Effective Philanthropy In The Spotlight - ProBono News

6 April 2017

Philanthropy is in a “pretty good state in Australia”, according to documentary filmmaker Ian Darling who was named the leading philanthropist at the 2017 Philanthropy Australia Awards.

The awards, held in Melbourne on Wednesday night, celebrated innovative partnerships between grantmakers and not for profits, highlighting significant achievements of projects that helped solve complex societal issues.

In total, six of Australia’s most strategic funders were recognised for the impact of their giving.

Philanthropy Australia CEO Sarah Davis said the awards provided an important opportunity to recognise the “unique accomplishments” of those who were working to create “lasting and positive change”, both in Australia and abroad.

“Although Australian philanthropic organisations stand at the forefront of innovation, their important work is often done behind the scenes,” Davis said.

“The awards showcase the many impressive examples of great leadership in philanthropic giving.

“The awards attracted a strong field across all categories, and our warm congratulations go to all the nominees, finalists and winners.”

This year’s winners, selected for their “visionary, high impact and transformative philanthropy” were:

Darling, who is the executive director of Shark Island Productions and the not-for-profit Shark Island Institute, as well as chair of The Caledonia Foundation and chair and moderator of Good Pitch² Australia, told Pro Bono News it was “humbling” to be acknowledged.

“There are so many people who are doing incredible things so it is very humbling when I see that I am named philanthropist of the year,” Darling said.

“It’s a great honour. I’m not sure if I’m the most deserving one for it, but I am very grateful for it.”

Darling said he was unsure whether he considered himself a “philanthropist”.

“It’s a title that I guess can come with a lot of baggage but also I guess one has to accept the title,” he said.

“Initially I think I assumed that a philanthropist was someone in their eighties or nineties who was giving at the end of their life but I think in the last 15 years I’ve seen that that’s not the case and that it is never too early or late to start as a philanthropist.

“So I think whilst I am now a full time documentary filmmaker, everything that I do with my filmmaking hat on has a philanthropic angle to it and every film is trying to shift some aspect of the community. We always try to attach an outreach and education program to it, so I guess just the very base nature of what I’m doing is quite a philanthropic endeavour.

“And then I guess I have a lot of other philanthropic activities outside of filmmaking, so whether I am a philanthropist I’m not sure but I am heavily engaged with many philanthropic activities.”

He said the role of philanthropy on today’s society was to “innovate and enhance and provide support where government either fears to tread or isn’t providing adequate support”.

“I think the role is to show even greater leadership of the need for philanthropic and government support in so many areas where it is still being neglected,” he said.

“I think over the last 15 years or so, when the government made it so much easier to set up your own foundation, that has lead to a massive shift at that level and I think so many people are setting up their own foundations and I think with the success of a number of community foundations, even with more modest sums, there is a lot of proactive activity.

“And I think there is a lot of good work being done at the next gen level, with the kids of philanthropists or just kids who have just left school and are doing stuff off their own bat, I think there’s a much healthier attitude than there has been in generations previously and it is right across the board.

“I’m excited by what I’m seeing.”

Darling, who is also the founder and patron of the Documentary Australia Foundation, said philanthropy and documentary went together.

“When I came back from being overseas for a year in 2005 and I had seen a lot of work that the philanthropic community were doing with documentary especially in the US and I saw that it was virtually non-existent in Australia, and I think that was one of the motivations for setting up the Documentary Australia Foundation,” he said,

“To create a vehicle that not only had charitable status but to educate the market on why documentary should be a part of everyone’s gift giving strategy and why it is in fact an extension of so many of the existing strategies.

“It is not supporting documentary for documentary sake, although it is great to think that people would support that as an art form in its own right, but using it as an effective tool to increase the effectiveness of their gift giving in whatever area that they happen to be giving to.

“So in the instance we created our own documentary around youth homelessness and there was a lot of philanthropic support in that area by groups who were already working in the space, but actually saw that raising awareness of the plight of the homeless and trying to create a more strategic approach to the situation was something that was embraced.

“It needed an Australian example like this but also a vehicle like the Documentary Australia Foundation to really educate the philanthropic community, the not-for-profit community and the filmmakers, so it was a good first step in starting to increase the acceptance of documentary and philanthropy working together.”

Darling’s homeless film project The Oasis was named one of Australia’s Top 50 Philanthropic Gifts of All Time.

But he said he didn’t set out for it to be a philanthropic project, rather he decided to make the documentary after working at the Oasis Youth Support Network and seeing the “enormity of the problem and how much it was off the agenda”.

“So initially the intent was to create a really confronting film that took the plight of the homeless to as many living rooms as possible but soon after we started filming, and it reinforced how great the problem was, we thought we would take a more strategic approach,” he said.

“[We] commissioned a national youth commission into homelessness, which was one of the first major reports for 20 years and that was where it really started to click on the importance of being strategic, not only with the film but with what we were doing with it.

“And so whilst it soon became sort of a strategy, it wasn’t initially part of it.

“But by the time we released it, we realised we had something quite powerful. Not only with the film but this major report which we presented to the government and the findings from an Australia wide youth commission, and this provided the momentum for the government of the day to then produce a green paper and white paper on homelessness, which gave the sector enormous confidence and heart that something was actually going to be done about homelessness.”

He said it was frustrating that while there had been “good inroads” made, nine years on the problem was “only getting worse”.

“When we set out on this homeless journey we actually said we’ve got to apply a 20 year approach to it and so we’re almost halfway there,” he said.

“Next year we’re hoping to release another two films around the issue and more evidence based research and really try and work with the philanthropic community and the whole sector again to try and get even greater visibility on the enormity of this growing problem.”

He said his ultimate goal through his work was to continue to support documentary and encourage effective philanthropy.

“I think when I become aware of a problem or situation, I find it hard at times not to try and do something about it,” he said.

“But I think ultimately I have found that working with documentary and getting the philanthropic community to collaborate around that and then getting the not-for-profit sector to also be a part of that, and work in an engaged and collaborative way, I think that is a great formula for effective philanthropy.

“So I guess I want to keep working in this space with supporting documentary whether it is my own or other peoples, to help solve some of these really important issues that continue to go from bad to worse in Australia.

“I think the power of documentary is that it can really humanise a very complex issue and it puts a face to homelessness or domestic violence or racism or intolerance or whatever it may be so I guess my ultimate goal is just to keep working with documentary and keep supporting the sector to increase the effectiveness of gift giving and outcomes along the way.

“Because in order to solve many of these problems you actually need scale and it is very, very difficult to do it if we are all working in silos. You do need to collaborate with the not-for-profit sector as well and I think talking about the importance of that and being very, very strategic on the way, because funds are scarce and we need to do a lot more with what we’ve got. And I think this strategic collaborative approach, using storytelling that humanises the subjects in the issue, is a very potent formula for philanthropy.”

Read the full article in ProBono News here.