‘Blurred boundaries’ is a phrase often used to indicate an erosion of the once-clear line between grantmakers and grantseekers. That demarcation was crystal-clear when I first began working at Philanthropy Australia in the late 1990s; in fact, whether an organisation counted as ‘grantmaker’ or ‘grantseeker’ largely determined whether Philanthropy Australia accepted an organisation as a member, as well as the extent and nature of the services they were offered. It was a relatively easy distinction to make.
It was in the early years of the 21st century that the blurring of these boundaries first became an issue. This was a time of massive change for the philanthropic sector in Australia, with new tax incentives and structures for formal giving coming into effect. It was also a time when the community foundation movement took off here, championed by a number of individuals and organisations inspired by US community foundation success stories. The fledgling Australian community foundations, as entities that both fundraised and made grants, were positioned outside the grantmaker/grantseeker divide. Furthermore, because of their close community focus and their ability to provide a philanthropic structure to engage relatively small-scale donors, they began blurring the boundaries around the meaning of philanthropy itself and the often-stated concept that it is something only the wealthy engage in.
The grantmaker/grantseeker divide has been further blurred by the emergence of new structures and models such as hybrid foundations and social enterprises, which don’t fit neatly into any categories. And finally, it’s blurred by the people who work for and govern not-for-profit entities. Most people in the sector are committed to more than one entity; many philanthropists sit on the boards of charities, or advocate for particular projects which may be entirely unrelated to their own foundations. When someone sits at the grantmaker table with their foundation hat on, how many invisible hats lurk beneath? I don’t mean that in a sinister way, although we must always guard against conflicts of interest. Rather, I’m wondering how valid it is to divide the sector into those who give and those who seek. Was it ever valid in the first place? Do we need to eliminate the boundaries altogether – or just to reframe them?
I’d like to add one final blurring of boundaries – that between nations and cultures. Over the past few years we’ve seen an increasing number of Australians, inspired by their travels to our neighbours in the region and further afield, wanting to give internationally. They see themselves not just as Australian citizens but as global ones. Additionally, access to information about the structures and processes used in the philanthropic sectors in other countries can fire us to seek similar solutions – or frustrate us when the tax, regulatory or cultural factors in our own countries stand in our way!
Are we one big happy family, a house divided, or somewhere in between? I don’t know. Perhaps, as long as we behave with respect and thoughtfulness to everyone in any part of the sector, it doesn’t matter.
Vanessa Meachen is director of research and policy for Philanthropy Australia