A Word on Philanthropy


In the New Oxford Dictionary, the word ‘philanthropy’ falls between ‘philandering’ and ‘philately’ two activities concerned with perforated and personal pleasures. Philanthropy is defined as ‘the desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to good causes.’

Philanthropy is indeed about altruism, generosity of spirit and compassion towards people at large, working with good motives for the good of society. It is an ethical matter guided by values and decisions grounded in morality. It is the common equation of philanthropy with money, however, that I especially want to question in my remarks today.

Reading the Australian media, you would never know that the most generous people in our society are the poorest. Research shows that those in greatest need themselves give a much higher percentage of their wealth to others than do the rich. Yet our media, and the public who read or watch them, constantly equate generosity with only a handful of names: Murdoch, Packer, Potter, Pratt, Fairfax, Myer and a few more.

Why? Because the numbers associated with these names are large.

God bless them for choosing to give away some of this wealth to good causes Australian society is the richer for it but let us not be blinded, or confused into thinking there is some moral superiority that goes with the donation. There isn’t. The morality lies with those who give generously of themselves when they have so little in the way of material wealth.

We can all find examples in our lives of people who, with very modest means, give their time, talent and treasure selflessly, for the good of their fellows and the society in which we live. They are the real philanthropists.

Think of the people who volunteer their time to care for the suffering and the sick, to raise funds for good causes, to support the local school or sporting club, to help young children or old-age pensioners, to give meaning to their religious belief through positive action in the community as well as through pious prayer.

Think of the wonderful support so many Australians give to the widest variety of appeals for hospitals and charities, for community and cultural groups, refugees and rehabilitation, Greenpeace and world peace.


Think of the extraordinary response to the Boxing Day tsunami just over a year ago, when Australians donated close to $400 million in an outpouring of pure generosity for the suffering of people they had never met indeed, whose lives they could probably not even imagine. Remember that it was the generosity of ordinary Australians who forced the hand of the Government to contribute more, and not the other way around.

If you work in the ‘foundation sector,’ you often read that the Americans are the most generous people on earth because they have more and bigger foundations than any other country on earth. It is true that the United States is the wealthiest country on earth with the greatest number of millionaires and billionaires. What makes the foundation sector there so strong, however, is not the accumulation of wealth per se, but rather the government’s attempt to claim that wealth back through high death duties. US death duties are up to 60 per cent of an estate above a cut off level of around a million US dollars, a figure that just happens to equate to the average income of a member of the US Congress.

If you put your money into a foundation you can certainly work for the good of society. You can also avoid death duties and, at the same time, ensure that control of the assets remains with your family, that your name will be perpetuated and your status enhanced.

We cannot assess the motives of the founder of each philanthropic entity, but I imagine they range across the entire spectrum from a very pure wish to do good in the world, to the less savoury end of the scale where privilege and personal benefit are the desired outcomes.

Motive is very important in philanthropy. You can, of course, achieve very good outcomes while having very impure motives. But is that real philanthropy? I doubt it, but then what word would we use? If real good is achieved, does it matter anyway? I think it does because the good achieved is tarnished by the selfish gain.

Now, of course, I may sound like a crusty old moralist railing against the evils of the world: Cato the Elder lamenting the decline of Roman virtue. I don’t want to be in that position, for I know there is a very selfish joy in giving, in seeing something good achieved which otherwise could not have happened without philanthropic intervention. So let’s allow this selfish joy in the achievement of good ends but, at the same time, the warning lights should be flashing if such an emotion leads the giver to feel especially virtuous or noble.

I am a trustee of two major Australian philanthropic foundations and one major illness-related charity. In each case, we try to give away our funds in a balanced and measured way that, by making good outcomes possible, seeks to make a positive difference to those whose needs are addressed. That does not, however, give me any right to feel generous or virtuous in my own right. It is not my money I am giving away, but the generosity of others I am merely the steward, the administrator of the philanthropy of others.

If I give away my own money that is different, but even there I am a believer in the Biblical saying, ‘Never let your right hand know what your left hand is doing.’ In other words, try to do your good deeds quietly, without seeking recognition and without feeling smug.

What a terrific word that is: ‘smug.’ Another great four letter word.

Thanks to Emo.

In my work with foundations I feel uncomfortable about the demand for constant evaluation. I know that institutions need to be accountable and transparent in their processes. And we need to understand what works and what doesn’t work so we can do better next time. But there is also a great danger that evaluation can end in navel gazing. I have never met a grant recipient who said they had wasted the money they were given, or that the donors were less than brilliant for recognising their special qualities with the grant. Money generates fawning and fawning generates smugness.

If motive is important, this should make real philanthropists feel very uncomfortable.

Let me tell you about the most generous philanthropists I know. I am sure you will have your own names and stories, but I will tell you mine. The greatest philanthropists I know are a Chilean couple who came to this country independently and as refugees. They and their families had suffered grievously in the coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende in 1973, and afterwards under the brutal Pinochet regime. Members of their families were thrown from helicopters or disappeared without record. After years of hiding in their own and other countries, they ended up in Australia

Now they work as cleaners and gardeners earning a modest living and living a modest life. They sacrifice to support the families they each brought into the relationship. They also work among the South American community in Melbourne, assisting those in even greater need than themselves. They feed up to 30 sad and dislocated people in their home each Sunday. They visit the sick and lonely in hospital. They recently took in two young people fleeing from domestic sexual abuse who landed on their doorstep in the middle of the night. They can’t afford their own daughter’s wedding yet they worry that they cannot do
more for others. They seek no recognition or reward, unless it be the reward of heaven. Certainly they have earned heaven’s grace but they don’t seek it.

We are all responsible for the society in which we live. Everyone can leave their community in better shape than they found it by their daily acts of charity and compassion, by their involvement in organisations that work for the public good, by responding to causes they care about which add to the sum of human happiness.

Of course, you can do this with large or small amounts of money. But you can also do it with a smile, with a coin in the hat of a busker or beggar, with an hour of your time to help someone in need, with the commitment of your art and your skill, with the application of your hands and your heart to a worthy cause.

If you do so, it should feel right and good, but don’t let that feeling lead you to smugness. You can even do it in the name of your God, so long as you recognise that each of us must find our own God and no one’s God has a monopoly of virtue.

It is not about large sums of money. It is not about naming rights. It is not about status or privilege, but rather about shared responsibility. It is not about feeling good, but rather about doing good.

The lesson is that everyone can be a philanthropist. If we want a healthy society, everyone should be.

This is an edited version of an Occasional Address delivered on 5 May 2006, by Carrillo Gantner at the Graduation Ceremony of the Faculty of the College of Fine Arts, the University of New South Wales.

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