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5 min read

Giving away philanthropic power to communities

Profile of Nicole Richards
Written by Nicole RichardsPosted on 30/3/2021

This story has been produced through the Australian Communities Foundation and NEXUS Australia partnership.

‘Participatory philanthropy’ and ‘community-led’ are two terms that the philanthropic sector is hearing (and using) with increasing frequency. But does the action match the intention?  

“If we’re serious about tackling inequality, do we really have any other choice than to re-imagine and practice philanthropy in a way that democratises power and shifts economic control to communities?” asked Georgia Mathews from Australian Communities Foundation, in the opening minutes of the ‘Giving away philanthropic power to communities’ session at the recent NEXUS Australia Summit.

“Philanthropists are generally good at giving away money but not so good at giving away power,” she continued, noting that “philanthropy tends to maintain a certain status quo.”

Speaking from her years of grantmaking experience, Mathews said that despite “honourable and generous” intentions, funders are rarely best placed to decide which solutions will be most effective.

“As funders, we often talk about funding community-led projects – but within this model, we are still the ones deciding which community-led projects to support,” she said. “What if there was a way to effectively redistribute philanthropic decision-making power to impacted communities?

“It’s not as straight forward as handing funds over and wishing a community the best of luck,” Mathews conceded.

“There’s still an important role for funders to play in supporting communities to achieve positive change, using the principles of democratic and collective ownership. How can a person with wealth move from decision maker to ally?”

Speakers at the ‘Giving away philanthropic power to communities’ session at the NEXUS 2021 Australia Summit.

Joining from San Francisco, Sparks, CEO of her family’s Masto Foundation, outlined what it takes to practice community-led philanthropy and her own experience of interrogating the disparities and barriers philanthropy has created for People of Colour.

“It’s putting the people who are most impacted by the work in the lead and moving philanthropy from being transactional to relational,” Sparks said.

“Funders can inhibit community-led approaches when they set their own agenda, create their own requirements and timelines.”

By contrast, Sparks suggested flexible funding, leveraging non-financial resources, supporting community building collaborations and “seeing the work as movement building” were helpful antidotes that support collective leadership, equity and power sharing.

“These practices make for more effective philanthropy in the end because they support community self-determination,” Sparks said.

The primacy of relationships was a point echoed by Jody Barney, Chair of Indigenous-led philanthropic fund, Koondee Woonga-Gat Toor-rong (KWT), who joined the call from Shepparton in regional Victoria.

“Koondee Woonga-Gat Toor-rong means sharing together and giving together,” Barney explained. “Our process is a collective work and that’s been really important for us since we were established in 2018; we have allyships with other philanthropic organisations and groups.”

“It’s critical for us as First Nations people and as a board with great wisdom and knowledge – thousands of years of knowledge in fact – that we give life and living to our people.”

Respecting that wisdom and lived experience, Barney said was integral to KWT’s processes at all levels.

“We have a lot of evidence from the grant applications we receive that is rich in story, rich in opportunities and to hear these stories is a privilege,” she said.

“We have a different model of engagement; we don’t only receive the applications, we reach out and we yarn. We need to understand the narrative, the story, so that it’s connecting our approach with people in our community.”

Barney explained that KWT’s work is focused on allocating grants to establish Indigenous leadership within communities.

“We are the first group of its kind – we know that many people will be watching closely in terms of how we do this,” Barney continued.

“For the first time in Australia we have a deaf Aboriginal woman, who is also a lesbian, as chair of the board – we are stepping into quite a niche space.”

“We’re a small group of people, but we’re having a major impact.”

Leveraging the power of the collective was a practice favoured by Sam Turner, Chair of the Aurora Group, which raises funds for LGBTIQ+ communities.

Founded 20 years ago by a small group of Sydney friends, Turner explained that the Aurora Group focuses on funding organisations that wouldn’t otherwise find finding, and is one of the only LGBTIQ+ led funding groups in the country.

“We can’t underestimate the knowledge and gravitas that comes with lived experience,” Turner said.

Turner noted new research the Group conducted in partnership with consulting firm Oliver Wyman that showed that 0.1 per cent of the philanthropic dollar goes to LGBTIQ+ communities.

“Participatory decision making is critical,” Turner said, “as is co-designing, co-creation and co-funding of projects, particularly when we know that philanthropic boards are predominantly white, cisgender and male with a great deal of privilege.”

Turner urged philanthropic funders to look closely at their own practices.

“On a personal level, ask yourself where does your donation dollar go? How is it spent? Who does it impact?”