By Dom O’Donnell
Unrequited Love: Diary of an Accidental Activist is the new book from academic, queer rights activist and long-time funder at Australian Communities Foundation (ACF), Dennis Altman. Written through the lens of recent activism and the rise of authoritarianism around the world, Dennis’ memoir tracks his own history as an activist and academic working for positive social change.
In addition to leaving a bequest with Australian Communities Foundation, Dennis opened the Assia Altman Sub-Fund in 2010. The Assia Altman Sub-Fund is focused on supporting organisations working to promote the rights of LGBTIQ+ people and asylum seekers, as well as human rights and animal welfare more broadly.
We sat down with Dennis to discuss his giving journey and how his history in activism has come to inform his approach to philanthropy.
How long have you been involved giving?
DA: I joined Australian Communities Foundation in 2010, and I think there were two important moments that followed in terms of my capacity and drive to give. One was when my mother died, and I felt I had some money that I was able to give away. Then in 2012, my long-term partner died from lung cancer, and he had very good superannuation benefits, and so I really felt then I should do more than just nominal donations here and there to the obvious charities. I wanted to do more than that, and that’s how I got involved with ACF.
Prior to that, it was only ever small sums to very well-established organisations. But we’re talking now almost a decade, and I think the climate in Australia has changed enormously. There are many more appeals for money. There were always the traditional, mainstream organisations, who have always got lots of support and often received bequests. But I think what I’ve seen in the period I’ve been involved here is much greater and more professional fundraising going on for all sorts of people and all sorts of organisations.
“[M]oney is an important tool of bringing about change, and activism is about bringing about change. And I think that is the whole point of a place like ACF. It actually encourages people to think of giving money as a way of bringing about change, not just as a way of putting on bandaids.”
How has your activist work and history shaped how you feel about giving?
I think it’s really important that one gives money in order to promote certain sorts of social and political change, and that you don’t just give money to support the status quo. I mean, of course, there are humanitarian crises where you give money. Probably most people who give money have done so at various points knowing that they will have no lasting impact, but that they are helping people in desperate need. So there’s that sort of giving, but I think beyond that, one needs to recognise that money is an important tool of bringing about change, and activism is about bringing about change. And I think that is the whole point of a place like ACF. It actually encourages people to think of giving money as a way of bringing about change, not just as a way of putting on bandaids. And of course, we shouldn’t forget that everybody uses it—there is reactionary activism, which is very successful in raising money.
Has there been a specific moment you’ve really seen and felt this in effect at the Foundation?
Well, the biggest project I’ve funded through ACF, and which involved quite a lot of work from people at ACF, was a project called Something for Them, established at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University. The focus of the project was issues facing queer kids from newly arrived, immigrant and refugee backgrounds. I think the first stage of that project was enormously important because it meant that some of the agencies dealing with particularly refugee groups, but also some ethnic community groups, were actually talking about sexuality and gender for the first time.
So the very fact there was that project opened up the discussion and I think that had some small role in helping to make that discussion easier in parts of Australia where previously that discussion has been very difficult. I was very impressed with what ACF could do with that sort of project.
It’s clear your perspective as an activist and expert in this space has led you to focus on certain issues facing queer communities. What other LGBTQIA+ issues do you think should be getting attention and funding?
I think there is clearly a huge need among many communities, often defined by ethnicity or religion or remoteness, where kids growing up don’t have access to the sorts of information and peer groups they would have if they were growing up in the middle of a big city. Homelessness is another one because we know that the rate of homelessness among queer kids is higher. Then there are the specific problems that face people seeking asylum because of their sexuality.
Those would be the three areas that I would see as crucial. What strikes me in having seen the sorts of projects I see funded through The Channel Giving Circle—of which I’m a member—is how many small groups there are out there trying new things and trying to have an impact in this space.
What kind of impact is it that you’re looking for with your giving?
It’s about using your resources to lever change, which could mean bringing new issues onto the political agenda or it could mean creating something, which then governments take over. And I think that’s one of the things I’ve learnt about good philanthropy; it should actually aim to have itself replaced. If you’re setting up a program and it’s really good, then as an old-fashioned social democrat, I think the state should start funding it. But you often need those pilot projects, and there’s been a number I’ve seen come through ACF that have been successful in this sense.
“I think that’s one of the things I’ve learnt about good philanthropy; it should actually aim to have itself replaced.”
What other lessons have you’ve learnt along the way?
Firstly, you have to be willing to take risks. I think one can certainly overdo risk aversion when it comes to giving. I think one can spend too much time and resources on evaluation and monitoring and you get to the point where more time and resources are going to assessing the projects than to the projects themselves.
I think the other key thing I’ve learnt is that getting other people interested in giving, or explaining to others that giving can be more than just supporting the very well-established groups, is a challenge. There are always going to be new and more innovative projects out there that will actually change the world in a way that established, well-supported groups may not be able to.
That’s the job of community foundations—to get people on board and facilitate collective giving for the greatest impact.
How do we bring givers and those paving new ways to change closer together?
Activism has become much more professional, and that has both pluses and minuses, and I think that there is a tendency now for people, when they want to do something, to think first ‘well, who will fund it?’, rather than ‘let’s do something, then we’ll see if we can get funding for it’. So I think in the world we live in, where there is a retreat by governments from a lot of things they traditionally funded, philanthropy becomes more and more important. It’s almost as if philanthropy becomes a secondary taxing system, except it’s taxation by persuasion and not by fiat, isn’t it? That’s the job of community foundations—to get people on board and facilitate collective giving for the greatest impact.