During the past week the word ‘philanthropy’ has appeared frequently in the headlines of Australian media – more than it’s generally used in an entire year. It was not for any of the reasons the mass media generally reports philanthropy (such as a large grant or a scandal), or for the reasons we in the sector would prefer it to be used (such as an innovative philanthropic project) but because of a death.
Dame Elisabeth Murdoch passed away last week at the age of 103. Outside Australia, Dame Elisabeth would mainly be notable as the mother of often-controversial media proprietor Rupert Murdoch. Most Australians, however, associate Dame Elisabeth not with the Murdoch empire or the media, but with her philanthropic work. It could be argued that she was our greatest living philanthropist. True, she had more capacity than most to give generously; but she did give, which is not as common as it could be amongst Australians of high net worth. Just as importantly, she was never afraid to talk about her giving, which many philanthropic Australians are reluctant to do.
The passing of Dame Elisabeth has got the media and ordinary Australians doing what all the efforts of foundations, charities and peak bodies can’t do – it’s got everyone talking about philanthropy. This has highlighted a truth in the world of giving that is sometimes overlooked: the importance of stories. Every charity or philanthropist has a Dame Elisabeth story, most of which focus both on the good work done through her giving and on the kind and respectful way she approached her philanthropy and the people she encountered. This is perhaps where those of us who try to inspire more philanthropy sometimes stumble, when we focus on the dry world of tax incentives and impact reporting. We in the sector know that philanthropy underlies so much of what we take for granted in a civil society, and we can demonstrate and prove its positive impact, but nothing inspires like a story.
It’s a timely coincidence that a working group formed by the Myer Family Company, and including Philanthropy Australia, has recently invited the public to nominate their choices for the most significant philanthropic gifts in Australian history. I’m really looking forward to seeing what stories come out of this, and how we can use them to inspire more philanthropy as people see that large and small gifts can make the world a better place.
It’s even possible that there will be some gifts from Dame Elisabeth nominated which are not widely known, but deserve to be. Her philanthropic impact was great, and perhaps if her example inspires others to give, it will end up being greater than we could ever know.
Vanessa Meachen is director of research and policy for Philanthropy Australia