John Spierings, Executive Officer of the Reichstein Foundation and former senior policy adviser to a former Prime Minister, talks to Fiona Higgins about how collective impact and support for policy advocacy and influence by Australian philanthropists can play a crucial role in responding to the profound environmental, social and economic challenges facing our nation.


What exactly is collective impact?

‘Collective impact’ describes the process, outcomes and social change that can occur when funders of all types – big and small, warts and all – come together with strategy, determination and passion, under a common platform of shared values and often using advocacy as a tool, to exert significant impact on issues of equity, sustainability, justice and dignity.

What are the defining features of advocacy versus other forms of philanthropy?

Advocacy is usually concerned with changing something about a system, and sometimes it’s also about ‘holding the line’ and defending the status quo. There is often a far more direct understanding of what success looks like with advocacy support because there are usually very concrete objectives about changing or protecting regulatory or legislative goals involved. At the heart of advocacy lies strong engagement with community practitioners and people with lived experience, and their perspectives are central to the process. Funders can bring a few things to the table, vital things, but ultimately the grunt work is being done by the social change agents in the field. Advocacy is usually a long game – it can take years of commitment and work – which requires patient philanthropy.

What are some examples of collective impact using advocacy?

An obvious and recent example is the marriage equality campaign of 2017, in which philanthropy emerged as a key ally of changemakers seeking to overturn deeply discriminatory laws and attitudes against LGTBIQ Australians. Another example is the NDIS, which emerged from a campaign led by disability advocates over two decades, with vital support from philanthropists who shared their vision for people with disability to have dignity, genuine rights and autonomy.

The Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network is an exercise in collective impact in which philanthropy is supporting NGO efforts to tackle dangerous climate change, protect our bio-diversity, support sustainable agriculture and more. Also, impact investing is a form of collective impact whereby philanthropy is adding its financial muscle to advocate for shared prosperity, to help transition capital markets towards a more ‘natural capitalism’ – more sustainable, ethical and responsible products and services.

Do we know how many philanthropic funders in Australia are engaged in funding advocacy?

We don’t really. The Foundation Mapping exercise by Philanthropy Australia might help us understand that better. If the US is a guide, a recent issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review estimated that advocacy constituted about 10 per cent of all philanthropic giving by trusts and foundations in America. If we apply that figure in Australia – and it’s probably a figure that’s less than in the US – then we’re not looking at a large proportion of philanthropic giving.

But I suspect that percentage is growing, because it’s clear that an increasing number of trusts and foundations are becoming more comfortable with targeted and strategic advocacy. More funders are realising that to have a systemic impact and not only address the symptoms, some investment in policy influence and advocacy is important. There’s also a realisation that investing in advocacy is legitimate – provided it’s transparent and strategic and not politically partisan. So, I think we’re likely to see collaborating for social change grow over the next five to ten years in Australia.

What’s wrong with funding projects or programs?

Nothing. One of the great things about philanthropy is its diversity; some people are more comfortable funding service delivery, others are more interested on the lobbying and communication and organising end of the spectrum. But the critical point is, the issues we are all trying to tackle – whether it’s housing or health, education or indigenous affairs –  sit within systems, which are informed by increasingly complex social issues.

Simply tackling one part of the problem – whether that’s a research angle or a service-level demonstration of piloting, for example – is going to have quite limited impact. Unless we’re all part of an ecosystem of change in the areas we are focusing on, our impact will inevitably be short-term. All of us, whatever our philanthropic style, need to see ourselves as working in tandem, rather than pulling in opposite directions.

So how might we do that, as a sector? How can we work in tandem, on a practical level, when there’s such a diversity of interest and egos and agendas involved?

One of the things we’re good at in philanthropy is having the conversation and connecting. Life is full of eccentricities and egos and we all have to accommodate each other. It’s like but (thankfully!) more sophisticated than a student household – we are all different but we all need to get on, work together and enjoy what each of us brings in order to have success.

One thing we’ve learned at Reichstein Foundation is that it’s a journey of learning and a multi-way exchange, and it’s not necessarily easy. The strongest measure of philanthropic collaboration that we currently have is co-funding. But co-funding is just one element of what we could do together.

I think we need to have much stronger networks of exchange, communication and support, and we also need to have a fair dinkum discussion about shared values: about what we have in common as funders, not just our points of difference. That’s why Reichstein is focused on something we’re calling ‘Collaborating for Social Change’ (CSC) this year and into 2019, to gauge what sits at the heart of different trusts and foundations and donors, and to start exploring the potential of stronger and deeper philanthropic support for advocacy on key economic and social justice issues in Australia.

What has the CSC initiative looked like so far?

We’ve had dinners in Melbourne and Sydney so far, with about 15-20 people in the room, to gauge interest. We’ve heard some very passionate and provocative discussions about people’s giving experiences and their hopes and fears about this country and where it is going. There is a definite sense that people are interested in exploring common interests and potentially considering where some of their funding might be focussed collectively in the future. We hope to convert those conversations into concrete plans over the next 12 months.

The CSC is a controlled experiment in a way. The success of the marriage equality debate and the Home Stretch campaign (which sought to raise the age of State responsibility for out of home care to age 21) is energising philanthropy, so it’s natural that questions are now coming about where else philanthropy can play a similar positive role in the short and medium term.

We’re still inviting people to consider joining the conversation; we’d like to build a stronger knowledge base about the type of advocacy that delivers real impact, by tapping into and playing to the strengths of different trusts and foundations in the sector.

Why is Reichstein leading the charge on the CSC initiative?

To be clear, this is not just Reichstein. Community foundations, private donors and their advisers, other trusts and foundations are key partners.

Together we’d like to see a more confident culture of advocacy in Australian philanthropy, a sense that philanthropy can contribute positively to civic debate. We are on the front foot not because we have the answers, but because working more cohesively to tackle some of the deep systemic causes of injustice and inequality is imperative at this time.

Our other key driver is that, currently, there aren’t many clear portals for the NFP sector interested in policy change and influence to access philanthropic dollars. As funders, we are not transparent enough, we’re too opaque – so we are interested in breaking down some of those barriers that NFPs encounter.

Could engaging in a collective impact initiative like this involve a loss of autonomy for foundations?

Well, you’re not going to engage in supporting social change with others unless you have like-minded views. So, it’s not so much about losing autonomy as identifying shared values. And we’re not suggesting that the whole of a giving portfolio must be designated to collective impact initiatives, or always involve advocacy; it’s just one tool available to philanthropists. What we are saying is, if as a sector we’re not using that tool, or if we’re reluctant or wary or afraid of it, then we’re probably not fulfilling our full potential.

What if a funder is quite small, or already knows what their philanthropic focus is?

There’s power in joining with others. This isn’t about getting people to move away from their existing philanthropic passions, it’s about trying to encourage people to see that their passions or focus areas connect with systems, with other funders and with change agents in the field. There’s a place for a range of voices at the table, and it’s definitely not about how big you are or what you might consider contributing financially at some point to a collective impact initiative in the future.

A significant part of this is, how do we learn together as a sector? We see the CSC initiative as an opportunity to learn, to come to events, to hear about the research, evaluation and progress of different campaigns and advocacy initiatives and consider how we can better engage with grassroots practitioners who are hankering for real change in the social justice space.

Isn’t advocacy a lot of hard work for sometimes patchy results?

No question it is hard work because if you’re seeking policy influence, you have to understand the policy drivers, you have to determine the ultimate policy change you are striving for, and you have to make a judgement about whether that is in fact the best policy outcome achievable. To do that requires intellectual energy and commitment, such as doing good quality due diligence on the policy environment and on the change agents in the field with whom you are proposing to partner.

Generally, although not always, advocacy can be quite a public activity, too. Some trusts and foundations have to consider the possible impact on their brand and reputation. So yes, you want to be certain and clear that the commitment you are making stacks up.

As for results, one of the key lessons that we’ve learned over many years is, if you’re going to be in the space to achieve social change, you’ve got to have stick-ability. Many of the issues we’ve supported with advocacy-related investment have taken years to come to fruition. For example, we were one of the first funders of Broken Rites in the 1990s, which was the campaign for people who had been affected by child abuse in the Catholic Church. Back then they had difficulty speaking out, developing credibility and legitimacy after a long period of denial and covering-up, they were fighting against a very powerful institution with a lot at stake and they found it difficult to have a voice in the media.

What Reichstein provided was support to actually launch the organisation and to have a means for national communication and twenty years later, we’ve seen the most amazing Royal Commission and now a national redress scheme. That was due to their strength, skills and resilience. Philanthropy helped to provide a platform and confidence at the start.

Yes, results in supporting advocacy can be patchy but there are ways to help mitigate that risk. And sometimes, you know, it is just about supporting a cause because it’s right, because it addresses a burning injustice, because having the moral courage to take action is way better than staying silent.

Social change philanthropy can be very loud and proud, and aren’t the ‘wins’ or gains just subject to political cycles?

Truly great virtues in philanthropy are humility and graciousness.

In this process it is crucial that funders take a backseat – this is not about the promotion of philanthropy as the change agent, it’s about philanthropy supporting, enabling, facilitating and understanding the people who are experiencing disadvantage or the loss of their human rights and empowering them to realise their potential. It’s not about our position, it’s about enabling those people to have a voice and to sit at the table rather than be satisfied with crumbs that might fall from it.

Ensuring social change wins can be sustained over political cycles is a perfectly legitimate concern. It is something that we see in relation to climate change, for example. That’s where vigilance and commitment come in. That’s where the analysis you undertake can’t just orient around a single thing changing; you need to engage whole communities and stakeholders on a journey to embed long term change. And we’ve seen those sorts of gains in the NDIS, in health care, in battles to preserve the environment, in tobacco, so they’ve been embedded and are part of our culture now.

What are the clear gaps in social change that are crying out for philanthropic intervention?

It depends what day of the week it is, there are a fair few! I would say race and culture questions are a powerful one in Australia right now. Concern over so-called African gangs is tearing the heart out of the political culture and sense of community in Melbourne and in Victoria. There is a growing suspicion of Muslim communities too, and efforts to undermine Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander self-determination. Now, in all these areas philanthropy is supporting some terrific projects and initiatives. But we also need to consider just how deeply embedded issues of race are in criminal justice systems – from policing to courts to prisons and to media. And we need to reflect on decades of failure to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution, for example.

Another important gap is opportunity. Growing inequality in Australia means that some people are much more advantaged than others in terms of access to education and employment, and therefore are far more likely to experience a prosperous material life and be secure in a highly globalised world.

And then there is the issue of what channels are there for civic discourse and the re-establishment of trust, given the loss of faith in key institutions and the crisis of mainstream media. All the legacy media platforms – especially print and broadcast – are now under enormous strain, and we desperately need to innovate in ways that enable robust, inclusive debates to occur. These are just some of the issues we think are amenable to collective philanthropic action.

Is there anything else you’d like philanthropists to know about Collaboration for Social Change?

In one of the videos that Jill did last year, she calls out for people to be bolder with their giving and to have courage in funding social change, but that’s not always easy to do. Sometimes one source of courage is to be inspired by others around you, so the CSC is about providing that opportunity. This project is about bringing donors that share common values and a vision for a better future for Australia to the table so that we can be more effective and support change at scale – so let’s do this.


If being part of this conversation around collective impacts excites you, please contact John Spierings at the Reichstein Foundation.

 Fiona Higgins is Grantmaking Specialist at Australian Philanthropic Services.