Allan English interview - The Thinkery, Philanthropy Squared

19 June 2014

ALLAN ENGLISH in conversation with FRANKIE AIREY

FRANKIE: I’m hearing a lot of new language about the cross over between traditional philanthropy, Social Entrepreneurship and Impact Investing. You do all three, so I’d like to hear from you about what you see as the difference between them and the impacts you’d like to see.

ALLAN: Our foundation works in three areas – one is poverty alleviation, which is largely through microfinance and about 40% goes overseas. Most of the Australian foundations don’t deal overseas – the number that do is quite small given the total number of PAFs out there. Another 40 % is philanthropic giving in South East Queensland.

The other 20% is social innovation, which was really about getting our kids involved. They all had a budget to identify an organisation that’s bringing about innovative thinking and which is benefiting the community. So it gives our children and my wife and me the flexibility to not be constrained by any area – wherever we see innovative thinking that benefits the community – we’ve got funds to identify the project and put forward a paper to the foundation board.

The good thing about this is we get to fund things I personally would never get to do – projects that are not as tangible as others. For instance, my wife supported a Horse Whispering project in Victoria.  After the bush fires in Kinglake, horses that went through the fires were matched up with children and families for a joint healing process. It turned out to be an absolutely lovely project.

Locally I’m doing lots in the social entrepreneurship space, which is inspired by my interaction with Gen Y.  70% of my employees are Gen Y and I find them to be a fabulous generation.  I know there’s a sense of skepticism out there, however they really do have a sense of compassion for the world and this is really powerful when they are aligned with a purpose. For instance, we have a 2020 vision in our company to fund one million people out of poverty.

FRANKIE: Okay, so the three types of funding represent three areas of interest and also three different ways to go about it.  I see some clients trying to get a social enterprise going when what they really want is straight philanthropy to run existing programs - but they’re doing this because they think this is what donors are telling them.

ALLAN:  Yes that’s right.  The external influences on the nonprofit sector are really a moving target at the moment.  We’re clearly seeing governments pulling back funding in the applications that are coming in from local community organisations who were previously supported by government but are now having to enter the philanthropy sector. The only way we’re going to be able to move forward and continue to service those in need is to be innovative about how we do things and look at how we can generate funds for them so they can build in sustainability.   

FRANKIE:  Organisations that get government grants think, operate, report and manage themselves quite differently from those that get their funding from commercial or private support. This is the heart of the world I work in.  Getting organisations that have been funded one way to deconstruct what they’re doing and reconstruct it for another audience is actually one of the hardest things.

ALLAN: Absolutely, it is.  So you need to start right at the top with the board selection process to ensure the strategic decision-making is done for what the organisation truly needs and assess what its gaps and capabilities are.

FRANKIE:  Indeed! And that leads us to my next question for you: what is the role of leadership in establishing the organisational values that create the structure in which you operate?

ALLAN: I’m a strong believer, because I’ve seen it in my business, in the importance of putting together a value structure and being able to provide a moral compass to guide employees when there are decisions to be made at a fork in the road.  I’m really proud that Silver Chef has been one of the top 50 great places to work in Australia for the last 4 years running and we’ve been able to achieve that because there’s strong moral fibre in the decision-making process on a day to day basis.

My focus is on how to execute strategy in a fast moving and fast growing environment. So, what kind of framework do you need to ensure that people clearly understand what they need to do and how to do it?  Most organisations have values in their strategic plan, which get pulled out once a year, dusted and updated and then put back in the filing cabinet.  You need to be able to make a values compass work very deeply in your organisation on a day-to-day basis. 

So, for example, how we do it at Silver Chef is we have a ten-minute standup meeting each day where the leadership team will always nominate a staff member who exemplified the core values yesterday. We have 200 staff, which means there’s a one in seventeen chance that someone’s going to get recognised each day, so it becomes embedded into the culture.

FRANKIE: Coming back to the nonprofit sector and applying this thinking to the organisations you support - you obviously receive a lot of submissions, do you do your own “boundary riding” to identify them?

ALLAN:  Well I’m an entrepreneur so I do a bit of everything. We get a lot of applications coming through via the website, but if I see applications coming in from a particular area where there’s lots of good thinking going on and I can see what impact could be made, then I’ll go to external influencers, key players in the sector, and ask who do you know in the sector who has talent and will be a leader in the next 5-10 years and who is under-funded? By chatting to 3-4 people I’ll often come across one or two names that keep popping up all the time.

FRANKIE:  Okay so let’s talk about The Funding Network. What captured your imagination and prompted you to take on the role of Chair?

ALLAN:  Basically I noticed a series of gaps.  Initially, I was asked by Social Ventures Australia to give a talk about strategy for 17 CEOs who were social entrepreneurs. There were Questions and Answers at the end, and many of the questions were naïve – the CEOs should have already had the knowledge and skills.

Later, I was on the Board of the School of Social Entrepreneurs where I noticed a real gap once projects were up and running.  How do organisations continue to get funding?  Most of them were operating from the ‘friends and relatives’ phase, and it was still too early in the piece to get DGR status.  So when Lisa Cotton approached me about TFN we connected really well in understanding deeply what the needs were for the sector.

FRANKIE:  What are your aspirations for The Funding Network?

ALLAN:  I believe it’s highly innovative and it’s creating a new environment to get greater participation in the giving process. You can see it very clearly in the crowds and the energy that comes out – people love seeing eye-to-eye with the projects and feeling like they’re engaged in the journey rather than just writing a cheque at tax time.  My hope is for TFN to grow significantly, to get greater participation and to educate people about the joys of giving - and how it can be a fun process.

FRANKIE: What advice do you have for TFN organisations about building relationships with their donors?

ALLAN:  Well obviously communication is vital and you need to keep donors engaged and not overload them. But think about not just giving them a passive role but ways to get them to interact with the organisation – open days, for instance, where people can come through and meet the clients and get close to the coal face.  Action-oriented philanthropy is the new way, I believe, to getting donors welded onto your organisation and you can only do that if you really deliver experiences that they can participate in that closely touch their hearts.

FRANKIE: It’s about giving the donor a proper experience.

ALLAN: Yes, and it works powerfully. It certainly results in further donations than what people would usually have given, as it gets them involved at the coal face, and more organisations should be doing it and trying to build the degree of compassion in people’s hearts so that they give more.

FRANKIE: Organisations always say: ‘we’re putting all our resources into doing the doing, how are we meant to find the resources to do this?’  My answer is: how badly do you want the money? Don’t see it as a cost – see it as an opportunity.

ALLAN:  It’s really about a leadership role, because at the end of the day the current framework is that CEOs and leaders are spending 99% of their time in the business, not working on the business. They need to set aside time for planning five years in advance and strategising about how to bring the donors along with them to help achieve their goals.


by Frankie Airey, Director (read the original article on Philanthropy Squared's Tumblr site)