Rich Australians keep their chequebooks in their pockets


Alliance magazine


It’s paradoxical that while Australia topped a recent World Giving Index of 153 countries in terms of people’s willingness to give money, volunteer and help strangers, wealthy Australians are apt to be relatively stingy when it comes to philanthropy. This state of affairs is roundly castigated by, among others, Daniel Petre, a former Microsoft executive who describes Australia’s wealthy as ‘morally bankrupt’.

‘Generally speaking,’ he claims, ‘they don’t see a moral obligation to give generously to the society in which they’ve built their wealth.’ The average worker, he says, gives more than the super rich, a state of affairs he describes as ‘just appalling’. Simon McKeon, investment banker and corporate philanthropist, who works part-time to pursue philanthropic interests such as the Global Poverty Project and who has been named Australian of the Year, agrees, though in less categoric terms. ‘We really are not overly generous,’ he says, adding that fostering giving among the rich is a ‘national challenge’.

Why has a US-style culture of giving not emerged among wealthy Australians? Opinions differ. For one thing, believe observers of the sector, much of the wealth in Australia has been accumulated over the past four decades, compared with the long-held philanthropic traditions of US dynasties such as the Rockefellers. Australia has no estate or death duty, which could be a powerful trigger for the wealthy to give money during their lifetime, rather than let the state take it off their heirs. At the same time, there has been a greater reliance on government here to provide welfare.

One researcher, Wendy Scaife of the Australian Centre of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies at Queensland University of Technology, believes that a major factor may be what she calls the ‘quiet code of giving’ – people making donations anonymously for fear of being lambasted for showing off or for seeking publicity.

Not everyone agrees. Such secret donations would make themselves felt in tax statistics and charities’ coffers, argues Daniel Petre. Taxpayers, for example, claimed $2.1 billion in deductible gifts in 2008-09, down 10.8 per cent from the year before. While the number of people overall who claimed gifts rose slightly, the value of donations fell, and McKeon asserts that of about 8,000 Australians earning more than $1 million a year, ‘more than a third made no gift at all’.

Whatever the reasons for the reluctance among rich Australians to put their hands in their pockets for the public benefit, it remains a curious fact that the most striking philanthropic example in the country has been set by an outsider, Chuck Feeney. Having donated more than $500 million in Australia through Atlantic Philanthropies, he is now seeking to build ‘giving while living’ networks across the country, calling on philanthropists to pool their funds for large projects.

Earlier this year, for example, he pledged $10 million to the University of New South Wales’s Kirby Institute for infection and immunity in society for new $80 million facilities on condition that the federal and state governments and the university pay $60 million, and other wealthy people find the remaining $10 million. The university has so far raised about two-thirds of that from wealthy donors.

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