Jeremy Heimans argues that funding for issue-based advocacy is underdeveloped in Australia, compared to the US.

Jeremy Heimans, co-founder of the GetUp! Movement, has called on Australian philanthropists to boost funding for public advocacy and movements for social change, as he prepares to open Sydney office for his global social change agency Purpose.

Under the leadership of Purpose’s current European Managing Director, Simon Goff, the new Sydney office will work to develop campaigns to build and support movements for social change, having already secured The Fred Hollows Foundation as an anchor client.

“At Purpose, because of the team we have, the experience of the team, and because we can speak the language not just of activists but also of funders and institutions, that enables us to bridge that with philanthropy,” Heimans says.

“That’s something we’re very excited to do in Australia. We think Australian philanthropy should be more bold and audacious. It should fund movements and public engagement more than it does.

“With Purpose coming to Australia, we can articulate the need for that kind of philanthropy here, and engage with the sector and making that argument in a way that helps all of our friends in the social sector get funding for their critical work.”

Heimans argues that while some foundations and funders have been willing to provide support for single issues, such as the recent campaign for marriage equality, there is less willingness to support social advocacy movements in Australia than in the US.

“Issue advocacy and mobilising people on voice, not just on programs, is underdeveloped [in Australia], certainly in comparison to the US. We’re keen to talk with [Australian funders], work with them, engage with them, have a dialogue to see what is possible here, because I think more of that is needed,” Heimans says.

“With LGBTIQA+ rights, there was a surge of funders that emerged to support marriage equality in Australia. But how do you change that from these occasional moments into something that’s more regularised and stable?

“If you think about the big [issues] like climate change, the treatment of refugees, etc., there’s probably more that could be done and more that could be developed, particularly around things that are more bold or experimental.”

A life of social activism

While he may be known in Australia as a co-founder of activist group GetUp!, Heimans has a long history in a range of social movements that predates the group’s formation. He has founded or co-founded numerous other organisations, including online social activist community

These efforts saw him recognised in 2011 with the Ford Foundation’s 75th Anniversary Visionary Award, as well as being named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum that same year.

“I’ve been an activist most of my life in different ways, and I’ve always been interested in new and different ways to tell stories and move people to action,” Heimans says.

“All my career was like that. As a child activist, I was trying to send faxes to politicians to get them to change their stance and organise campaigns. Obviously, the tools have improved a lot these days.

“I’ve gotten involved in the new frontier in the 2000s about how you mobilise people on the internet politically. In the early 2000s, that was still very much an emerging space. I was lucky enough to get involved with that space and start GetUp! in 2005, and a number of organisations since then.”

Building an organisation with purpose

Having been involved with the formation of GetUp! and other social movements, Heimans says his inspiration for creating Purpose was to help people find new ways to participate in the issues they care about.

“I really wanted Purpose to be the mothership for building movements around issues and also working with organisations that do incredibly important work in the world, but really needed to modernise the way they reach people and communicate with people,” Heimans says.

“At the beginning, we were one-part agency, and that agency works with, often larger, legacy organisations to help them enter the new era. Organisations like the [American Civil Liberties Union] in the US, Oxfam, Unicef, some of the biggest charities and environmental groups.

“So we worked with all of those groups, as well as big foundations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Ford Foundation, who were trying to fund and support work that engaged with people in ways that reflect the new reality.

“In parallel, an arm of Purpose is experimentation work that we do directly. We created this climate lab that we’ve got an extraordinary team of people in the US, Europe, India and Brazil experimenting in campaigns beyond the already convinced around issues like climate.”

In terms of the focus of its work with foundations, Heimans says Purpose works on “a whole variety of different projects”.

“Some of it is about funding capacity building for their grantees, some of it is directly funding campaigning and public engagement work on issues they fund. Some of it is helping them to strategically think through their approach to funding and supporting public engagement,” he says.

“If you’re going to move from funding programmatic and technocratic stuff into funding movements, often we play a role in helping those foundations understand the landscape.

“What are the ways that people are being mobilised? What are the most effective ways to do that? When you support movements, what are the best ways to get out of the way of grassroots activists to allow them to shape the work?

“Investing in the power of people on the ground to use their own voice and mobilise around the issues they care about might be harder to measure than a traditional programmatic intervention – if you’re vaccinating kids you can count those things, and that’s very important – but the work we’re doing is just as important.”

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