January 17, 2020

Sarah Davies: Building a better tomorrow

This article is part of For the love of giving - a storytelling series featuring just some of the people who give to, work and volunteer in the Australian for-purpose sector. 

Written by CSI's Rhonda Yanitsas, the article has ben republished here with permission.

I was lucky enough to interview Sarah Davies AM, CEO of Philanthropy Australia and Board Member of the Centre for Social Impact. We talked about her career journey, the blending of her personal and professional lives and her hopes for the philanthropy and for-purpose sectors.

It was such an inspiring and exciting interview, for the most part because of Sarah’s infectious spirit, insights and wisdom.

Read Sarah’s story…

Taking action from an early age

I grew up in an environment where it was just normal to be a participant and be accountable and deliberate for how you behave, because if today's not right you build a better tomorrow.

I remember I was in the junior sports club committee when I was about 12 and there were no social events for those of us who were under 14. When I complained to my dad about it his response was, "Well, what are you going to do about it?”

My dad did national service, was a good sportsman, ended up in a sales role and had a traditional commercial career. It was only ever a part of his life though - family was really important to him, sport and health. He also wanted to be part of a bigger world.

He founded the local rugby club, was involved in community groups and lobbying, and if there was something he thought was wrong he'd have a crack at trying to change it. Not because he was in any way more educated or more informed than anybody else, but because he just genuinely thought that's what you did as a citizen.

As a result I was very involved in community action groups and various volunteering activities because I just knew that of course you can change things - you’ve just got to do it.

Blending worlds

In a way, my start in the for-purpose sector began in my life rather than in my career. It's always evolved and as I've progressed in my career there's just been more positions and different types of engagement in the community, but it has always been people focused. I’ve always asked, "What do people need?"

I started in airport management in a graduate training program, moved into consulting and later spent 15 years in tertiary education, and that's where the alignment of what I was doing personally and professionally really came together. Access to education and quality of opportunity was a chip on my shoulder.

I believe that once you get equality around education you give people the skills to be determinants of their own life, their own family and their own community.

After working in the tertiary sector I moved into the not-for-profit space with an organisation which is now known as the Australian Communities Foundation. Our job was all about matchmaking and helping families, individuals, some corporates and collectives, giving circles and groups of people to connect with and give their money to really great community organisations that were delivering really great change. It gave me a fantastic panoramic view of what was happening in the broad community space.

From there I went to the Reach Foundation which connected to my personal interest in early intervention and equality of opportunity for young people. I spent a lot of time in the youth homelessness, well-being and mental health spaces.

I then came to Philanthropy Australia, which again links to my need for a sense of purpose. Any job I have has got to be worthwhile because I just figure if I'm going to put my energy into things then it's got to be something I care about.

Increasing the reach of philanthropy

In Australia we have the breadth of philanthropic practice that you'd see anywhere in the world. We are as good here as anywhere, and in some instances better, but the thing we don't have is volume of practice.

This is why I think more philanthropy in Australia is really important because you do need a certain amount of volume to give you energy and momentum. It's very difficult if it’s just a handful of people but if there's more momentum behind you, you can push through.

A positive for philanthropy in Australia that has absolutely escalated a bigger philanthropy practice, is that the way people learn and engage has improved. Education has become much easier, collaboration has become much easier, finding your tribe and the people who care about the same things as you is much easier.

Evaluation and conversations around impact, particularly over the past 10 years, has also been really good for us. The more we are tracking and measuring change, the more we've realised we all need to speak the same language. This coming together of a common language, for things like the Sustainable Development Goals, is so powerful because it creates not just a global language but a multi-sector language that the business, corporate, government, philanthropy and community sectors are all using in a similar way.

I also think that people have got a bit braver and there are a number of reasons for that.

First of all, nothing unites like a common enemy. When people unify around either a wicked problem or a particular set of circumstances they want to change, you can be a bit braver together and suddenly that's the focus. We've seen that in the last couple of years which has led to philanthropy really now starting to embrace the whole toolkit, in particular, within policy, advocacy, tackling system change and lifting our eyes up above the horizon to see and have a crack at tackling those big challenges.

The way we've seen that play out in philanthropy is in a number of funders who are now - if they're not already - actively talking about and thinking about multi-year commitments to change. They are moving away from an exclusive focus on funding one-off projects to thinking about and asking, "What is actually needed for the change?" Whether it is capacity, projects, advocacy or something else, it's now not what gets funding it's the ‘why’ that people are thinking about.

Philanthropy can also do all the things that other dollars can't do. It can fail, it can do unpopular stuff, it can do difficult stuff and it can do unproven stuff. It can also do ugly stuff, and that's why it's so important because it's the only lever in the funding mix that's got that freedom.

The important thing in the practice of philanthropy is to make sure it's in the mix in a way that will create the most leverage, the most positive change, and that ideally if the proposition is proven it then opens the gate for other dollars to follow through because on its own it is never going to be able to resource the kind of change we need.

An example of all of these advancements in philanthropy is in the Home Stretch Campaign.

We’ve known for aeons what the results are when young people get into the out-of-home care and foster care systems, and there's a growing body of evidence around the world that says if you can keep young people in the system until they're at least 21 - preferably until they're 23 but at least 21 - we've actually got a much better chance of supporting them to become independent and healthy adults.

It’s not a new proposition, it's not a new evidence base and it's not new work – it is just that nobody has been listening.

As is often the way, a bunch of things happen, serendipity comes together and about a year ago a number of our members here at Philanthropy Australia put some money behind the advocacy of the Home Stretch Campaign, due in part to this change in philanthropy practice and mindset where we are now being braver together.

It's one of those things where sometimes it's not enough to know the answer, you've got to have everything lined up - the environment, the climate and the players. People have also got to have their eyes and ears, heads and minds open - because you can go for years and not get anywhere and suddenly it looks like an overnight success, but it's not. It's one of these things where you've just got to play the long game and philanthropy is a big part of that.

The campaign is going so well and we've now got commitment from many of our states to trial the new cut off age. #makeit21

Reframing the for-purpose sector

Generally speaking there's a sense of the community sector being the ones who pick up the pieces that for whatever reason get left behind. The sector is also seen in some areas as takers - they take government money, they take people's money, they take people's time, and yeah they do good stuff, but they're a bit touchy-feely. And if you're being unkind, they're a drain on the public purse, they're unaccountable and there are too many of them.

I would really like us to start reframing and talking differently about the not-for-profit sector.

The sector employs 10 per cent of Australia's workforce and is an economic powerhouse, responsible for 8 per cent of GDP. It is also larger than a whole bunch of industries that have got dedicated ministers looking after them and working at how they can grow them. I use that word ‘grow’ very deliberately because actually that's where the really hard change happens.

We need to start being really proud of what we do and talking about ourselves in terms of our assets, what we deliver and what we create because that's what we do. We have fantastic, skilled people working in this sector, and they're not doing it for glory or money or fame or anything else, they're doing it because they've got vision and they've got purpose and they know how to create positive change. They are our heroes.

It’s about reframing. We've got to believe this and if we don't see ourselves that way, no one else is going to.

Advice for joining the sector

I often get asked for advice about getting into the for-purpose sector. I’m really happy to talk about it because I think in this sector we tend to have really smart, intelligent, tenacious, strong, brave and resilient people, because by definition the things we're trying to do are hard. If someone wants to learn from those people and contribute, then come on in.

Some of my advice focuses on getting these people to first determine what they can learn to begin with rather than what they can bring to the sector, because if there's a mismatch between what's really needed and what they can bring it's not going to be a good experience for anyone.

My conversations also try to encourage people to think about what matters to them, in terms of the kind of world they want to live in. What do they think is important for the health of society? Is it environment, is it social justice, is it technology, is it access and equity?

There also has to be a driver. If you don't have a sense of vision and purpose about what it is you either want to maintain or create or change or build or make better, then none of your tools are going to work very well because they're not well directed. Hopefully my advice gets them to stop and answer those questions.

Volunteering is also really important because it matters in getting an understanding of the sector. Whatever it is, you've got to get stuck in. Read, engage, volunteer, support and fund, and then you'll learn about building a better tomorrow.

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