with a small amount because you’re joining up with other people.
I think the other key thing, which is sometimes missed, is that it makes it more democratic. Philanthropy shouldn’t be about one individual who has deep pockets and can influence government for example. It should be about a group of people showing they care about an issue, and are giving to influence public policy, or address an inequity or create solutions for climate change. It’s essentially and fundamentally democratic and that’s the key difference.
What does your day as CEO look like?
I meet with a lot of NFPs who want to talk to me about their work, and why it matters. I also meet with new donors, either individuals, families, NFP or corporate organisations who want to establish giving structures. I work at both ends, trying to give easy solutions to people who want to give, and find really interesting strategic projects for those people to support.
What is your ambition for community philanthropy?
There is a real missed opportunity to activate more givers in Australia. In the past, people have thought they needed to come from a background of giving or be wealthy to be a part of giving. Our mission is to make it much more accessible. Not just for individuals and families, but also for charity organisations and corporates who want to establish giving structures to get their staff involved in giving. Doing this, I believe creates community and provides meaning to people, because we are all looking at how we can do our individual bit to make a difference in a community.
An emerging issue for NFPs is that young people aren’t very good at giving, are you working to change that?
The thing we’re trying to do is making sure we’re really relevant to younger givers who don’t want to give in the same way their parents or family did. I think making giving really accessible on online platforms, and ensuring we’re providing a different experience of giving, say collectively through their friends, is really important. We’re also thinking about supporting social enterprises, which are often far more interesting to younger givers than traditional charities.
How has this experience changed you?
Something I’m humbled by everyday is that despite talking lots about the cult of the individual in Australia and globally, and people only being in it for themselves, I see the opposite. I see an extraordinary number of people who really want to put their money where their mouth is and make a difference. It gives me enormous hope that people, and Australians, actually do care and want to support great causes, particularly if they are presented in a passionate and inspiring way.
My key learning is there are people who want to make a difference and to be an effective leader you have to get out of the way, put your ego behind you and work behind the scenes to make collaboration happen and effective change happen.