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Philanthropy as catalyser: A national policy centre for water

Profile of Nicole Richards
Written by Nicole RichardsPosted on 30/9/2020

It’s rare to be able to draw a neat and direct line of attribution between philanthropy and many of the game-changing outcomes it seeks. 

The establishment of an independent national policy centre for one of Australia’s most precious resources, the forthcoming Australian Water and Catchment Policy Centre, is one of those rarities.

Acting as an “engaged but independent” catalysing force, a consortium of philanthropic funders, led by The Ian Potter Foundation and The Myer Foundation has researched, conceptualised, convened and provided the start-up capital for the Centre.

“At a time when climate change, population growth and the ongoing degradation of our natural capital assets require long-term policy reform, conflicts over the use and management of Australia’s waters and catchments have become increasingly partisan,” explains The Ian Potter Foundation CEO, Craig Connelly.

The shared vision is to “create a new, independent, authoritative and trusted centre that can rebuild trust and work collaboratively with all stakeholders to find common ground on water and catchment policy reforms.”

The project, which is already three years in the making, has secured $31 million of its $35 million target; a figure that will ensure the independent operation of the Centre for at least 10 years. The search by executive search firm Egon Zehnder for board chair and board members is underway, with appointments expected to be announced in the closing months of 2020.

Even on the world’s driest inhabited continent, a project to launch a water policy centre is bold, ambitious and not without risk; but it’s also philanthropy at its catalytic and impactful best.

Chief Executives Craig Connelly (Potter) and Leonard Vary (Myer) recently shared their thoughts about the journey to date, how donors of any size can contribute, and the importance of relationships built on mutual respect (and good humour). 

NR: How do you describe the problem that the Australian Water and Catchment Policy Centre seeks to solve?

Craig Connelly headshot
Craig Connelly, CEO, Ian Potter Foundation

CC: How Australia can manage its fresh water resources in a sustainable way for future generations as the twin challenges of climate change and population growth impact on the availability of adequate fresh water for ALL stakeholders: people, community (metro, regional, rural, Indigenous), industry and the environment.

“Our only interest is better policy making in the national interest.”

LV: Water is a key national resource that’s become scarcer and scarcer and is in need of policy reform. When you think about a unique attribute of philanthropy, its inherent independence, there’s a clear role it can play as an engaged but entirely independent party. Our only interest is better policymaking in the national interest.

The management of water as a resource is complex, contested and based within a multi-faceted stakeholder environment. How valuable has philanthropy’s ability to be an independent convener been to date?

CC: The initial role that Potter and Myer agreed to take was to fund research into the issue. That was an initial $500,000 investment co-funded between the two foundations. The consultants we chose did an outstanding job.

We were very clear in the brief that we are genuinely disinterested parties, that we did not come at it with any particular perspective, but wanted to understand if there is a role for philanthropic foundations to assist to improve Australia’s capacity to manage this precious resource? And if so, what form should an intervention from philanthropy take? That gave the consultants the licence to engage with as many stakeholders as possible and the resultant research has informed our every step.

“I think it says a lot about the development of philanthropy and its increasing interest in engaging in the field of policy influence.”

Leonard Vary headshot
Leonard Vary, CEO, Myer Foundation

LV: What really interested me is the evidence-informed approach that is engaging with the ideas and practice of deliberative democracy in a field as contested as water which is mired in a vexed policy environment.

It’s been extremely pleasing that we’ve raised more than $31 million from philanthropy in relation to an issue and a process; the process is largely untested in this jurisdiction, yet we have philanthropic funders large and small coming together to test philanthropy’s capacity to test this method. I think it says a lot about the development of philanthropy and its increasing interest in engaging in the field of policy influence.

CC: And what’s assisted here, in terms of attracting that co-funding support, is the quality and extent of the research; it’s not just us pitching an idea, it’s walking prospective partners through the research, the evidence and outcomes of the consultants’ work. That made our fundraising efforts that much easier.

LV: Something else that added to the complexity is the challenge of attracting funding for an organisation that has neither a board nor an executive team nor a track record.

This is an idea, and again philanthropy has been bold here. People have been really attracted to the concept, the idea, the evidence that indicates this ought to be successful and I think the criticality of the issue of water has caused philanthropy to engage more boldly and perhaps take greater risk than might otherwise have been the case.

Another thing to note is that Martyn Myer as President of The Myer Foundation has been leading this with us and his involvement has been very valuable.

The Myer Foundation has experience in making a high-impact, long-term vision a reality with ClimateWorks Australia ten years ago – can you share your most valuable lesson as a funder of that initiative?

LV: Investing significant resources up front; in this case $700,000 plus hundreds of hours over more than two years. You need to do that to better understand the issue and set the initiative up for success.

We’re following a similar approach with water. Putting those resources in upfront, building quality into the process early so that everything that follows is based on the evidence.

“Whether your contribution is large or small, the aspiration is the same and you will be welcomed and invited on the journey with us.”

Is there an opportunity for smaller funders to put their support behind the Centre?

CC: Absolutely. We have a funder who is supporting the project with $5,000 per annum for 10 years, or $50,000 over 10 years. We also have four funders who are contributing $5 million over 10 years so there’s a significant spread between the lower and upper levels of support.

All funders are welcome, there’s no issue at all. Whether your contribution is large or small, the aspiration is the same and you will be welcomed and invited on the journey with us.

LV: The only precondition is that there will be a single form of reporting, meaning the Centre will report on a regular basis to all funders through one standardised medium. That way there’s no incremental effort required by the Centre and we can be more inclusive and raise more money and share our enthusiasm with a broad range of interested parties. 

This initiative is a slow build with a significant level of risk – how do you propose to measure impact on a project like this?

LV: Ultimately, the Centre will be successful if it becomes a trusted source of information for government, informing policy, and if disparate stakeholders trust and engage with it.

For the deliberative process model to be successful, the Centre must create an environment in which parties with different interests are brought together and government is open minded as to what might happen in that room as part of that process. If government uses the Centre’s evidence-informed, deliberative processes as a credible source of information and that in turn informs policy making, then we will have done our job.

Trust in government has more than halved since 2007. If deliberative processes can be successful in the field of water, there will be many other policy issues where government might be interested in another model. 

If water can be a proof of concept who knows what other applications there might be for these processes across this great country.

What are the most important elements that make for a successful collaboration on a project of this size and scope?

CC: Trust, honesty, transparency, plus inclusive and supportive engagement of all partners – original and new.

LV: I’d add shared values and interests, a shared work ethic and a sense of humour. There are hard moments in this process where you think this is super challenging and it’s a whole lot of work and we might not get there.

There can be too much earnestness in a field that’s riddled with challenges – you can be immersed in it, no pun intended. For me, I want to also have a good experience of the engagement. Craig has a bad sense of humour, but you get used to it.

CC: [laughs] You do have to keep things light. I think it helps a lot. Leonard and I started this journey back in 2017 and it’s now 2020 and we still like each other.

LV: Speak for yourself [laughs]. But seriously, mutual respect really is important. We’re both diligent and focused and that matters, especially when you’re speaking to that person almost every day for years. Without that relationship it would be hugely difficult to think and work our way through the significant challenges and bring others along on this journey because this is a complicated ask.

Closing thoughts on philanthropy’s capacity to be an agent for catalytic change?

CC: When I was interviewed for the role of CEO at Potter, I remember being asked, ‘What do you understand ‘strategic’ and ‘impact’ to mean?’ and this project, in my opinion, embodies philanthropy’s ability to both think strategically and try to ensure our funding impacts and benefits as many Australians as possible. It’s about being bold in a considered, evidence-informed way on issues that are really important to us as funders.

LV: What he said.