7 pieces of advice from the frontlines of US philanthropy

11 May 2021

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By Daisy Barham, Environmental Philanthropy Manager

Philanthropy Australia’s annual conference was as engaging and insightful as ever.

In the opening panel Phil Buchanan, President of the Centre for Effective Philanthropy in the United States, shared what he has learned working in philanthropy over many decades.

Listening to Phil’s  wise words deeply resonated and challenged me to think about how the AEGN can support Australian funders to learn from best practice. Below is what I took from the session and if you would like to read more, he has a book: Giving Done Right 

1. Respect the wisdom and experience of those closest to the problem 

Having a strategy to achieve a goal is so important. In philanthropy strategy has to be shared between the funders, changemakers, effected community members and policy makers.

In business there is a lot of talk about unique positioning but in philanthropy if your strategy is yours alone, you will fail. The genuine support of those who are closest to the problem is essential and that is only gained by a co-designed strategy.  

2. Resist the urge to apply ill-fitting business concepts

Take performance measurement as an example. There are no universal measures you can use with philanthropy to measure effectiveness. Ask the non-profit what they need and what they need to measure to know whether the work is being effective. 

3. Get feedback

As a funder you live in a bubble of positivity – people will tell you what they think you want to hear. You likely are not hearing the unvarnished truth. What is unvarnished truth? Well, you need to break through the bubble of positivity to find out!

The genuine support of those who are closest to the problem is essential and that is only gained by a co-designed strategy.

Phil Buchanan, President of the Centre for Effective Philanthropy [United States].

4. Move the talk about diversity and inclusion from talk to action

Who is on your board? Who are your grantees? As a sector, we need to ask what is philanthropy’s role in reducing or perpetuating inequality?

Equity work must be at the centre of your work. You must move beyond just attending workshops and paying consultants. You must change the way you work and the way you fund. Just start and learn by doing. 

5. Make the most of your power and influence to bring people together

Do not think you need to get all the attention yourself. One of the most powerful things you can do is use your influence to bring people together and provide the space and opportunity for collaboration. You might have part of the answer to the problem you are looking to solve but it is unlikely you have the whole answer!

6. Learn from the good

Just because there are still ongoing social and environmental problems, does not mean philanthropy has failed. We do not always need new ideas or to innovate. First we should ask what lessons can be learnt from the good stuff that is making a real impact and ask ourselves whether it can be scaled up. Looking at the decline of childhood mortality is a good example of progress.

7. Stay true to your values and beliefs

Take inspiration from the change makers you work with who often do not get the respect and recognition they deserve. Take the courageous path and connect with those people in your life that inspire you to do your work. Philanthropy and non-profits have been behind so much progress in the world. This work is noble and needed. Feel proud of what you do and those you do it with. 

Climate Change Masterclass

Tuesday 25 May 1.00pm to 4.00pm
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