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Let’s be frank. There is a power imbalance between philanthropic funders and fundees


19 April 2021 at 4:46 pm
Sean Barrett
Unless we find ways to address this imbalance – and funders get frank feedback on how they can improve their performance – building partnerships of equals will be difficult, writes Sean Barrett.


Sean Barrett | 19 April 2021 at 4:46 pm


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Let’s be frank. There is a power imbalance between philanthropic funders and fundees
19 April 2021 at 4:46 pm

Unless we find ways to address this imbalance – and funders get frank feedback on how they can improve their performance – building partnerships of equals will be difficult, writes Sean Barrett.

A seemingly endless series of crises: Drought, bushfires, and pandemic have challenged all, including philanthropy.  

This week, Philanthropy Australia is holding its national conference. The theme is “What does the future need from us, now?” Clearly a theme resonant with what we have all been through in the past 12 months and more, and a question worthy of being asked on a regular basis.

But how does philanthropy get an honest answer to that question from those it funds; the people who are working in community on the issues and best able to answer it? Given social environments morph over time and issues shift we need a continuous feedback loop.

One tool is the Australian Philanthropic Benchmark. It is used by some foundations to get anonymous, therefore hopefully honest, and repeatable feedback from fundees. I can attest to the robustness and usefulness of the feedback. 

Our foundation, the Origin Energy Foundation, began operating 10 years ago. As novice funders we needed to quickly get feedback so we could work effectively. We also wanted to be a long-term funder (10 years on, our average grant is 4.5 years) so we knew that would mean building strong partnerships. 

Having worked on both sides of the funding fence I knew all about how difficult it is speaking truth to funding power.

So, I commissioned Pollinate, a research company, to set up a feedback mechanism that would be anonymous, and repeatable. 

Now other funders participate and we can benchmark our performance.

The Australian Philanthropic Benchmark, running since 2012, is now Australia’s largest benchmark of philanthropic organisation performance and relationships, however it has a flaw – it is an “opt in” model whereby philanthropy organisations choose to participate and conduct a survey among their partners to uncover what they are doing well (and should continue) and what could be better (and should improve).

As it is an opt-in, we get a skewed view of the sector as only philanthropy organisations seeking to improve and who care about their relationship participate. So this year we’re trying to fix that by getting any and all NFPs who work with a philanthropic organisation to give their feedback about the philanthropy organisation of their choice. This will create a better benchmark and read of the relationship in the sector.

The latest round of research is going on now and this is the opportunity for fundees to provide feedback to help shape a better philanthropic sector in Australia. It costs nothing but time. The survey can be found here.

The current mantra is about building back better post the pandemic. Where funder/fundee relationships are concerned, this is one practical way to do just that.

We learnt during the pandemic that even small changes in behaviour from philanthropy can be beneficial. We saw some philanthropists listening to partners, reducing or removing restrictions, and increasing flexibility and funding. It is sad that it took a pandemic for these behaviours to be adopted. A regular feedback loop, such as the Australian Philanthropic Benchmark, would have flushed out the need for these changes in funder behaviour and led to more productive relationships.


Sean Barrett  |  @ProBonoNews

Sean Barrett is head of the Origin Energy Foundation. He has worked with NGOs nationally and internationally on health, human rights, and environment issues.

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