Australian charities – should they merge? Let’s get real

November 29, 2015

Earlier this month, the Community Council of Australia (CCA) Chief Executive David Crosbie said that with an estimated 600,000 not-for-profit organisations and almost 60,000 registered charities, there was a real duplication of work, as well as having to compete harder for fundraising and government contracts.

The answer, according to Crosbie:  cut the number and create efficiencies, especially federated charities, where “charitable cash is being wasted on duplicated management roles, infrastructure and back office systems.”

This statement stimulated lots of media discussion here in Australia.  There’s a lot in this statement, but it’s important to set aside some misleading figures.  First, a very large proportion of the 600,000 not-for-profits mentioned above are very small, community-based sporting clubs, without any ability to make donations tax deductible and only undertaking very minor fundraising (cake sales, sausage sizzles and the like).  In my northern Sydney suburb, I can easily count about ten different sporting clubs, and I haven’t even tried to search for them.  Nobody should be suggesting that somehow they would be more efficient to merge; it would create enormous governance problems:  does the netball club and the Aussie Rules footy club really want to become the same organisation?  No, they don’t.

Second, of the 60,000 “charities” – and I am not a fan of that word, as a very large proportion do not, actually request “charity” from individuals – there are only just under 17,500 organisations that hold full Australian organisational “deductible gift recipient” (DGR) status, and another 11,000 that are part of a larger institution that does not have DGR status, but they have a special DGR fund.  A good example of the latter category is the “library fund” of local primary schools:  while the school is not tax-deductible, donations to the library fund are.  Schools use this tax deductibility to allow/encourage (and sometimes require) parents to make donations to the school that their children attend.  From my experience, very few, if any, of these 11,000 special DGR funds actually engage in “fundraising”, and operate more as passive vehicles for accepting tax deductible donations.

That leaves the final 17,500 full DGR organisations.  But how many of them actually undertake active fundraising?  Have a look at the list – as well as the other DGR list – on this page of the Australian Government’s Australian Business Register.  You will find them all in a simple 5.5MB text file, easy to download and read.  I have not analysed all of these organisations, but from a skim through them, I suspect that only a small minority actively campaign for funds.  How many?  Let’s say about 5,000.  Still a large number, but no where near the “scary” figure of 600,000 organisations all wasting our money competing with each other, or even 60,000 charities (by the way, where did the CCA obtain the 60,000 figure?).

Criticisms of not-for-profit fundraising are fine (and parts of the sector certainly could be more efficient), but not when the criticisms exaggerate the numbers involved.

Social and Digital Inclusion

November 29, 2015

I’m a bit late on this one, but last week (21-29 November 2015) was “Social Inclusion Week” here in Australia.

To mark the week, the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) published a short piece on 23 November 2015 entitled “Why digital inclusion matters”.  Key points from that article:

  • Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that “in 2012–13, 98 per cent of households with a household income of $120,000 or more had internet access, compared to only 57 per cent of households with a household income of less than $40,000, suggesting an ‘affordability divide’ when it comes to broadband.”
  • “Lack of digital literacy is an increasingly significant issue as more government services move online as part of the Federal Government’s Digital First Strategy which will require all services and public interactions to be available online by 2017.”  ACCAN’s concern is that “a lack of digital literacy will affect some consumers’ ability to access essential Government services”, particularly because of our continuing need to update our “digital capability to stay in touch and [be] included due to updates to technology and changing applications”.

Click here to see my recent articles on digital inclusion, including my paper on that topic that I presented to the Communications Policy and Research Forum in Sydney in November 2011.

The Forward’s ‘Top 50’ Jews in American Life

November 29, 2015

Here’s further proof that Australia and the USA – despite being linked by the English language and a long and deep friendship – are worlds apart in social, political and artistic cultures. “The Forward” – possibly the oldest and still the best Jewish newspaper in the USA (originally published in Yiddish as “The Jewish Daily Forward”, and read religiously by my grandfather Sol) back in the 1930s – has just published its list of the 50 Jews in the USA making the most impact in 2015.

The article is entitled “Loud, Proud, And at The Heart of America”. Author Jane Eisner points out that, “This is a year when American Jews are deeply, loudly and passionately embedded in some of the most pressing political and social issues in the nation.” Jews seem to be everywhere on the cultural cutting edge, “from the debate over a nuclear deal with Iran, to the emergence of transgender identity in synagogues and on screen, to the groundbreaking acceptance of marriage equality.”

Politics: Presidential wanna-be (Vermont Senator) Bernie Sanders, as well as New York Senator Chuck Schumer (uncle of Amy, more on her later) and Congressman Jerry Nadler (New York City – whose district we lived in during our 2011 residence).

Culture: TV show “Transparent” director Jill Soloway and actor Jeffrey Tambor. And number one on the list: actress and comedienne Amy Schumer (“Trainwreck”, and one of “Time” magazine’s “top 100”).

And so the list goes. Fascinating, yes.

But from the perspective of Jews who live outside of the USA, how many of them are “household names” here in Australia (or anywhere else outside of North America), even in the Jewish community? Remarkably, astonishingly, few. Check out the list yourself. Of the 50 (see the complete list below), I only count 12 that I can name with assurance – AND I think I am tied in to US culture and politics.

The ones I recognise are Amy Schumer, Bernie Sanders, Michael Dell (computers), Sheldon Adelson (casino magnate, Jewish philanthropist and conservative activist), Ben Lerner (post-modern novelist), Jill Soloway, Jeffrey Tambour, Jon Stewart (TV host), Sarah Koenig (NPR’s “Serial” podcast), Jerrold Nadler, Charles Schumer and Dianne Feinstein (California Senator).

Top 5
• Amy Schumer
• Marina Rustow
• Bernie Sanders
• Mendy Reiner
• Evan Wolfson

• Shoshana Roberts
• Nicholas Lowinger
• Emma Sulkowitcz
• Alan Gross
• Ruth Messinger
• Ruby Sklar (and Rachel)

• Michael Dell
• Paul Singer
• Justin Hartfield

• Eli Broad
• Haim Saban
• Tom Sosnik
• Sheldon Adelson
• Alisa Doctoroff

• Jill Soloway
• Hari Nef
• Billy Eichner
• Shulem Deen
• Nicole Eisenman
• Ben Lerner
• Jeffrey Tambor
• Zalmen Mlotek
• Carolyn Hessel
• Jon Stewart
• Ike Barinholtz
• Sarah Koenig

• Alon Shaya
• Yehuda Sichel
• Leah Koenig

• Lori Adelman
• Sarah Maslin Nir

• Jerrold Nadler
• Charles Schumer
• Ann Lewis
• Dianne Feinstein
• Wendy Sherman
• Leon Rodriguez

• Bethany Mandel
• Deborah Waxman
• Capers Funnye
• Naftuli Moster

• Evelyn Witkin
• Gary Cohen
• Tom Frieden

• Dustin Fleischer

(Amy Schumer’s image from the article appears below.)

Amy Schumer image The Forward

Nostra Aetate 50th Anniversary Celebrations in Sydney

November 5, 2015

For the Jewish community, there are few post World War II events more significant than the 1965 Nostra Aetate, the Vatican’s declaration on the relation of the Catholic Church to non-Christian religions.  (The phrase is Latin, and in English simply means “In our time”.)

As the Australian Catholic Church’s official website notes, the:

Document transformed the Church’s attitude towards believers from other religions.  For the first time in history, the Church spoke positively about other religions. The Declaration is widely considered a “watershed” in the relations between Catholics and believers from other religions. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have called it the Magna Carta of the Church’s new attitude and approach to other religions. It continues to inspire and to guide Catholics in forging relationships of mutual respect and collaboration.

Last Wednesday, 28 October 2015, I attended the Sydney evening celebration of this event at Sydney’s Great Synagogue, with the keynote speakers Rabbi Dr Ben Elton (Chief Minister of the Synagogue) and The Most Reverend Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, moderated by Professor Greg Craven, Vice Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University.

One item of note that the press coverage of the event has not picked up on was Professor Craven’s announcement that the Australian Catholic University was planning to establish a Professorial Chair of Jewish-Christian relations.  To my knowledge, this would be a first in Australia, although the model is well-established in the USA, where it has proved to be very valuable at times of communal religious stress.  When the film “The Passion of the Christ” (Mel Gibson, 2004 – and the subject of my PhD thesis) was released, the attendant controversies caused widespread fractures between the Jewish community and certain parts of the Christian communities in the USA, especially the Catholic Church.  A number of the university-based centres for Jewish-Christian relations around the country (such as at Boston College, a Catholic university) provided excellent counterbalances at the time.

The Sydney 50th anniversary event was hosted by the Australian Catholic University, the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and the Sydney Jewish Museum.  Three images below:

(The event’s flyer)

Nostra Aetate event Sydney flyerThe official 50th anniversary document, with Jeremy Spinak (NSW Jewish Board of Deputies), Peter Wertheim (Executive Council of Australian Jewry), Archbishop Fisher and Rabbi Dr Elton:

Nostra Aetate photo2

Archbishop Fisher, Rabbi Dr Elton and other attendees:

Nostra Aetate photo1(The two photos were taken by Giovanni Portelli, Catholic Communications, Archdiocese of Sydney, and were sourced from the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies website page about the event.)

Funding models for non-profit organisations

November 5, 2015

Early in to my eight and a half year tenure as CEO of the non-profit Rural Health Education Foundation, I realised that I had one primary responsibility – to ensure financial health and sustainability for the organisation. Everything else was secondary.

With financial health, I could hire and keep good staff, and they – bless them – could get on with their work, without fear of budget cuts, or worse – losing their jobs. It also meant that we would have the money for the necessary publicity, promotion, marketing, branding and – most importantly (and all too often ignored) – investing in corporate governance, with a high quality and informed Board of Directors that focussed on strategy, an up-to-date constitution, a CFO (in our case, a great Operations Manager), a good auditor, a good lawyer and impressed partners and other stakeholders.

When I arrived, I inherited a simple funding model that had lasted for some years: the majority of the funds came from the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing (as it was then called) – some 80%. We also received some money – including important institutional support – from the pharmaceutical sector through unrestricted educational grants, particularly through the foresight and commitment of Merck Sharpe and Dohme Australia (now MSD Australia), which had originally set up the Foundation.

But as good – and as benevolent – as the Department and Merck were, it was not a long term financial strategy, leaving the organisation at risk of relying on only a couple of sources. So we worked hard over many years to develop a new strategy, one that included a diverse range of sources, few of them dependent on each other. These included other national and state professional and peak health and medical organisations, state and territory departments of health, other pharmaceutical companies, foundations and trusts, program sales (we actively sold our DVDs, supplying up to 10% of our income at times) and even license fees when we started to broadcast our educational television programs on SBS TV and National Indigenous Television (NITV, then separate from SBS). We even had plans to commence seeking individual donations (the “Deductible Gift Recipient” status here in Australia is essential for any non-profit).

While we were unable to engage other Commonwealth Government departments, we worked hard to broaden our sources within that Department, ultimately creating funding sources from four branches and some seven different sections. (There’s an interesting guideline here: try to diversify within your funding sources, engaging different sections of a large organisation. It may not guarantee long-term sustainability with that funder, but it certainly can help.)

These thoughts came back to me as I read a valuable article in the Stanford Innovation Review (Spring 2009), entitled “Ten Nonprofit Funding Models”, by William Landes Foster, Peter Kim, & Barbara Christiansen. Although their perspective is American (and thus needs some careful interpretation for an Australian context), their clear writing and analysis is essential reading for any Australian non-profit senior executive, financial strategist or board member.

One of the best insights from this article is that in the non-profit space, “beneficiaries are not customers”. They summarise it thus:

One reason why the nonprofit sector has not developed its own lexicon of funding models is that running a nonprofit is generally more complicated than running a comparable size for-profit business. When a for-profit business finds a way to create value for a customer, it has generally found its source of revenue; the customer pays for the value. With rare exceptions, that is not true in the nonprofit sector. When a nonprofit finds a way to create value for a beneficiary (for example, integrating a prisoner back into society or saving an endangered species), it has not identified its economic engine. That is a separate step.

Clara Miller, CEO of the Nonprofit Finance Fund … talks about all nonprofits being in two “businesses” — one related to their program activities and the other related to raising charitable “subsidies.”

As a result of this distinction between beneficiary and funder, the critical aspects (and accompanying vocabulary) of nonprofit funding models need to be understood separately from those of the for-profit world. It is also why we use the term funding model rather than business model to describe the framework. A business model incorporates choices about the cost structure and value proposition to the beneficiary. A funding model, however, focuses only on the funding, not on the programs and services offered to the beneficiary.

Their ten funding models:
1. “Heartfelt Connector” – donors and volunteers.
2. “Beneficiary Builder” – donations from people who have been helped in the past (i.e., hospitals and universities).
3. “Member Motivator” – the issue is integral to the members’ lives or beliefs, such as religion, environment, arts and culture.
4. “Big Bettor” – relying on major grants from a few individuals or foundations.
5. “Public Provider” – provide essential social services, reimbursed by or paid for by governments.
6. “Policy Innovator” – creating innovative ways to tackle problems (i.e., homelessness) and thus obtain government grants – and presumably foundation funding as well.
7. “Beneficiary Broker” – providing government services with a fee charged to government.
8. “Resource Recycler” – obtaining in-kind donations and providing them to people in need (a classic Australian example is “Oz Harvest” and food).
9. “Market Maker” – usually in health or the environment, straddling altruistic donors and market forces.
10. “Local Nationalizer” (American spelling used to maintain consistency) – consolidating a large number of local, issue-based community activities with limited funding into a national representative organisation. We sometimes do this in Australia through the state and territory organisations.


I am indebted to my former Matrix on Board colleague Nonie Wales – now at Accounting for Good – for linking to the Stanford article, in her recent (28 October 2015) article “Identifying Revenue Streams for Your Organisation”.

Mistress American film review

November 5, 2015

(This film review of “Mistress America” appeared in a shorter form in the Australian Jewish News on 5 November 2015.)

Directed by Noah Baumbach
Written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig
Starring Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Heather Lind and Cindy Cheung

When the history of early twenty-first century American film is written, it will become clear that the true inheritor to the Jewish film-making legacy of Woody Allen is Noah Baumbach, who is 33 years Allen’s junior. Like Allen, Baumbach is a Brooklyn-raised (both attended Midwood High School) auteur-style writer/director. With Baumbach’s most recent film, “Mistress America”, it is also clear that – like Allen’s relationships with Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow – Baumbach has now found his non-Jewish female muse, in the person of actress/writer Greta Gerwig.

Baumbach has paid homage to Allen throughout his career, through his black and white film-making (“Frances Ha” vs “Manhattan”), his self-conscious vistas of New York City and his close attention to modern New York relationships, many of them featuring Jewish men, with Ben Stiller being a noted favourite (“Greenberg” and “While We’re Young”). Both writer/directors have also specialised, accidentally or not, in creating memorable female characters.

In “Mistress America” (now screening nationally), Baumbach collaborates with Gerwig for the second time (she starred and co-wrote “Frances Ha”) and extends his development of complex, conflicted and comically struggling female characters.

Set in New York City, the action revolves around college freshman (first year unie student) Tracy Fishko, who is played by Lola Kirke, who is Jewish (both of her mother’s parents) and the sister of “Girls” star Jemima Kirke (“Jessa”). The “Girls” connection is relevant, for “Mistress America” feels like a first cousin to Lena Dunham’s television series, with comically confused characters seeking fulfilment and life’s meaning on the streets of the Big Apple (although without the sex).

Tracy has come to study at Columbia University to study literature, and is having a hard go of it, making few friends and spending many lonely hours. Fortunately, her mother (played by the delightful Kathryn Erbe) is about to get re-married, and puts Tracy in touch with her new step-sister to-be, Brooke (Greta Gerwig), a thirtysomething charismatic, energetic and entrepreneurial whirlwind filled with ideas and surprises – just what the depressive Tracy needs. Brooke becomes Tracy’s mentor, carting her around the city and allowing Tracy to feel like she is living the romantic life she so craves.

“Mistress America” is a comedy of manners, much more subtle and low-key than Baumbach’s recent work. Everything in the film presents as slightly askew. Not a great deal actually happens, with a looser structure than “Frances Ha”, which may frustrate some viewers who prefer a strong story line. Relationships never quite get off the ground, people talk at – rather than with – one another, as if they are living in separate planes of existence that don’t quite intersect. There may be some clever commentary here about living life in the hyper-connected digital age: some of the details are totally delicious, down to the severely cracked screen of Tracy’s iPhone (how much that simple image tells us).

The film contains serio-comic sequences, such as when Brooke meets an old female high school classmate who declares how much Brooke hurt her by her bullying, with lines such as “I don’t know if you’re a Zen master or a sociopath.”

The highlight of “Mistress America” (the name comes from Tracy’s short story about Brooke) is an elaborate comedy of errors set piece, set in a cold modern suburban Connecticut house with a fabulous river view. Brooke – with Tracy and two reluctant friends in tow – is chasing up an old boyfriend and his wife, also a former friend of hers. They’ve made lots of money from digital businesses, and Brooke’s intention is to obtain a loan of some of it for a new restaurant concept. But the whole experience turns into something much greater – and less – than that. In an almost European or perhaps Marx brothers-style scene, characters pop in and out of rooms, learning new things about each other as relationships unravel and new understandings dawn. The scene lasts possibly 15 minutes, and reminds us of the best of Wes Anderson – possibly not surprising, given that Baumbach and Anderson have collaborated on three films.

(photo below: Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke on the streets of New York City in “Mistress America”.)


Portraying cancer in Australian film

November 3, 2015

(I originally published the following article on Croakey, Australia’s independent, in-depth social journalism for health blog, on 9 September 2015, under the title “Cancer on Screen”.  Click here to view the original article.)


One in two Australian men and one in three Australian women will contract cancer in their lifetime. Cancer is a killer, second only to cardiovascular diseases as the cause of deaths in Australia. Cancer is also responsible for 35% of the “fatal burden”, or years of life lost by Australians due to premature death, way ahead of cardiovascular disease.

Despite this widespread prevalence in our lives (who does not know someone affected by cancer?), cancer is rarely presented in Australian film. Think about all of the deaths we witness on-screen, how many of them are from cancer? Lots of deaths, many of them violent (war, accidents, murder), but not much from cancer.

There’s a reason for this. Dying from cancer rarely pretty, it’s usually quiet and often hidden. A once clandestine and “whispered about” illness, it is now “often described as the defining plague of our generation”, writes Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee in his 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.

It may be a “defining plague”, but you wouldn’t know it by watching Australian films. For reasons we can only guess at, two Australian films featuring cancer are now playing in Australian cinemas. It’s too soon to know if this is the beginning of a trend, or – more likely – a simple coincidence. However a cinema release, with its attendant large marketing budget and effort, indicates that a number of people think the topic worth portraying on-screen.

Last Cab to Darwin

Last Cab to Darwin stars Michael Caton as a Broken Hill taxi driver who travels to Darwin to commit assisted suicide because he is dying of inoperable stomach cancer and wants to avoid palliative care. Since its cinema release in early August, it has already grossed $6.2 million in Australian cinemas, and may still be playing long after the latest Mission: Impossible and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (current large release American films) have disappeared. Despite its seemingly depressing euthanasia theme, Last Cab to Darwin – already listed by The Sydney Morning Herald as one of the 10 “greatest Australian road movies” – manages to be entertaining, wryly funny, uplifting and filled with heart-felt meaning. It sweeps its characters along its way with effective sub-plots that illustrate Aboriginal reconciliation (few recent Australian films have shown such intimate connections between Indigenous and non-Indigenous characters), the unique wonders of the Central Australian landscape and learning the ability to express and receive love.

Force of Destiny

The other Australian cancer film, Force of Destiny (tagline: “A journey of love on a transplant waiting list”), the latest by iconic Dutch-born Australian director Paul Cox, opened last week and stars David Wenham as a sculptor who contracts liver cancer. Fresh from the Melbourne International Film Festival and with an astonishingly beautiful production, the story focuses more on Wenham’s character’s actual battle with the disease.

Cox based Force of Destiny in part on his own life story: he is a cancer survivor and a transplant recipient. The film’s producers and distributors have taken an increasingly popular approach to Australian film marketing: setting up a series of special events, many of them associated with cancer charities, in order to reach the audiences that might not normally go to a small Australian film.

Any others?

The only other Australian cancer film I can easily recall is 2012’s Not Suitable for Children, an improbable but moderately successful romantic comedy in which Ryan Kwanten played a character diagnosed with testicular cancer who attempts to father a child before he becomes sterile. The comedy comes not from the cancer, but Kwanten’s character’s desperate attempts to find a suitable mother to bear his child.

The truth is that best films about cancer are not actually “about” cancer, but use cancer as a mechanism to illustrate other important, human emotional needs. This is why Last Cab to Darwin almost certainly will reach a much larger audience than Force of Destiny, with its particular focus on, well, cancer, as its main topic.

The American approach

Despite the clear popular success of Last Cab to Darwin and Force of Destiny’s marketing creativity and the strong will of its creator Paul Cox, Australian films have not yet moved to copy the American “weepie” formula where … let’s be honest, no spoilers are required … one of the main characters always dies from cancer. From Ali McGraw in 1970’s Love Story to Debra Winger in 1983’s Terms of Endearment to last year’s The Fault in Our Stars (from the pen of John Green, with three teen characters with cancer, two of whom die), Americans have created literally hundreds of films with cancer, especially teens, so much so that one commentator has asked that films “stop using cancer as a plot device”.

The latest American film in this genre, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – in which the dying teenage girl has leukaemia – also opened last week, fresh from audience awards at both the Sydney Film Festival and Sundance. This gives Australia two cancer film releases in one day, with three in the cinemas. Is this a record?