This year’s sold-out SmartyGrants Grantmaking Intelligence Conference continued to build on the annual event’s reputation for connecting, educating and inspiring Australia’s grants professionals.
The hundreds of delegates – in Melbourne and online – were hungry for better ways to do the work that’s in the spotlight more than ever, in the wake of pork barrelling scandals and public demands for better processes.
And the front-line grantmakers weren’t let down. The stellar cast of speakers was well supported by a highly engaged crowd of self-confessed “grant nerds” throughout the two-day agenda. The audience, meanwhile, were as quick with their questions for others as they were prepared to share their own triumphs and failures.
Representing philanthropy, foundations, corporate funders, and every level of government, delegates were the first in Australia to hear:
- details of a groundbreaking study aimed at stamping out unethical grants
- how Tassie grantmakers were able to spend millions fast in response to covid-19
- who was doing best in the emerging field of outcomes measurement, and why
- how organisations were using big data to power smart decisions
- the most effective methods of involving culturally diverse groups, including First Nations peoples, in grants decision-making and climate action
- best practice methods being pioneered in South Australia
- the newest tools being developed by SmartyGrants data scientists and software developers.
Delegates tackle tough issues at unique gathering
With more than $80 billion in grants being distributed each year in Australia, it’s no surprise the country’s grantmaking professionals lapped up a rare opportunity to mix with their colleagues.
Nicole Schellback, a senior community grants officer at Moreton Bay Regional Council in Queensland and one of this year’s speakers, summed up the feeling.
“It’s a rare and tremendous opportunity to talk about our shared experiences. You just can't put a price on what you learn, and you know these skills and expertise and improvements you'll take back to the programs you're running in your organisations.”
Our Community executive director Kathy Richardson, who opened the event, said it was refreshing to see so many grantmakers in person, while the conference still created a virtual space where hundreds more could engage from around the country.
Ms Richardson stressed the event’s main aim was to create the chance to learn for delegates.
But she said SmartyGrants would also draw on the “knowledge and insights” generated at the event to improve its grants management platform.
Delegates won’t forget:
- Danielle Wood, Grattan Institute CEO, revealing details of the Institute’s battle against grants pork barrelling, involving the erosion of ethics, accountability and transparency, with delegates the first to hear details from its groundbreaking report New politics: Preventing pork-barrelling, and its recommendations for change
- Ms Richardson leading a top-flight panel of representatives from Moreton Bay Regional Council (Nicole Schellback), State Growth Tasmania (Adrian Gordon) and Volunteering Victoria (Scott Miller), discussing the risks and rewards of “quick fire” grants. There were gasps in the audience as State Growth’s Adrian Gordon described the moment his department was told it would need to roll out a pandemic response package with three days’ notice. It delivered, with the help of automation and the careful allocation of resources. Volunteering Victoria’s outgoing chief Scott Miller also prompted a few sharp intakes of breath as he gave a no-holds barred summary of the strengths and weaknesses of a federated organisation in managing a national grants rollout
- SmartyGrants chief impact officer Jen Riley revealing how grantmakers can deliver on outcomes, with practical insights from Jeremy Motbey of the Ecstra Foundation and Lucy Brotherton from the City of Parramatta
- The data science team from the SmartyGrants Innovation Lab, led by the chief technology officer Sarah Barker, along with Nathan Mifsud and Paola Oliva-Altamirano, showing how good data helps funders work smarter
- Playful Thinking facilitator Daniel Teitelbaum leading delegates in lively debates about what they’d learnt and could apply from the conference.
Musters help stretch grant specialists
Day two sessions saw grantmakers grouped by subsector, with interactive “musters” bringing them together to learn, question and collaborate. SmartyGrants strategic advisor Fiona Dempster tackled the state and federal sphere, hosting discussions by:
- Rob Palmer and Meg Simonsson from the Australian Sports Commission, who explained how they deployed Microsoft Power BI to crunch their data, and the challenges and complexitities of bringing the country’s top sports agency along for the ride. Ms Simonsson said the key question to ask before beginning a project was “What do you want to be able to report on at the end of this?”.
- Adam Coles, who led an eye-opening discussion about the way Queensland’s Indigenous Land and Sea Ranger program had generated greater Indigenous involvement in the quest to better understand and act on climate change. He told delegates his program had learnt to “trust original knowledge” to better care for country using a “climate lens”. As he put it: “Listen, listen, talk, listen.”
- Jo Mason from Aboriginal Affairs NSW and the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet, who revealed that the pandemic had taught those organisations to work better with Indigenous groups by ensuring funding was flexible, place-based and Indigenous led. She said the first step was “recognising the diversity of the population that we're working with” and understanding the impact of unconscious bias. She said the Australian community was increasing in diversity, and, “As grantmakers we have to adapt to meet that changing circumstance.”
Fellow SmartyGrants strategic advisor Barry Smith hosted the local government muster, consisting of discussions with:
- Monique O’Keeffee, grants officer with the City of Greater Dandenong, who told fellow local grantmakers that the council had been able to give community grants a big impact boost by doing better with collecting data, understanding impact and revamping reports.
- Josh Presser, SmartyGrants special projects director and a former federal grants specialist, along with Moreland City Council’s Chrystal Tallent, Nillumbik Shire’s Kirstie McKenzie and City of Hobart’s Toban Harris. The group examined the importance and development of inclusion and equity in grants.
- City of Holdfast Bay’s Sue Dugan, who decribed the council’s best-practice grantmaking guide for SA councils and how it’s helped with assessment, benchmarking and improvement.
Ms Dempster, who has been attending the conference since its 2006 inception, said the key themes that emerged over the two days would continue to test grantmakers. These included:
- the importance of maintaining trust between stakeholders
- the power of partnerships to create the impact funders want
- the importance of grantmakers listening carefully and adjusting to diverse communities
- the continuing challenge of navigating tricky political and organisational structures
- the effect of global issues such as covid-19 and climate change on grantmaking
- doing better to draw out “the story” expressed in applications, data and reports.
“The value of this event is almost incalculable, but I’m re-energised every year when I see what it means to be among your peers,” she said.