High engagement philanthropy a nursery for social change:

How innovative responses to complex social issues are growing significant positive change in our community

Jennifer Gill, NewzViewz December 2015

Philanthropy has come a long way from its popular image of a wealthy individual reviewing pleas for assistance from worthy community organisations and writing out a cheque to those whose pitch for a grant made the greatest impression. Increasingly philanthropic funders are becoming more focused and consequently are turning away more applicants. We want to see a measureable impact for what we see as an investment into our community. We are now prepared to combine long-term grants with active support to organisations to grow their capability and achieve their goals.

If I look at the journey of the Auckland and Northland community trust, Foundation North, the change over the last quarter century in the way we think about our role as major regional funder and the way we make grants, mirrors international move from passive support for good things happening in our community to active engagement with the critical issues in our community. When the Foundation was established in 1988, following the sale of the first tranche of our community's shares in the Auckland Savings Bank to the Commonwealth Bank of Australias, we followed the tradition of our savings bank predecessors.

Each year, the Foundation was flooded with grant requests from local, regional, and national organisations. What was available for grants was divvied up across nearly all applicants. Grants were generally just for a year, so grantees had no security. They had to come back to us each year and compete again for whatever funds were available for distribution.

A sea change in philanthropy started in New Zealand later in the 1990s. The venture capital model, which saw investors move alongside entrepreneurs to support them with practical expertise to build their capability to compete successfully and achieve commercial success, had obvious applications to the not-for-profit sector. Philanthropists, like venture capitalists, were after 'the next big thing' - but the big things for us were not the next ground-breaking commercial venture. What we wanted was to support a different type of entrepreneur, those individuals and organisations that were exploring for new solutions to complex social problems. High engagement 'venture philanthropy' started to emerge.

Foundation North made a strategic decision that while we would continue our traditional community support funding, our focus would increasingly be on working in partnership with grantees and other funders to achieve projects of greater scale and impact for the communities of Auckland and Northland. One area in which the Foundation decided it wanted to focus was on Maori and Pacific education. We were aware that while the New Zealand education system was excellent by world standards, the achievement of Maori and Pacific students lagged that of their peers. In 2006 our trustees made a decision; they would set aside $20 million to support a small number of projects that would aim to raise Maori and Pacific student achievement. Funding would be provided over a number of years to the selected projects. We would work alongside the leaders of these projects to help them build the capability of their organisation, and we would evaluate and capture learnings as we went along. Our goal was to position these projects, after five years of support, to secure sustainable mainstream funding.

A process of engagement with Maori and Pacific communities began. By 2008, we were ready to call for applications. We had several hundred applications. We narrowed these down to fund just six projects, starting in 2009, and a further three projects in 2010.

Today we are seeing the results. One example is Sylvia Park School's Mutukaroa school and community learning partnership project. This was developed by a principal passionate about empowering parents to support their children's learning. Mutukaroa showed parents how to do this, and how to engage with their children's teachers. Five years on, Mutukaroa has delivered significant improvements in achievement by students in their first three years at school. The research suggests that this will have a significant impact on their achievement right throughout the education system, and a lifelong impact on their earning potential.

The Mutukaroa approach is now being brought into the mainstream by the Ministry of Education, with its introduction into over 100 schools over the last two years. Mutukaroa will make a real difference to the life prospects of thousands of children. This is a significant result for a relatively small philanthropic investment.

Foundation North's Maori and Pacific Education Initiative reinforced for us the potential for philanthropic investment and support to effect real social change. Today, the Foundation has a dedicated funding stream, Catalysts for Change, that seeks to create significant positive changes in our communities by supporting innovative projects and practices. We look at the issues in our region and the organisations which are providing innovative solutions to these issues, and we fund those organisations with multi-year grants. We have also founded the Centre for Social Impact which provides capability building, leadership, programme design, and evaluation support to our Catalysts for Change partners, and the community partners of other philanthropic funders.

What I think is of particular importance in the philanthropic sector's role in supporting innovative responses is that we are free to fund over the long-term, we are able to take calculated risks in areas where there are no easy answers, and we bring a range of experiences and networks from the community sector to over thinking. We are able to fund the social issues explorers and entrepreneurs in a way that would be difficult for a Givernment funder. Our responsibility is to position the successful initiatives we fund to attract sustainable funding and support from Government and other sources as our funding concludes. 

The biggest challenge is getting Government and government agencies to engage with succesful innovation. Our focus now, as we become more confident about the philanthropic sector's ability to identify innovative responses and position them for social impact, is to build recognition of that at a Government level. High engagement philanthropy is the nursery for significant social change. We need central funders to take what we grow and make the most of it.

- Jennifer Gill, CEO of Foundation North

High engagement philanthropy a nursery for social change. - Jennifer Gill



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