We Are All Philanthropists


"A Class Divide? Does philanthropy reinforce the distinction between the haves and have nots?" This was the promo for the recent ‘Ethics in Philanthropy’ debate, jointly hosted by Australian Communities Foundation, ABC Radio National, Federation Square and the Melbourne Writers Festival.

The debaters, moderated by Radio National’s Peter Mares, included Emeritus Professor and philanthropic advisor, Dorothy Scott, Stephanie Alexander — whose Kitchen Garden program for primary schoolers initially relied heavily on philanthropic funding — academic and AIDS activist Professor Dennis Altman, community sector advocate, Cath Smith, and iconoclastic comedian Rod Quantock.

As soon as I saw the promo I knew I had to be there. Despite being involved in the community sector for years, I haven’t been able to figure out where I stand on philanthropy.

In 2008, Australia Post highlighted the importance of philanthropy in Australia by including a group of high profile philanthropists as part of its Legends series, awarding them their very own stamps. The chosen few, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, Victor and Loti Smorgon, Lady Mary Fairfax and Frank Lowy, have one important thing in common: they are all multi-millionaires. No surprise there — in the public mind, philanthropy is synonymous with wealth. This proved to be just the first of many preconceptions that were contested at the debate.

Rod Quantock’s favoured definition of philanthropy is "Love of mankind, especially as manifested in deeds of practical beneficence". Of ancient Greek origin, his definition doesn’t contain a whiff of money. And it is obviously unimpeachable in terms of social benefits.

This definition is probably the one favoured by many readers of this article, because a lot of you will already be committing some of your time, talents and even money to assist others. I’m confident saying that because, according to statistics released earlier this year, the number of Australians who planned to volunteer for community work had more than doubled in a mere 12 months from 30 per cent in 2010 to 68 per cent in 2011. Australia and New Zealand also jointly topped the World Giving Index compiled by the international Charities Aid Foundation, which ranked 153 countries on donations, volunteering and willingness to help strangers.

Well known local social researcher, Bernard Salt, suggests that especially since the global financial crisis we are in the throes of "a profound shift in social values", in which all age groups are manifesting "the generosity gene". As micro-credit and organisations like Kiva demonstrate, financial activities are part of this trend. But, even where money is involved, the sums are generally modest, and people are unlikely to have realised that, in Rod Quantock’s terms at least, they are all philanthropists.

Dorothy Scott would not be surprised by the discovery of the generosity gene. She was emphatic that there is unequivocal and mounting research evidence that people don’t rely on incentives to be community-minded; altruism is its own reward.

On the other side of the coin (so to speak), Dennis Altman, playing the devil’s advocate, disagreed with Quantock’s broad definition of philanthropy. For him, philanthropy can be defined simply as the rich giving away tax-deductible money. Which raises the whole issue of the fairness or necessity for tax incentives for Big Money philanthropists.

Altman is also concerned that Australia is moving in the same direction as the United States, where the "growth in private giving is providing an alibi for governments to renege on their responsibilities". And as governments "retreat" from providing public services, philanthropy is being lauded as the way to fill the gap. So why not simply tax the rich more? With fuller public coffers, hypothetically at least, governments would be able to resume full responsibility for public services.

Stephanie Alexander argued that if the government were to be solely in charge of choices about funding, some worthwhile projects would flounder. She said that without the initial private funding that enabled a small-scale demonstration of her Kitchen Garden program, she would never have been able to attract her larger government grant.

Panel members were convinced that in our far less than ideal world some sort financial philanthropy is a necessity.

Of course, without philanthropy — the provision of money, as well as time and talents by supporters — New Matilda would be a thing of the past. NM was never a candidate for government funding. And with Rupert Murdoch currently owning 70 per cent of Australia’s newspapers, it is impossible to overstate the importance of independent media sources like this one.

In arguing that philanthropy is not just about the rich giving to the poor, Dorothy Scott pointed out that increased dignity can result when ordinary people are asked to be philanthropists. We may not end up with our heads on stamps or our names on plaques or hospital wings, but I’m sure many of us have enjoyed playing a small part in undermining Murdoch’s media stranglehold by helping keep NM afloat.

Another of the important issues that came up at the debate is that Big Money philanthropists can choose to whom they give their money, with absolutely no guarantee that their cause will be progressive.

These individuals and organisations are also often in a position to exert undue influence on the direction a society takes. An example of this, cited by Altman, is the university sector, which is relying more and more heavily on philanthropic funding. What chance would a critic of the mining industry have of being appointed to a mining engineering department that was sponsored in part by the industry, he wondered?

The panel members also expressed their concern at the harsh realities around the "popularity stakes" in philanthropic circles. While pandas can always be guaranteed money, less popular causes like support for female ex-prisoners is a very hard sell. Marginalised people in general fare no better in the giving stakes than they do elsewhere in society.

Another question arose: does money come unencumbered? Should philanthropists have a say in how funds are spent? Dorothy Scott was clear: they shouldn’t interfere in governance but recipients need to be accountable. These lines can become very blurred particularly when the project is the philanthropist’s pet project.

And what about "dirty money"? Peter Mares quoted one joker as saying: "the only problem with tainted money is that t’aint enough of it". Should resource-poor community agencies accept money from gambling or tobacco or alcohol? This can grant those large multinationals absolution by association, not to mention tax breaks at 45 cents in the dollar.

I came away from the debate abuzz with questions. I remain uncertain where I stand on philanthropy — I think, like much of the panel, I am sitting on the fence. It’s not always comfortable, but perhaps as far as the ethics of philanthropy is concerned, it’s the only place to be.

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