Do More Than Give… and do it collectively for greater impact

The first inaugural Collective Impact conference, held in Sydney, saw Emily Tow Jackson from The Tow Foundation, a family fund, deliver a keynote address which she said was one more way she and her family can support a growing trend towards new ways of giving by philanthropists.

Tow Jackson is Executive Director and board president of her family’s foundation and they have together been on a journey to learn how to do more than give and increase the impact of their giving.

This journey has taken them down a path of committing for the long term to the underserved group of court-involved youth – not usually an appealing cause for philanthropists to give to.

The Tow family fund is one of those funds that in Australian terms is very large, annually giving away upwards of $15m. They fund the building of theatres and contribute generously to medical science and to Universities.

But around 15 years ago, when Emily took on the job of working full time in the family fund they went looking for a social issue to support other than the typical arts, health & education portfolios to direct their giving towards.

After much diligent research and deep listening to people in their community they discovered that there was a whole population of young people, often for reasons beyond their control such as family poverty and other disadvantage, who were ending up in juvenile detention facilities, then ‘graduating into the courts and adult prison system’ and this population was growing.

Tow foundationThey found that the cost to the state was around $300,000 p.a. per young person and that the ‘juvenile justice system’ was an incoherent mess. So starting in Connecticut they set about trying to divert young people away from this desolate trajectory their lives were on and change the systems that were taking them there.

After many ups and downs, taking risks that philanthropic trusts don’t usually take and trying new innovative ways of working – in line with the entrepreneurial spirit that enabled their family to generate the wealth they are distributing today – they have really made an enormous impact. This impact has now spread to New York State and has the potential to flow on to Juvenile Justice systems across the USA.

In number terms this is what has been achieved between 2010 and 2012 in New York State;

  • Juvenile arrests dropped by 24%
  • Juveniles admitted to detention declined by 23%
  • Juvenile probation intake cases declined by 20%
  • Juvenile petitions filed declined by 21%
  • Juvenile admissions in state placement were down 28%
  • Number of youth in state custody declined by 45%

This is an amazing story of system transformation in a very short time frame and has been written up into this detailed and impressive case study.

And this is what Emily told us she and her family have learned about ‘how to do more than give”:

  • We fund projects and create collaborative ventures where we see opportunities to have the most impact.
  • We can’t do this work alone
  • That we need to continually seek partners and others to work with toward common goals
  • We need to think outside of funding cycles and program areas
  • We have to fund things that aren’t necessarily grants to organisations (great though they may be) if we are going to help whole communities
  • We need to fund advocates and work with system leaders
  • We need to use our influence to engage the business community
  • We need to use our unique position to facilitate conversation, convene stakeholders and support networks and coalitions in order to advance the reforms that will eventually help lots of people, whole communities and change systems
  • Sometimes this work is not about giving money at all – it’s about, taking initiative, exerting influence, thinking out of the box
  • Holding ourselves accountable as we do to our grantees – we need to get results too
  • We need to be open-minded and adaptable which has been a big culture shift and is very different from a traditional model of philanthropy
  • Move away from our preconceived ideas of what we think the answers are and listen directly to the people who are affected or impacted.  They have to deepest insight and often have no voice.

This story is an amazing tale of how philanthropy working together, with government, non-government and the community can profoundly change a complex system and create large-scale change through a collective impact effort that changes lives.

The result of this work is that thousands of disadvantaged young people who in previous years would have ended up with little hope for any future or opportunity now are being supported to thrive and achieve their hopes and dreams – just like the children who come from privileged backgrounds.

We have learned so much from Emily and her inspiring story and have high hopes that we can duplicate this in Australia in some of our systems that so desperately need reform.

About Kerry Graham and Dawn O'Neil

Social change consultants

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