The community is facing rough waters due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Andrew Sadauskas examines four ways Australian philanthropy is helping.

“We have decided to completely close our next two funding rounds and seek invitation-only applications.”

The COVID-19 crisis has seen Australian philanthropy sail into stormy and uncharted waters.

The pandemic has created a wave of coronavirus-related social and economic issues for communities to address. These range from a swell in demand for medical research and equipment, through to a tidal wave of people seeking support services (such as food and homeless shelters).

The courses Australian funders have set through this storm have varied, depending on whether they’re a PAF, a larger traditional philanthropic trust or a collective giving group.

Recently, a group of leading figures from Australia’s nonprofit and philanthropic sectors shared their insights into how they are navigating the situation.

The eagerly-anticipated panel discussion was a highlight of the Generosity Forum virtual conference, which was held as an online event for the first time this year.

A record 222 delegates attended the virtual conference in 2020. This was up by more than 50 over the previous year, when the conference was held as a physical event.

The speakers were:

  • Antonia Ruffell, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Philanthropic Services
  • Craig Connelly, Chief Executive Officer, The Ian Potter Foundation
  • David Ritter, Chief Executive Officer, Greenpeace Australia Pacific
  • James Boyd, State Manager WA & SA, Creative Partnerships Australia
  • Liz Gillies, Chief Executive Officer, Menzies Foundation

The speakers revealed the following four insights into their response to the crisis:

1. There’s an outpouring of support from family foundations to new and old causes

Australian Philanthropic Services is a not-for-profit organisation that helps to set up and administer private ancillary funds for individuals, families and businesses across Australia. It supports philanthropy and giving decisions of over 400 families.

Since the pandemic hit, APS CEO Antonia Ruffell said her organisation has seen “an overwhelming outpouring of concern” from its clients for the charities they support.

“Every client that we’ve got who has been giving funding through the APS Foundation or a private ancillary fund, generally have a range of charities they are already committed to and are very passionate about,” Ruffell said.

“What we’ve been encouraging people to do is to reach out and ask those charities how they can help.”

This additional support from funders has included lifting restrictions on existing grants, modifying reporting requirements, or providing additional financial support to organisations they’ve previously funded.

In addition to supporting existing causes, many family foundations have looked for specific ways to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

Compared to governments or large corporate foundations, Ruffell said individual and family philanthropies have less bureaucracy around their decision making. This nimbleness has allowed them to quickly respond to new funding needs as they emerge.

These quick responses have included providing vital medical funding for ventilators, facemasks and vaccine research. Family foundations have also provided funding to vulnerable groups affected by the crisis (including women’s refuges, homeless people, indigenous communities and marginalised young people).

2. Making COVID-19 philanthropy a priority

A major challenge The Ian Potter Foundation has faced in responding to COVID-19, according to CEO Craig Connelly, is that most of its funding for the 2020 fiscal year had already been allocated before the crisis hit.

With its remaining budget for the current fiscal year, Ian Potter has prioritised projects that respond to the pandemic.

For example, the foundation has provided $500,000 to a world-first program looking to establish living clinical treatment guidelines for people on the frontline of treating COVID-19. This funding leverages an additional $3 million from the federal and Victorian state governments.

In collaboration with the Minderoo Foundation, Ian Potter also co-funded a digital content platform to help guide Indigenous communities through the COVID-19 crisis.

However, the foundation’s main priorities have been to get money as quickly as possible into organisations after 30 June, and to reassure the organisations receiving its ongoing community support grants.

“We have decided to completely close our next two funding rounds and seek invitation-only applications. Our program management team is trying to find opportunities to fund through both existing grantees and relationships we have with other organisations,” Connelly said.

Connelly also highlighted how the foundation is collaborating with other trusts and foundations in its response to the crisis.

“I’m part of a group of 11 CEOs from a range of Australian foundations, large and small. And we’ve been doing a lot of sharing of our approaches and sharing of co-funding opportunities. We’re leaning on each other to seek advice on how others are responding and where lessons might be learnt,” he said.

3. Formulating a big-picture, systemic response

In line with its focus on using the catalytic model to develop future leaders, The Menzies Foundation is focusing on helping communities to respond to crises (such as bushfires and pandemics) over the long term.

Menzies Foundation CEO Liz Gillies said philanthropy plays a vital role in providing “important grants supporting medical research and vaccines”. But it also needs to “support longer term systemic responses to these types of crises”.

“Often, the focus [in a crisis] is on immediate need, and the government in particular is focused on mitigation and recovery. But the other really important element is the role that citizen leadership plays in ensuring that communities themselves have the capacity to design their own future.

“[Our] foundation has been doing some work with Collaboration for Impact and in conversation with FRRR to really look at how we can build a platform which understands the important role that citizen leadership should play in these types of situations.

“[We’re working to create] narratives and stories about communities’ experience of bushfires and coronavirus. And then we work with those communities to help those citizens identify what resources and assistance they need in order to build leadership in those communities.”

4. Drawing on community knowledge to guide COVID-19 philanthropy

Australia’s collective giving groups are drawing on their knowledge of local communities in their response to the COVID crisis.

James Boyd, State Manager WA & SA, Creative Partnerships Australia, cautions it’s difficult to generalise how collective giving groups are reacting to the COVID-19 situation. “They’re all different sizes, they all have different missions and they do differ very, very broadly.”

That being said, he notes many collective giving groups have a strong local focus towards making impactful grants based on “the knowledge of their members or donors in regard to what’s going on in their community”.

“What we’re seeing is amazing strength from these groups, particularly in regard to their close relationship they have with their local communities and the local charities they granted to in the past.

“I’ve seen groups look at how much money they’ve got. They committed to making smaller grants to 20 organisations that have been grant recipients in the past two years, literally overnight.

“There have been numerous examples where collective giving groups have shared specific needs the charities require now, and then mobilised assistance.”

Article written for Fundraising and Philanthropy Magazine – 12th May 2020