The Swinburne philanthropy alumni have formed the Maimonides Society which meets regularly to discuss issues philanthropic.
Maimonides, also known as Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon (or by the acronym RAMBAM) was a Jewish philosopher in 12th century Spain who developed an eight step “ladder of giving”:
8. When donations are given grudgingly.
7. When one gives less than he should, but does so cheerfully.
6. When one gives directly to the poor upon being asked.
5. When one gives directly to the poor without being asked.
4. When the recipient is aware of the donor’s identity, but the donor does not know the identity of the recipient.
3. When the donor is aware of the recipient’s identity, but the recipient is unaware of the source.
2. When the donor and recipient are unknown to each other.
1. The highest form of charity is to help sustain a person before they become impoverished by offering a substantial gift in a dignified manner, or by extending a suitable loan, or by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business so as to make it unnecessary for them to become dependent on others.
So it is appropriate that a philanthropic gathering is named in his honour (though Lucy Bernholz feels it is time for a re-think).
But I digress.
This week the Maimonides Society presented Christine Edwards, the outgoing Chief Executive of the Myer Foundation and the Sidney Myer Fund, in the first of what appears to be a series of valedictory talks and reflections about her time in the sector.
Christine is an articulate speaker and she shared eight key reflections from her seven years in her role, which she described as a place where resources are in abundance, and compared to the “beauty, warmth and mystery of a log fire”.
Christine said: Philanthropy is about creating something together through relationships with integrity and respect, and is not about the person who gives or the person who receives, but reciprocity, joint commitment and the creation of a new “entity”. No one owns it, and it produces something. It is an exchange and we philanthrocrats must practise respect and “the determined avoidance of sarcasm”.
I found this particularly useful having recently moved back into the granting side of the philanthropy equation.
Christine also spoke about changes in money and influence and the growth of private ancillary funds since 2001. While giving is more obvious, new donors are still learning how to give. She discussed what drives their engagement, the opportunity to use their skills and large sums of money which reflect their sizeable commitment to various projects and issues. The growth in private philanthropy is an opportunity for learning, but also has stresses and rewards, conflicts and tensions, and causes us to reflect on the dynamics of power.
Key words for her time at the Myer Foundation and Sidney Myer Fund were the three ts – time, talent and treasure.
She feels that philanthropists should use their power of influence as well as the power of money to create linkages between government, the community, academia and business.
Because philanthropy comes in many shapes and sizes we should ask what sort of change we want to make, at what level, and with whom? In a foundation, Christine is adamant that these decisions must be driven by the board, and she talked about the issues faced by her foundation when they made a decision in 2005 to change their focus to larger grants. The intention was to influence policy and change systems by being prepared to take risks. Yet they found it hard to find good projects and ideas and needed to branch out to find people with great ideas and good track records (or good potential) to invest in. This was a point often made by philanthropists, that it is sometimes harder to give away money well than it looks.
Christine considers government a great partner for philanthropy, and has experienced dynamic interplay and mutual support in her dealings with it.
Committing to projects over several years is hard, and limits the ability to commit to other new projects – so it is important to balance between longer term and shorter term grant making. (this too is useful for those of us who are considering the direction our own grant making is travelling in, especially if we feel we might have exhausted the pool of eligible applicants within our field), and she discussed how to deal with long term philanthropic relationships which might not be working or moving towards conflict, even though the potential for mutual gain might still be strong. At times it is necessary to bail out from projects.
Christine feels that true collaborative funding is rare, because of the way projects come to funders and foundations. She feels that cofunding is more likely to be coincidental than collaborative, particularly when there are issues of naming and legacy. But the key is to remember who the philanthropy is for, and to take an approach which includes language of collaboration and shared investment.
Language is very important to Christine, and she sees it as a mirror of our values. ie an investment in change for the future is different to “tying up our money” and “benefit later” is different from being happy having longer term commitments. She also talked about management expenses and how it is impossible to compare these between different organisations, and that an arbitrary notion of 10% – 15% is absurd, or that judging costs can allow one to judge relative efficiency. Particularly as some people measure funds under management, and others only count funds distributed.
Christine sees philanthropy as practising the art of possibility, and believes that an open minded approach to measurement and evaluation is necessary. Evaluation helps gather information about what is working, but should always be viewed as an enabler and not a driver – because some things can’t be measured, and it is hard to attribute gains to particular strategies, results take time and it may limit options. I particularly liked her phrase “philanthropy gives capacity to do things which can’t be measured”.
Her belief is that philanthropy must seek out the vulnerable and take risks, to create space for the unimaginable to be imagined and to take great leaps of faith. She concluded appropriately with a quote from Rupert Myer – that philanthropy must “fund the unfundable”.
I found this to be an extremely giving presentation, delightfully free of jargon, and with a heartfelt warmth about the work Christine has been involved with in her time at the Myer Foundation and Sidney Myer Fund (which is why I have transcribed such a large portion of it practically verbatim).
I wish her the best in her future ventures.
If you were able to attend, I look forward to your comments and reflections on her reflections. Otherwise, your comments on some of the values and philosophy raised here are also welcome.