The role of Australian philanthropy: does it champion democracy?

Stream: Panel 64 - Political Theory: Butler, Precarious Life and the Politics of Care & Philanthropy
Date: Wednesday, 28 September 2016
Time: 9.00 am – 10.30 am


The question of whether grant-making philanthropic foundations strengthen or undermine democracy has been debated by numerous academics. On the one hand, some scholars claim philanthropic foundations undermine democracy, since they are non-democratic plutocratic institutions that serve as vehicles for the rich to show support for their interests and preferences in society (Arnove 1980). In contrast, philanthropy has been shown to uphold democratic ideals by supporting unpopular social issues that give voice to underserved minority populations, signalling philanthropy’s great potential for contributing to positive social change (Silver 2005). However, the extent to which Australian philanthropic foundations support innovative social issues, and operate with an explicit social change strategy is currently unexplored. This paper examines the role of Australian philanthropy in strengthening democracy, and its potential in promoting social justice. It achieves this by critically analysing the funding patterns of a sample of philanthropic institutions in two Australian states. One way for philanthropy to play a key role in social change is through funding non-profit organisations involved in advocacy on social justice initiatives involving the redistribution of social, economic and political power and resources (Ostrander 2005). Therefore, in order to investigate philanthropy’s potential in addressing social injustice and inequality, this paper will focus on philanthropic giving directed at the root causes of poverty, human rights and inequality. The paper argues that while Australian philanthropy supports democratic ideals, it remains a plutocratic instrument that maintains the power and influence of the wealthy.


Zurina Simm (Presenter), University of Adelaide
Zurina Simm is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Gender Studies and Social Analysis at the University of Adelaide. She holds a Bachelor of Arts (First Class Honours) in Gender Studies and Social Analysis, and a Bachelor of Engineering (Chemical), both from the University of Adelaide. She is passionate about social inclusion and social justice issues, and is currently researching the effects of Australian philanthropy on society.