The Sydney Morning Herald

Graham Tuckwell's $50 million donation has raised the bar, writes Deborah Snow.

Graham Tuckwell is a former state-school boy who describes his time at the Australian National University in the 1970s as ''life-transforming''.

So transforming, in fact, that it helped him make a fortune in electronically traded commodities and shot him to the status of national treasure this week when he made a $50 million donation to his alma mater for a scholarship fund.

Citing lifelong indebtedness to his lecturers (who tutored him in economics and econometrics) Tuckwell said he was publicising his extraordinary generosity in part to send a signal to other financially well-upholstered Australians.

Some, he said pointedly — without naming names — had ''not put the majority of their wealth behind strong philanthropic causes'' and instead had passed it down to ''later generations who have behaved badly … I think that's a really bad example''.

Tuckwell's grand gesture is one that critics of the notorious parsimony of Australia's upper crust hope to see as a tipping point for philanthropy here.

There have been other multimillion-dollar donations from a small group of high-profile Australians in recent years — businessmen Simon Mordant, John Kinghorn, John Kaldor and John Grill to name a few. But on the whole, Australia has markedly lagged the US, and to a lesser extent Britain and Canada, in the culture of giving.

Peak advisory body Philanthropy Australia says tax statistics show that it remains the ''exception rather than a norm'' for so-called ''high-net-worth'' and ''ultra high-net-worth'' individuals to make substantial donations.

About a third of those earning more than $1 million a year were not claiming any tax deductions at all for charitable giving in 2004–05. And Australia's moneyed elite gave at a ''lower level than their counterparts in the USA, Canada and the UK despite comparable wealth levels'' , the organisation found.

In part this owes to the historically smaller role that government has played in American cultural and educational institutions, points out the head of Sydney University's US Studies Centre, Professor Bates Gill.

''There is a greater societal and normative acceptance of the role that private money can and should play in providing social benefits in the United States,'' he says. As a wealthy American, not sharing one's good fortune invites pariah status.

But the US is not the only country threatening to show up the relative reluctance of our uber-wealthy to cough up for good causes.

John Fitzgerald, who has just taken up a chair in philanthropy studies at Swinburne University's Asia-Pacific Centre for Social Investment, says China and other rapidly developing countries in the region could also overtake us in the generosity stakes.

''There is a huge growth in private social investments, particularly in education schools, colleges and universities, which is growing at a rate that Australia will have to run fast to match,'' Fitzgerald says.

Despite the slow start, change is coming. Sydney corporate adviser Mark Carnegie says Tuckwell, Mordant and other high-profile Australian givers are part of the international wave that has seen billionaires such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett sign up to the ''giving pledge'' movement where they undertake to give the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.

And it is becoming more acceptable, says Carnegie, for wealthy Australians to publicise their gifts.

''When I started back in Australia in 1990, Singo [ad and radio man John Singleton] and others who were big givers said 'I can't stand sounding like a smart arse. I will give all the money anonymously'. Somehow the tall poppy thing had got connected to philanthropic giving. Clearly that is disappearing.''

Having made a small fortune after selling his venture capital business to Wall Street bankers Lazard, Carnegie is back in the game with a new corporate advisory business, half the profits from which he has pledged to charity.

Louise Walsh, the head of Philanthropy Australia, says she encourages donors to speak up about their gifts because ''we need more role models and that encourages people to talk. Then they start to talk about the passion they feel [for their causes] and how much more rewarding it is than how they made their money in the first place.''

The head of philanthropy for ANZ Trustees, Teresa Zolnierkiewicz, also senses there might be a sea change under way among wealthier Australians.

''Australian baby boomers currently hold 50 per cent of this country's wealth,'' she says. ''As they age, we see people who have completed their wealth creation, who have retired or sold the businesses they have created, and they want these conversations about philanthropy. It creates a whole new life phase for them. This period is going to see an incredible increase.''

Besides, there is a sense that the era of government largesse is waning. ''There is a recognition in government and business that Australia faces a demographic crisis, an ageing population like many other countries, and that the health and pension system are going to struggle,'' says Fitzgerald.

''So the old expectations that the government will provide could be disappointed for many people over the next two decades. This is the reason business and wealthy people could play a greater role in Australia to close that gap.''

ANZ has $1.3 billion of charitable funds under management, distributing more than $75 million a year.

Walsh says more than 1000 new charitable foundations, known as private ancillary funds, have been set up since 2001 when changes advocated by corporate guru David Gonski were adopted by the Howard government.

Collectively those funds now hold more than $2 billion earmarked for good causes. She wants to introduce philanthropy awards and kick off a ''young philanthropists'' program to pull in younger entrepreneurs or those who are inheriting large family fortunes.

''There might be instances where we may not necessarily be able to change the attitudes of some of these [older] ultra high-net-worth individuals, but if we can influence and engage their children or grand-children, then we have achieved something''.

But giving is not just the preserve of the super wealthy.

Philanthropy adviser Kristi Mansfield, of Greenstone Group, says she has noticed the growth in the past three years of what she calls ''strategic philanthropy'' among ''fairly average middle class to high income families'.

Typical of those she is advising in this way are small business owners Jacqui and Michael Nelson of St Ives, on Sydney's upper north shore, parents of three children aged between seven and 13.

They have banded together in a ''giving circle'' with nine other families, each putting in $5000 a year for a total of $50,000 annually.

This money is being used to supply four primary schools in the south-western Sydney region of Fairfield with computers for a special after-school program for vulnerable children.

The Nelson's motivation, she says, is to help their children build a social conscience as they grow up.

Another group, Little Black Dress, brings together women from the corporate world who are collectively funding neighbourhood programs in Warwick Farm targeted at young girls from year 6 to 12.

The group was spurred into action after reading horror stories late last year about school-age girls in the area being forced into prostitution.

''I'm having so many conversations with other women in particular who really really like what we are doing and want to get involved,'' says one member of the network, financial services executive Sara Lucas.

''People are tired of just dropping money into a bottomless collecting tin. We want to put the skills and intellectual capital and the connections that we have to greater use than simply earning a living. And it's tragic that 40 minutes from central Sydney there is this community that's been in crisis, and is right on our doorstep.''

Lucas and her group's direct action approach is in line with what ANZ's Zolnierkiewicz sees as the rise of Australian women in philanthropy. Tax data shows that women tend to give more generously than men. They are more attracted to the idea of community engagement, and the networking activity that goes along it.

For these reasons, she says, ''I think women are going to emerge over the next few decades as key philanthropists.''

Meanwhile, Walsh says institutions have to get better at cajoling their donors into going public, to encourage others to do the same, and make better use of charismatic leaders such as the Museum of Contemporary Art's Liz Ann Macgregor or World Vision's Reverend Tim Costello.

And they have to get better at asking. She tells a story from a recent trip to New York shepherding a gaggle of luminaries from leading Australian arts companies who were brainstorming fund-raising strategies with their US counterparts.

The incoming head of the New York Philharmonic, Matthew VanBesien, (who has just left the top job at the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra) told them, ''you think you don't actually have a culture of giving in Australia. In fact, your culture of giving is not so bad. What you don't have in Australia is a culture of asking.''

That, says Walsh, is one trait that boards of cultural and charitable institutions have to change.

Tuckwell's remarkable gift has set the bar high, but Walsh believes it could go higher.

''Bring on the $100 million gift next, I say, because it's not out of the question. It could happen in this country. We've certainly got enough wealth.''

This article was originally published at the Sydney Morning Herald