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Community Profile: Philanthropy Sector Leader, Genevieve Timmons

Philanthropy Australia’s recent conference theme Future Ready inspired me to tease out the issue with long-standing sector leader and author of Savvy Giving, Genevieve Timmons. (Many thanks to Pro Bono News for first publishing this piece on 8 November 2016)

The recent Philanthropy Australia conference concluded that philanthropy was not future ready. In what ways do you believe that the trusts and foundations arm of the philanthropic community is or is not future ready?

It’s important for grantmakers to remain curious and willing to learn, while also making sure we stick to what we know works in our relationships and negotiations with not for profits. We can tend to overestimate the influence we have, when our dollars are a very small part of the overall spend with not for profits. Also, when it comes to innovation and generating new ideas, we have to be careful not to behave like Keystone Cops, running around after new and good ideas when the work is essentially to remain open and respectful of the people who will bring our money to life. Building on the acumen of people who work in not for profits, backing their vision and investing in their commitment is the most direct track to effective philanthropy. 

Cultural respect for Aboriginal Australia, engagement of women and gender issues, more efficient and effective processes based on trust and mutual commitment are all needed if we are to optimise the value of every philanthropic dollar and reduce the cost on not for profits of chasing philanthropic dollars.

What are the changes that you see on the horizon for trusts and foundations that will have an influence and impact across the wider sector?

I can see more people committed to building respectful relationships with Aboriginal Australian leaders, who are capably leading their own advancement. With deeper listening and more respectful recognition of the voices and ideas of Aboriginal people, philanthropy and our society generally will thrive. 

We need to understand more about our country, its history and the cultures which have brought us to where we are today. Our future depends on learning from and being open to Aboriginal Australians, because it is the right thing to do and because we will miss out on the immeasurable value of this ancient culture if we don’t.

Also, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission is a fantastic initiative which will offer all involved a strong and sustained maturity if we engage with it appropriately. Data gathering is also set to expand and drive the development of analysis and planning for the future.

If you could wish for three things that the for-purpose / charitable sector could initiate or instigate more of, what would they be?

That we understand what has been working and what has been achieved by our not-for-profit sector over many years, and make sure we celebrate and protect this reputation.

We need to reject the attitudes that can be critical of not for profits, and call out the accusations and red herrings about administrative overheads, or suspicion about what charities are up to. Obviously we need to take action where it is appropriate, but suspicion and criticism is a disgraceful way to treat the many individuals who often deliberately step away from well-paid jobs to work diligently for the common good. 

They have often achieved remarkable things with much less money than business and government, and are there when the chips are down – after the natural disasters, after the financial crisis which was not the fault of any not-for-profit organisation.

What are three things that you wish the wider for-purpose organisation landscape could understand better when it comes to dealing with philanthropic trusts / foundations?

People are more open to being challenged about how they give their money away than they have been in the past. There is a growing interest in how to establish a more level playing field in the transaction for philanthropic dollars, although I know there is still a long way to go to address the power imbalance between the people who have the money and the people who can bring it to life. Often there is a negotiated improvement when grantseekers speak up on how funding relationships can be improved, and grantmakers are more willing to adapt and change practice when they are clear on how this can be done.

Naming the elephant in the room by telling grantmakers that they are not doing a good job is unlikely to be welcomed, as in any field. A friend of mine says people don’t want to be told they have an ugly face. Challenges to improve philanthropic grantmaking need to be accompanied with practical suggestions on how to do things better, and recognition that many people involved in grantmaking work hard, have limited resources like many not for profits and would do more if they had the time. There are some good examples of effective contemporary practice to save time and improve outcomes.

Mistrust is expensive and distance reduces effectiveness in a funding relationship. The more closely grantmakers and grantseekers can work together, the more likely they can share calculated risks and mutual commitment to a strong outcome. There is also more learning and adaptability for a better outcome on both sides if trust, respect and shared processes are part of the philanthropic transaction.

Finally, with your hat on as executive officer of the Portland House Foundation, what is the most challenging part of a philanthropic trust / foundation EO role, that few would realise unless they had done the job?

Being the go-between – the one who works between the two influential groups in the philanthropic transaction – advocating to not-for-profit organisations on behalf of the board or key decision makers who have the final say, and advocating to the board or key decision makers on behalf of the not for profits who bring the money to life.

Also finding enough time to devote to relationships where we can learn and apply new approaches, while bringing our boards and decision makers along with us. This all takes a huge amount of time that often is not appreciated because no one but us sees the full picture.

The Xfactor Collective is a community of pre-vetted specialist consultants who help social change makers achieve their social mission. We have a diverse range of specialists across 300+ areas of specialisation, and this article was written by our Specialist Consultant Julia Keady. To find out more about working with Julia, or how the Collective can help you, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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