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9 min read

Why good philanthropy is not about the money: Sarah Davies

Profile of Nicole Richards
Written by Nicole RichardsPosted on 2/9/2020

It would be difficult to find anyone who has been as deeply immersed in the big picture possibilities or the quirks and nuances of Australian philanthropy as Sarah Davies, AM has been for the past five years.  

As Chief Executive Officer of Philanthropy Australia, the country’s peak body for philanthropy, Davies has been philanthropy’s advocate in chief, championing structured giving at every opportunity to policymakers, practitioners, would-be givers and more.

Prior to her tenure at Philanthropy Australia, Davies headed up The Reach Foundation and spent four years in community philanthropy as CEO at Australian Communities Foundation. Her multi-faceted perspective and experience of philanthropy also includes her own personal giving and a family sub-fund at Australian Communities Foundation.

While Davies will step away from Philanthropy Australia later this year, she is, in characteristic fashion, determined to keep her “foot on the pedal” until she exits the role. Though she has been appointed Adjunct Professor at Swinburne University’s Centre for Social Impact, Davies says she will give herself “a couple of months to decompress and see what I think and feel and see what’s out there,” before settling upon her next move.

Sarah Davies recently shared reflections on her own giving journey and insights about the evolution of Australian philanthropy in this conversation.

What was the spark that got you started on your personal giving journey?

SD: I grew up in an environment where we learned, from my father in particular, that if you want to live in a healthy, inclusive, socially just and fair society, then you actually have to contribute to building it.

“For me, participation is an extension of yourself and what matters to you. It’s part of being human.”

We didn’t grow up expecting to walk outside our door and find the world as we wanted it waiting for us, he taught us we had to be a participant in creating it. Even as little kids, if one of us complained that someone got more cake than the other, my father’s response was always, ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’

I see giving as participating. You can participate in lots of ways, volunteering and giving are just a couple of them. For me, participation is an extension of yourself and what matters to you. It’s part of being human.

What issues or cause areas do you support with your own philanthropy and why?

I’ve always given five per cent of what I earn and have done that since I started working full time. Where I choose to give has evolved over time, though I’m pretty comfortable and committed to what I think is important.

I’ve always had a passion for youth, especially youth at risk, and I give mostly to prevention and early intervention because to me that makes the most sense. If you can prevent and intervene early with young people to help them be healthy and active citizens, then everything else will sort itself out. That’s my personal channel and what I care about and think about; it’s also the sorts of boards I’m on and where I volunteer.

Our sub-fund is a little bit different in that we set it up for our children because I am so conscious of our privilege and luck and the fluke of birth – who you’re born to and the circumstances you’re born into; that has always sat quite powerfully with me.

The sub-fund is one of the ways my husband and I have tried to raise a family with the same values and principles we have. We’ve both chosen careers in the not-for-profit space so purpose has always been important to us; we’ve never been motivated to make as much money as we possibly can, so we started the fund as a modest Gumnut account a long time ago.

We were so tired of seeing the kids when they were little getting caught up in the gift giving frenzy at birthdays and at Christmas and we knew we had to do something about it. We’re white, middle class, educated people living a privileged life; how do you build reciprocity and understanding in kids? How do you recognise and celebrate and see the huge strength in diversity?

So, when the kids were still very little, we agreed that every Christmas we’d work out our giving budget then cut it in half and the rest would go into our sub-fund. And that’s worked beautifully. It’s taken probably 15 years to build the sub-fund up and it’s never going to get to a self-sustaining size while we’re alive, but we have left a bequest.

“Having been in the sector a long time and having worked in non-profits I know that nirvana for these organisations is regular, predictable income.”

We chose to deliberately leave the focus of the fund as ‘for general charitable purposes’ because our children are now young adults and it’s their tool and they each have different interests that range from the environment to education to sport and health. The idea was to leave as much flexibility as possible so they can explore their passions and have a resource together to help pursue it.

I still do my own giving to the things I want to support and in those cases, I give directly to those organisations. Having been in the sector a long time and having worked in non-profits I know that nirvana for these organisations is regular, predictable income.

I have a number of monthly giving regular partners and I’ll often add a bit more at tax time and if I can at the time of the Christmas appeal but I do my giving as a regular monthly donor.

What’s the most valuable lesson about philanthropy you’ve learned?

The biggest gift working in philanthropy has given me is a little bit of peace of mind, which sounds odd when you consider that it’s really easy to be overwhelmed by the extent of the need and the urgency of it all. But if you think about that the whole time, you become kind of paralysed.

“If you build the culture of giving and encourage people to pursue what they’re passionate about, you get the diversity of causes and passions and areas that people support.”

There are so many issues that are critical, but I know that I can’t put my energy into all of them. What philanthropy has shown me is that we’ve got to have ALL the flowers blooming. If you build the culture of giving and encourage people to pursue what they’re passionate about, you get the diversity of causes and passions and areas that people support.

That’s not to say we have anywhere near enough philanthropy – we still need more – but I’m grateful for the realisation because it’s not healthy if there’s an agenda that says, ‘We should all be funding x.’

What are your thoughts on the role of community foundations in the philanthropy ecosystem?

Community foundations have everything you need to get going. You don’t have to know all the ins and outs of philanthropy; you’ve just got to join.

I give because I want to see change, not because I want to administer the grantmaking or invest the money etc. I know that Australian Communities Foundation brings rigour, good governance, strategy and regulatory compliance to the entire process so basically I’m buying all of that expertise by being part of the community which leaves me free to focus and spend my time on the change I want to see.

With our sub-fund, I want to give our children the chance to be supported as they learn about philanthropy, to be able to explore and go off on tangents, and the best place to do that is within a community of donors where you are supported by that intellect and depth and breadth. I feel that when they’re planted in a community, they can use what they want when they want to.

What advice would you give someone who was thinking about getting started in structured giving?

Start a sub-fund or start a Gumnut account. There’s no downside; you’ll only get growth and fulfillment from it.

Is there a persistent myth about philanthropy that you’d like to see debunked?

Good philanthropy is not about the money. Money is the tool or the engine, and like any engine, its performance comes down to all the thinking and design and intent and purpose behind it – that’s what defines good philanthropy.

It’s also about being an active builder and participating in the world and helping to create the community you want to live in; it’s not about having lots of money.

From your vantage point, what’s one thing you think Australian philanthropy does well?

It’s hard to pick just one. In my role at Philanthropy Australia I’ve been privileged to get under the hood with global philanthropic practice by participating in study tours, meeting thought leaders and learning from research and I would very confidently say you can pick anywhere around world that’s considered best practice in philanthropy and I’ll find you an example of it here. 

“Australian philanthropy has stepped up and it’s very exciting, and I’d love to see more people join in.”

The only significant difference is that we don’t have the scale and volume of practice yet. I think Australia absolutely has examples of world’s best practice – what I’d now love to see is that volume increase.

The response of Australian philanthropy this year, in terms of the bushfires and COVID-19 and how the sector has reacted and adjusted, changed or accelerated their strategy is just extraordinary. Australian philanthropy has stepped up and it’s very exciting, and I’d love to see more people join in.

What’s one thing you’d like to see the philanthropic sector do better?

One thing I’d love us always to remember is that philanthropy has special powers and again, that it’s not about the size of the money, it’s about the characteristics of the money.

When philanthropic money is used in the same way as other types of social capital, say government funding, then you kind of waste its special power. In terms of social change, philanthropy refreshes the parts other dollars can’t reach. If we slip into using philanthropy in a way that does not exploit that special power, then we’ve lost some of its momentum and impact.

To your mind, what are the most pressing challenges facing philanthropy over the next few years?

Challenges always come with opportunity and the way philanthropy has responded to the events of this year has shown that all of the conversations to reflect and interrogate how we can we do better have been accelerated. Untied funding, increased flexibility, supporting capacity and capability building, supporting – these things have flipped into mass practice this year and that’s been fantastic.

The opportunity is to make that the new normal; the challenge is to stop it from slipping back to what it was before.

When I look at the responses to our own Philanthropy Australia survey in May, 72 per cent of funders had increased the flexibility of their grants; 48 per cent had shifted to unrestricted funding; 25 per cent were offering non-financial support and 40 per cent were supporting advocacy.

What’s been the biggest highlight of your time at Philanthropy Australia?

Over the last five years we’ve really tried to support better philanthropy and understand what that looks like, and that means being really honest and looking at the shadow side of philanthropy. The characteristics that make philanthropy really exciting and impactful are the same characteristics that can make it unaccountable, unrepresentative and undemocratic.

We’ve had an agenda to encourage reflection around that and looking at how philanthropy behaves now and how it responded after the GFC is just worlds apart and that’s stunning.

The personal highlight has been the people. It’s exhilarating to be around the amazing intellects and energy and dedication and authenticity and extraordinary commitment to positive change because you’re inspired by every single conversation you have.

Philanthropy Australia has recently announced Jack Heath as the organisation’s new Chief Executive Officer.

Philanthropy Australia is a partner with Australian Communities Foundation of the COVID-19 National Funding Platform.