Grant nerds rule at the Grantmaking Intelligence Conference

Posted on 23 Mar 2021

By Matthew Schulz, journalist, Our Community

Hundreds of leading grantmakers have converged to reset their expectations about best-practice grantmaking, as 25 experts from Australia and New Zealand took to the virtual stage in the two-day Grantmaking Intelligence Conference, March 18-19.

Delayed nearly seven months by the pandemic, the event brought together practitioners from across government and philanthropy to tackle the huge challenges wrought by COVID-19, recent environmental disasters, and a fraught political environment for funders.

On Twitter, the event was tagged #grantnerds2021. While for some, “nerds” is a pejorative term, for these consummate professionals the label is one that is carried with pride.

Delegates lapped up presentations by data scientists, ethicists, regulators, Aboriginal and diversity leaders, and senior administrators across local, state and federal government.

There was something for every kind of grantmaker, with the virtual stages overflowing with technical knowhow and policy expertise.

SmartyGrants experts will continue to digest the results of the event and extract the most valuable lessons for Grants Management Intelligence readers over coming months.

In the meantime, here is a quick snapshot of highlights from the main event on day one, and the local and state/federal musters and SmartyGrants showcase on day two.

Gallery pictures (L-R): SmartyGrants founder Denis Moriarty; Our Community director of innovation Sarah Barker; Innovation Lab data scientist; Nathan Mifsud; Conference facilitators Barry Smith and Fiona Dempster; Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman Craig Latham; Chuck Berger of Kimberley Community Legal Service; “Return to purpose” and “Big issues” panels hosted by Our Community chaos controller Kathy Richardson, State/Federal Muster host and SmartyGrants special projects director Joshua Presser; Teena Blewitt from the Department of Social Services; Chris Wheeler, consultant and former deputy NSW ombudsman; Dr Simon Longstaff from the Ethics Centre; SmartyGrants leaders in the “behind the curtain” session; Jeremy Kelshaw from the City of Sydney; Top conference contributor aka “Top Banana” Emily Costello; Presenters in the “Quick-fire grants” session and Local Government Muster host Jodie Shanks.

Our favourite moments included:

  • SmartyGrants founder and Our Community group managing director Denis Moriarty delivering a no holds barred takedown of the worst failings of grantmaking, before outlining how SmartyGrants’ leaders had a plan to address most of them
  • Data scientist Dr Nathan Mifsud displaying “layers of reality” with SmartyGrants statistics
  • Data Intelligence director for SmartyGrants Sarah Baker getting to the heart of the conference by explaining that "Grants AI may be the buzzwords ... but actually we’re more interested in grants intelligence"
  • Dr Simon Longstaff addressing the thorny issue of assessing impact by pointing to the example of Socrates, considered by many a “failure” in his time
  • Teena Blewitt, the head of the Communities Group in the Department of Social Services outlining how her organisation had adapted to use data and evidence for better outcomes, using knitted penguin vests to illustrate her point
  • Chuck Berger, grantseeker and manager of the Kimberley Community Legal Service, in a powerful presentation from Kununurra in Australia’s remote north-west, reminding grantmakers that the biggest impact often comes from creating connections, a result that can be devilishly difficult to tie down
  • Nina O'Brien from the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal (FRRR) with Gavin Murphy of the City of Greater Geelong and Robyn Koehler from the Community Trust South, NZ, who showed organisations that re-connecting to your purpose sometimes means changing the way you work. Their message? If you do this right, you’ll have a “clear line of sight from policies to outcomes”
  • An inspiring panel tackling three of the biggest issues that grantmakers should be addressing, including climate change, greater inclusion, and the need for more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices. That session featured Amanda Martin of the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network, Anthea Hancocks, CEO of the Scanlon Foundation, and Aboriginal leader and management expert Jahna Cedar
  • Grantmaker of the Year team member Nicole Guyatt launching the SmartyGrants search for the 2022 winner with essential tips about how Heritage NSW reached that pinnacle
  • Ex-deputy NSW ombudsman Chris Wheeler with an entertaining presentation on getting ready for the grant auditor’s “knock on the door”. His top tip? Get your documentation in order, and, if you’ve got a problem – seek help fast
  • Quick-fire grants in the time of COVID-19 with Kate Mocsay, City of Logan, Michael van Vliet, City of Yarra, and Tabitha McMullan, City of Perth
  • The City of Sydney’s Jeremy Kelshaw, who had delegates clamouring for more as he demonstrated how the city had used better data visuals, apps, templates and SmartyGrants standard fields to make their grants process smoother
  • SmartyGrants leaders including Kathy Richardson (executive director), Jessica Rutherford (delivery), Sarah Barker (innovation), Jodie Shanks (platform transformation) and Lars Jensen (technology architecture) giving delegates the first look at powerful new tools, including the Outcomes Engine, reporting upgrades, the SmartyFile system for grantseekers, and the automated grants classification system CLASSIEfier. A snap poll about delegates’ favourite features prompted one to demand, “Why can’t we vote for them all?”

Conference co-facilitator and SmartyGrants strategic advisor Fiona Dempster said a common thread could be found in each speaker and delegate.

“All of them are responsible for being able to give money away in a sensible, defensible, reasonable way. It’s an important job: giving people money and selecting which people will get that money," she said.

“While it happens at all levels of government and in the philanthropic sector, the way they do it and what they are doing it for differs, but fundamentally, there are some basics that apply, and this is an opportunity to learn that from every sector.

“This conference gives them a chance to lift their sights away from the office for a moment to hear new and exciting ideas.”

She said that this year the live chat hosted on the conference platform proved an engaging substitute for the usual chatter during breaks, with delegates also able to post questions and take snap polls.

Perhaps appropriately it was delegate and a grantmaking newcomer from central Queensland who was crowned the “Top Banana” - the “most valuable contributor” to the event’s live chat.

Emily Costello, a community investment officer from Gladstone Regional Council, who was rewarded with free tickets to next year’s event, was among many eager to learn how to adapt to a quickly changing funding environment.

“This conference could not have come at a better time. I am in the midst of policy review and am gathering so much information for my toolkit. These are fantastic, informative sessions,” Ms Costello said.

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