Community foundations in Australia: constraint is the mother of invention

Vanessa Meachen

Vanessa Meachen

I was lucky enough to attend Philanthropy Australia’s Community Foundation Forum in Mackay, Queensland, last week. Lucky because while this was the 12th forum, it was the first I had attended myself, and lucky also because I was struck with tremendous pride and appreciation for the special characteristics of our community foundation sector.

I know everybody believes their situation is special – much as all parents believe their children are special! – but I think I can make a good case for the resilience and grit of Australia’s community foundations. While Australia shares many characteristics with the US – being geographically huge, a federation of states, and possessing a thriving voluntary sector – its population, at only 25 million, is far less and its trust in government to provide essential welfare and health services is much greater.

Another constraint is caused by Australia’s idiosyncratic legal and tax system for philanthropy, which limits offerings in terms of donor advised funds and restricts the services that ancillary funds – the structure that most Australian community foundations use – can provide in the community.

Additionally, many of Australia’s private foundations are ancillary funds themselves and are legally prohibited from funding other ancillary funds, meaning that they cannot rely on seed or core funding from that quarter. And finally, many Australian community foundations must fund organizations with deductible gift recipient status – organizations which are few and far between in many of the sparsely populated regional areas in which our community foundations operate. Australian community foundations are therefore stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place – or would be if they chose to be limited by the traditional model of endowment-oriented donor-servicing foundations.

Eight years ago Diana Leat, referring to the proliferation of this model in Australia, warned that ‘The “American dream” of community foundations has had some very positive functions in the growth of community foundations in Australia, but, if not fully understood, may have a damaging sting in its tail.’ (The Development of Community Foundations in Australia; Recreating the American Dream, QUT, 2004) The sting she referred to was that Australians could be misled by the explosive growth of the American CF sector and the support provided to CFs there by the Ford and Charles Stuart Mott foundations and others.

However, last week’s forum put paid to any notion that the Australian CF sector is wringing its hands over lack of external funding. Instead we heard from CFs that have acted as clearing houses, referring applications they cannot themselves fund onto other funding sources; CFs that partner with the ancillary funds that cannot fund them directly to source interesting applications in local communities; CFs that bring their community’s needs and voices forward to facilitate engagement with donors; and CFs that are able to act as valuable information resources for local government. The restrictive environment leads them to find more creative ways to resource themselves and their communities.

While I was in Mackay I was interviewed by the local TV station (although I still don’t know if I made the cut!) One of the questions they asked was whether there was rivalry between the community foundations present in the current cash-strapped environment, and with no hesitation I could tell them ‘Absolutely not’ Every community foundation (and more than two thirds of all Australian CFs were present) was both a fountain of knowledge and a sponge soaking it up. There’s no doubt that Australia’s CFs have it relatively tough in comparison to some others, but their tenacity and creativity has made them strong and vital. Cause for celebration indeed!

Vanessa Meachen is director of research and policy for Philanthropy Australia

Further articles from Alliance magazine related to these topics:

Tagged in: australia Community foundations

Comments (3)

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Hi, just wanted to say, I liked this blog post. It was inspiring. Keep on posting!

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