‘It’s not like most conferences I’ve been to’ said Arminé Nalbandian, CEO of the Centre for Social Impact, speaking in her role as one of three Keynote Listeners who provided a meaningful voice for the 900-strong audience to complement that of the 20 speakers and 23 panellists. Keynote Listeners were just one of many refreshing innovations found at the Philanthropy Australia conference, held in Sydney on 7 and 8 September 2022, that are ripe for replication at other conferences seeking to refresh their offering.
Other standout features included having First Nation and Next Generation voices front and centre – not shunted off into a special session, but integral as speakers, chairs and participating delegates throughout both days. The urgency and passion of their voices enabled the core debates to move from ‘should we?’ to ‘what should we?’ and from ‘why?’ to ‘how?’, as noted by Adam Ognall, Philanthropy Australia’s engagement lead, during his re-cap on the morning of day two for those joining late or needing a memory prompt, another welcome innovation for this jet-lagged Brit.
The refreshing tone of the conference was set by Philanthropy Australia’s Jack Heath, in his opening remarks. Rather than offering a typical CEO set-piece on broad strategic and policy plans, he chose instead to share his personal experiences of the transformative potential of philanthropy, his belief in the importance of humility to dissolve power differentials, and his insight that philanthropy enables donors to turn money into meaning: ‘otherwise it’s all just zeroes in a bank account’, as he noted.
The first keynote speaker, distinguished Australian broadcaster Stan Grant, riffed on the theme of the conference (‘For the love of humanity: people, place and planet’) to ask whether ‘for all the goodwill we feel in this room, do we really live in a world full of love?’, citing a depressing range of concurrent political, environmental and humanitarian crises. An address from the Ukrainian Ambassador to Australia, Vasyl Myroshnychenko, was a sombre reminder of the need for more, not less, love and care for others – a theme underlined in Rebecca Huntley’s argument that it was care workers who got us through the Covid lockdowns.
The politician Dr Andrew Leigh spoke with charm and erudition about his love for his job – ‘No one has ever wanted to be Minister for Charities more than me’, he told the conference – and his commitment to working with Philanthropy Australia to achieve the shared goal of doubling structured giving by 2030. The Minister emphasised that ‘we are not encouraging philanthropy to do more so that government can do less’ but rather because philanthropy brings people together, enables people to serve others, and promotes self-care, citing research showing that donors are healthier and happier than non-donors.
The positive role and potential of philanthropy was picked up by Prof Kristy Muir, director of principal conference sponsor, the Paul Ramsay Foundation, whose message that, ‘we’re in the business of hope and possibility’ was echoed by Nicola Stokes, General Manager of the AMP Foundation, a fellow principal sponsor, who noted, ‘There is nothing more inspiring than being among like-minded people and organisations’.
For me, the standout session was the opportunity to hear from a leading Australian philanthropic couple, who asked not to be recorded or cited by name, who will have given away 91 per cent of their 10-figure wealth by 2029. Describing their four funding priorities, which includes countering injustices experienced by indigenous people, they thanked ‘our First Nations brothers and sisters who have been so generous’ in helping them understand the needs and solutions, and asked, ‘How could we approach it in any way other than with humility?’. Whilst some speakers in other sessions banged the drum for more metrics, ‘scientific rigour to solve problems’ and vastly increased expenditure on impact assessment to reassure donors, this anonymous philanthropic couple explained that once they find those they want to fund, ‘we will back that team to do what they need to do, and not meddle, because we are not the experts. We let them get on with the job.’ The couple also explained that they are giving it all away now, during their lifetime rather than through a legacy or endowment model, because ‘we trust that those coming after us will do their part.’ Whilst the need for charities to earn trust is a commonplace assertion, the need for philanthropists to be able to trust fellow and future donors is a refreshing addition to debates about what a healthy sector looks like.
After two packed days of speeches, insightful questions, excellent networking and generous hospitality, the conference ended on a high note as Jack Heath reminded the departing delegates: ‘We are all part of something much bigger than ourselves.’