‘Running on the hum of a Tesla battery’

February 15, 2018

As someone who is involved in running a very small organisation like Philanthropy New Zealand I’ve been thinking lately about the challenges of delivering an organisation’s mission with very limited resources—the economies of scale are unavailable.

We talk a lot about the number of charities in New Zealand and whether that’s efficient. There are a huge number of organisations—many supported by philanthropy—with no, or only a handful of, paid workers, ‘running on the smell of an oily rag’*. We also have multiple organisations working on the same issue—often in the same region. However, I believe that the number, size and even possible duplication of for-purpose organisations is not the main challenge. There is a positive side to the extent of our sector: it’s a sign of community health, local response to local needs, and volunteer passion. And it’s a contributor to the diversity we need for strong communities. The alternative—a small number of mega-charities—does not appeal.

So, while the challenge may not be too many for-purpose organisations, there might be too many photocopiers! It’s positive that many are starting to utilise shared service and hub models to improve sustainability. In addition, I’d suggest it’s worth thinking beyond sharing premises and the photocopier. Sharing administration, ICT, finance, payroll, policy, communication, research, procurement could all be on our agenda.

Another answer to these challenges is collaboration and coalition building. It might be OK for there to be numerous responses to poverty at work in your community, but they’ll work best when talking to each other.

All of this points to some of the challenges we face as grantmakers, particularly the need to go beyond just funding projects to supporting organisational health and development and to create the relationships needed to genuinely work side-by-side.

We’ve some good examples from philanthropy and grantmakers in Aotearoa New Zealand. The Centre for Social Impact supporting the capability of Foundation North’s grant recipients for example, or the Working Together More fund (supported by Hugh Green Foundation, The Tindall Foundation, Todd Foundation, D V Bryant Trust, J R McKenzie Trust and until recently Wayne Francis Charitable Trust).

Beyond these initiatives is the need for a greater willingness for grantmakers to make unrestricted grants to trusted organisations, and—if you’re not quite ready for that leap of faith, at the very least making sure that we are covering the full ‘back office’ costs of projects.

I’d love to hear other ways you are supporting the health and sustainability of the for-purpose sector. How are you going beyond the project by project grant approach? Email me, tony@philanthropy.org.nz

*as an aside I think we need a new version of this metaphor as we act on the critical need for a low carbon sustainable energy future, perhaps ‘running on the hum of a Tesla battery’?

-Tony Paine, CE Philanthropy New Zealand