Philanthropy can’t do everything

I’ve just come back from doing grantseeker workshops in Canberra and Merimbula, and I’m off again this week for Sydney and Brisbane. I think it’s two months since I had a week where I haven’t hopped on a plane and spent a few nights away, apart from the week I was too sick. Normally I love workshops – the workshop itself, not the travel – but at the moment I’m hanging out for some workshop-free weeks.

I had someone at a recent workshop who really got me down. I find myself in a peculiar position whilst doing workshops – effectively trying to reveal “trade secrets” about how to access philanthropic funding, while at the same time often being put in the position of having to defend the philanthropic sector in general to angry disappointed grantseekers. Normally I quite enjoy it when I get someone a wee bit feisty, because it sparks things up a bit. This time, though, you could tell I’d lost my groove. The lady in question spoke up and said “I’m sure I speak for everyone here when I say that most of the organisations here are volunteer run and we have a thousand other things to do, and we don’t have time to do what you’re suggesting. We don’t have time to research and call people and tell them what we’re doing and write submissions. We can’t do what you’re telling us we should do”.

As I said, I usually have an answer; but in this case my first instinct (although I didn’t follow it) was to say “Well, why are you here? And why am I here?” What I actually did was tell her that I understood her dilemma, that I share her frustration, but that the reality is that if you want some of this money, you need to step up and ask for it, because it will not just come to you no matter how acute the need.

Soon afterwards, she left. I don’t know if she left because she was upset with my answer, because she decided I had nothing to teach her, or because she just had something else to do. But it depressed me.

I’m used to people giving me fabulous feedback for workshops, and I’m also used to people getting upset. I’ve had people upset at my using real life examples which they thought were generalisations or assumed were me falling prey to stereotypes – even though I stated that these were real examples I had seen. I’ve had people from small towns upset because they thought I implied that small towns were full of uneducated rubes, and people from arts groups upset because they thought I implied that the arts is difficult to justify funding when I was actually pointing out how vital it is for the health of the community. I’ve had representatives from Indigenous groups upset because I did not mention specifically that foundations fund indigneous projects, and others upset that I did mention indigenous projects because they felt they were being singled out. All this has told me is that there are people out there who will get upset and feel something is aimed at them personally, or is a comment on their organisation, when it really isn’t. Also that I need to be more careful with my wording – most of the time I talk on the fly, rather than from prepared notes, and sometimes I don’t express things as clearly as I should. Most of the time I read the feedback, take it under my belt, and adjust or not as I feel it’s necessary.

The negativity of “It’s too hard, we don’t have time, we can’t try, what you’re telling us is no good” really got me down, though. Normally it wouldn’t, but it came towards the end of a long, long series of workshops in which I’ve felt I was forced to defend my sector and myself a lot. But the funny thing is that I relate to that lady in a way. When you think about it, philanthropy can’t do everything. So much is obvious. Philanthropic funding is a tiny, tiny band-aid on a gaping wound. You compare it to the huge swathing bandages of government funding, and it seems insignificant. Half a billion or so per annum, versus tens of billions from government. We’re too little and spread too thin. We can’t do everything.

On the other hand, we can make some small difference in a real life.

One of the inherent dilemmas in philanthropy is what you tackle and how – do you spread your funds widely, or focus on one area and throw everything into it? Do you fund broadly or deeply? Tackling the root causes of problems is popular in philanthropy right now; advocacy, education, trying to prevent problems before we start. I think what we’re not seeing enough of right now is the differences that we’ve made. I know that I’ve read project acquittals that talked about making a real difference to real people; people who’ve learned how to manage tiny budgets and save for treats, people who feel better about themselves and are able to go out and socialise now, people who get some respite from caring for a child with difficult intellectual and physical disabilities. But those were internal. They weren’t shared, and nobody gets to hear about them. Why not?

Maybe it’s just that we in philanthropy are the same as the lady at the workshop. We’re overworked. There aren’t enough of us to do everything, there isn’t enough money to do everything, and we don’t have time to read and share and learn because we’re all frantically flailing about trying to keep our heads above water. Just in a different way.

Or maybe the workshops – and associated prospect of my regular work piling up in the office – are getting me down, and I’ll feel better in a month’s time 🙂 Who can say?

One thought on “Philanthropy can’t do everything”

  1. Hi Vanessa, that is a very interesting blog entry. Thank you. I guess the people you are referring to need to understand that philanthropy funds belong to the funders until such time they decide to assign a portion of it. I find it intriguing that people would object to doing the research, without it there isn’t much chance of aligning funder motivations with project outcomes at the very least. It’s not surprising that you would feel a little down considering you go to the trouble of running Grant Seeker Workshops to assist people in understanding the guidelines. Maybe you could make light of it in a workshop by asking how many of them would offer their clients a blank cheque, no questions asked? Have a great day, Garry.

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