Australia is in an interesting position culturally and geographically – while historically its modern culture is from the British cultural tradition, it is physically located in the Asia-Pacific and home to a diverse population, one-third of whom are not Australian-born. Our geographical location means that most Australians holiday or do business with our Asian neighbours, as well as acknowledging their European roots. Along the way, we’ve begun thinking of ourselves as global citizens.
Australian philanthropy is also expanding its reach and influence beyond our borders more than ever before. A Philanthropy Australia member survey in 2002 showed that fewer than 8% of members made grants with an international focus; by 2011 the percentage had more than doubled. Among Private Ancillary Funds, the newest structure for foundations established as the Prescribed Private Fund in 2001, the percentage of overall funds allocated to international affairs increased from less than 2% to over 9% in the same period. Many of the individuals who have established these new foundations were not born here – in fact 77 out of Australia’s wealthiest 200 were born outside the country.
The rise of instantaneous communication and easy information retrieval through modern technology has also helped to raise Australians’ awareness of the social and environmental issues on the other side of the world as well as on our own doorstep.
At the same time, there are still barriers to Australians giving internationally, particularly through established trusts and foundations. Charitable status is strictly controlled for organisations that will do most of their work overseas – and as so many trusts and foundations are restricted to funding charities, this limits their options. The Australian Treasury recently launched a review and tightening of the guidelines around organisations pursuing overseas activities. Some barriers to individual giving stem from the lack of incentives for tax deductible giving – there are fewer than 200 overseas aid funds approved for tax deductible donations, again limiting the options, and the criteria for the types of projects which are eligible for approval are strict and tightly controlled by AusAid, the government’s overseas aid program. For example, only programs classified as ‘aid’ or ‘development’ are eligible.
In the light of these restrictions, it’s interesting to look at the ways in which Australians from all walks of life are choosing to give overseas. Of course the response to international disasters such as Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, or the earlier South-East Asia tsunami of 2004, have been immense – and it’s encouraging to see that the Australian government has allowed tax deductions for donations to the New Zealand government’s Christchurch earthquake appeal. Yet it’s apparent that Australians are choosing other ways to get involved with overseas giving. Some wealthy Australians have chosen to establish their charitable structures overseas, at least initially – such as John Wood of Room to Read. Others are choosing to give via microfinance or other initiatives with no tax concession – which gives them more freedom but limits their ability to attract other funders. And although it is believed that remittances from individual migrants back to their home countries is a significant part of the national income of many of our Pacific neighbours, there is little official measurement of this aspect of giving.
Some work into measuring diaspora giving from Australia has been conducted by researchers at Swinburne University’s Asia-Pacific Centre for Social Investment and Philanthropy. This work acknowledged that there is a great diversity in Australian diaspora giving, not just between different nations but between those from different regions and backgrounds within the same nation. It also found that the diaspora communities within Australia could be a rich source of knowledge and insight for Australian philanthropists seeking to understand cultural, historical and political factors underpinning a particular community or region. It will be interesting to see, as more work progresses in this field, whether new structures and pathways to overseas giving develop which don’t neatly fall into the traditional aid and development models.
Vanessa Meachen is director of research and policy for Philanthropy Australia