A new wave of philanthropy is funding innovative ways of tackling social problems. KELLEE NOLAN spoke to several groups on the crest of the wave to find out what it’s all about.
Taking risks, asking new questions, putting communities at the centre, collaborating, and catalysing long-term systemic change.
These are just some of the things key Victorian philanthropy groups say the new wave of social innovation is about.
For Ten20 Foundation managing director Seri Renkin, it requires organisations being brave and putting communities’ needs first.
“Social innovation is not new, but this is about the long-term and about changing systems,” Renkin says.
“The questions for organisations are – what are you trying to achieve, is it possible, and how can you organise differently to leverage all the resources across the community to achieve change?”
Social innovation is not new, but this is about the long-term and about changing systems.
Ten20 formed in 2008, when the board of GordonCare, a Melbourne organisation with a 125-year history running homes for neglected and abused children, asked itself just that.
Finding the answer was it wanted to leave a legacy of systemic change, GordonCare ended its service delivery and liquidated its $10 million in assets to form Ten20.
The new foundation gave itself 10 years to catalyse and convene community-led collective impact efforts to reduce the vulnerability of 65,000 children across Australia.
It provides core funding and overarching guidance to “de-risk” the prospect for other funders to get involved in a new approach to preventing childhood vulnerability.
“In systems change work often you need one or two early adopters from a funding point of view to help de-risk it for everybody else, so that’s the role of the catalytic funder, and we’re the catalytic funder,” Renkin says.
“Our board has been prepared to take that risk, because we know that it has to be done.”
The approach led to business, philanthropy, not-for-profits and government all providing further funding for Opportunity Child, an “innovation lab” catalysed and convened by Ten20.
It supports six communities across Australia to improve early childhood outcomes collectively from the ground up, while learning from and scaling up their experiences for systemic reform.
Each community has a funded ‘backbone leader’ coordinating people, resources and programs. Key findings about what works and what doesn’t are channelled through the “lab” for broader policy and systems change.
While each community is different, some key principles are shared by all.
“We were quickly able to see there were some common themes. All the communities needed support around how to build a collective approach, and how to measure it,” Renkin says.
Ten20 also provides a “leadership container” of boundaries and decision-making principles, for learning from mistakes and successes, shared measurement models, project evaluation and accountability for investment.
Data is important, as is ensuring the community is at the centre. It is still early days for measuring community outcomes, but progress so far is positive.
We were quickly able to see there were some common themes. All the communities needed support around how to build a collective approach, and how to measure it.
“We’ve been able to achieve a learning community of people all aligning with a common practice and purpose – a shared outcomes framework, a collective structure and shared governance, and we’ve been able to feed learnings up into federal policy.”
Another Victorian philanthropic group supporting innovative approaches is the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust.
Chief Executive Lin Bender says to be innovative, organisations must be brave, conduct extensive research, collaborate with each other and with communities, reframe failures as learnings, and be prepared for the long haul.
“Innovation needs a lot of strategy. It’s not just a lightbulb moment one has while sitting at one’s desk,” Bender says.
“We need to be brave enough to say old models aren’t working, so what can we do to address those problems, and what can we do to build a fence at the top of the hill, rather than simply park an ambulance at the bottom.”
Innovation needs a lot of strategy. It’s not just a lightbulb moment one has while sitting at one’s desk.
Established in 1951 from a bequest by its namesake, the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust distributes about $4.5 million in grants each year, and funds several innovative projects.
The Epping Community Services Hub, established in 2016 by the Brotherhood of St Laurence in collaboration with the Whittlesea Council, is a 150-desk site accommodating more than a dozen organisations, providing total wraparound services for clients.
“It is a two-generation model aiming to break the cycle of family disadvantage,” Bender says.
“Services and support are coordinated using a central database to share data and methodology. It’s a wonderful model, very exciting.”
There is also the West Justice program, employing a lawyer at The Grange P-12 College in Hoppers Crossing to provide students and their families ready access to legal assistance by informing them of their rights, and providing advice around issues including family violence, fines and energy disconnection.
Almost two years in, Bender says the program is reaping great results, with a very strong rapport between lawyer Vincent Shin and students. She hopes further evaluation might lead to it becoming a model to follow elsewhere.
A third is Project REAL (Reengagement in Education and Learning), a community-led initiative responding to an increase in primary and high school student absenteeism in the Hume region in Melbourne’s north.
Banksia Gardens Community Services, Outer Urban projects and state schools have linked to provide alternative education settings and specialist services to reengage students.
“It’s an extraordinary example of collaboration,” Bender says.
“There’s no way Banksia Gardens or Outer Urban projects could possibly have had the impact they are having without the collaboration of the local schools.”
Bender says philanthropy is in a prime position to drive social innovation because it is more willing to take risks than government.
“We can be more patient and we don’t look at failure as something bad, but as a learning. And it is these learnings that lead to smart, new innovative solutions.”
State Trustees Australia Foundation is another Victorian philanthropic group looking more and more towards funding innovative projects.
Founded in 1994 by Sir Zelman Cowen, STAF distributes about $2.5 million a year from trusts and sub-funds, with a focus on supporting people disadvantaged by ageing, disability and mental health.
It’s about having the ability to make a difference, and not just granting with a narrow focus, but looking at how we can contribute more broadly, across sectors, and in a way that is collaborative and sustainable.
Executive General Manager Melanie Lewis said growth in the last five years led STAF to review how it could maximise its impact through strategic and innovative grant-making.
“It’s about having the ability to make a difference, and not just granting with a narrow focus, but looking at how we can contribute more broadly, across sectors, and in a way that is collaborative and sustainable,” Lewis says.
This has led to a new Elder Abuse Prevention and Response grants program, responding to growing community need and building awareness and prevention. It also led to the Ageing, Disability and Mental Health Collaborative Panel, formed in 2014.
Leading groups across several sectors have joined forces to prepare for government reforms, share experiences and collaborate.
“The panel is making sure the voice of clients from the different sectors is represented across all these industries, because they all consistently have very similar needs,” Lewis says.
“You’re bringing together all their expertise and their client mix and processes… so it’s sharing resourcing as well.”
Lewis says the panel’s success illustrates how innovative grant-making can bring about systemic change.
“We’re seeing better outcomes, seeing how people look at issues more broadly, not only fixing problems, but also making sure projects are sustainable in the long-term.”
For all these philanthropic groups, supporting social innovation is an important way to bring about social change. But it cannot be done without risk, without trial and error, without the community leading it, without collaboration, or in a short time.
They urge other philanthropic and community groups to ask themselves those questions around how to best work with communities, disrupt the status quo and catalyse change.
“There’s a really important role for catalytic philanthropy, and then there’s a really important role for other types of funders to come in and work with catalytic philanthropy, to build these social innovations that are focused on systems change and longer term change,” Renkin says.
“This is systems change, that’s the difference.”
Kellee Nolan is Insight Editor