RICH PICKINGS: Australia's unsung philanthropists

The philanthropic contributions of Australia's wealthy are relatively puny compared to their US counterparts. But the comparison is unfair, and new rules are set to see charitable contributions grow.

Last week hedge fund manager John Paulson – the man lauded for making billions by picking the start of the sub-prime disaster – hit the headlines across the world when he gave $100 million to the trust that runs New York’s Central Park.

It’s a staggering figure and one of the biggest donations to any New York cultural organisation.

Yet arguably a more generous donation was made in Sydney last week. And it received very few headlines outside of Australia.

John Grill, the long-time CEO and major shareholder of engineering giant WorleyParsons announced he was giving $20 million to his alma mater, University of Sydney, to fund a school of project management.

While project management doesn’t necessarily compare with Central Park on the sexy donations scale, Grill’s generosity in this instance certainly compares favourably with Paulson’s.

Paulson’s donation represents just 0.9 per cent of his $11 billion fortune.

Grill’s donation represents 2.8 per cent of his $725 million fortune.

While there will be many who say that proportionally, Grill’s donation doesn’t exactly break his personal bank, this comparison does go to show that big fat headline numbers don’t always tell the whole story.

Could the comparison also call into question the commonly held opinion that Australia’s wealthy have a long way to go before they measure up to the generous upper class of America?

Well, not quite, according to legendary fund manager and philanthropy sector leader Chris Cuffe.

Cuffe is the founder of Australian Philanthropic Services, a not-for-profit dedicated to helping wealthy Australians and their advisers understand what he calls the "structured philanthropy”, where an individual creates a vehicle to manage their giving.

He says that while there's an argument about how generous Australia’s rich really are, comparisons with the US are largely unfair.

"In Australia at least it’s too early to know if we should beat up our rich for not being generous enough. The US has completely different circumstances,” Cuffe says.

The biggest difference is death duties, which encourage the wealthy to give their money away before they die and a big portion goes to the government.

But Cuffe argues it’s more than that. Giving is ingrained in the rich in America and the returns are often far more than a warm fuzzy feeling.

"Our money is newer and their money is older. But philanthropy is like the soft currency at social tables or the in the big boardrooms. There is real pressure to give.”

There is also a strong infrastructure around philanthropy in the US, stemming from the fact that wealth advisers also have expertise in the sorts of vehicles that best suit giving.

"We have a lack of understanding of that area,” Cuffe says. He says it is very hard for would-be philanthropists to get advice on who to give to and he also argues that charities in Australia could do more to be transparent.

"I’m not of that camp that Australians are stingy. But I do say you’ve got to remove these speed humps,” Cuffe says.

"There’s been more work done on addressing those issues in the last three or four years than ever before.

"My hope is that within a few years people will understand structured philanthropy in the way that everyone knows about self-managed super.”

Cuffe is making inroads. He says Australian Philanthropic Services, which he describes as the only independent not-for-profit in the space, has grown to the point where it is setting up one in three private ancillary funds (PAFs), which are the vehicles commonly used in Australia for philanthropic efforts.

PAFs operate in a similar way to a trust and have a few distinct requirements: 5 per cent of the fund’s balance must be distributed each year and the fund must have a proper investment strategy.

"Every week we are meeting with wealth advisers and wealth houses that are looking for help with philanthropy. All of this stuff is starting to be talked about.”

Whether talk has converted into action remains a question.

While the release of Nab’s inaugural Giving Index last week suggested that donations increased 4.8 per cent year-on-year in the first seven months of 2012, recent figures from the Australian Taxation Office tracking donations by the wealthy showed that the tax deductible donations of those earning over $1 million dropped from a collective $511 million down to just $120 million in the 2009-10 tax year (latest available figures).

However, those figures did suggest strong growth in "structured philanthropy” with the amount held by PAFs climbing 11.2 per cent to just over $2.2 billion. There are around 1,000 PAFs in Australia.

Naturally these come in different shapes and sizes.

John Kinghorn was recently revealed to have pumped an impressive $300 million into his foundation and with annual distributions of $15 million it is now one of the biggest donors in the country.

But its not just rich listers who are emerging as philanthropic leaders. Allan English, the founder of Brisbane-based hospitality sector finance company Silver Chef, has been making a big impression with his English Family Foundation.

English started to take an interest in philanthropy in 2000, when Silver Chef was having trouble raising finance and he stepped away from the business to do some volunteering.

He eventually became involved with Opportunity International, a charity that focuses on micro lending in developing nations. English gave $10,000 to support a program in East Timor.

"A report came back which said that 40,000 people would be moved out of poverty over a five year period as a result of that project, and that sort of hit home for me,” he says. "I thought ‘imagine if you could do that every year, would that give you a reason to go back to work and overcome these funding issues?’

"I decided it would,” he told Fundraising and Philanthropy Magazine. So I hired someone to take over my volunteering stuff and I went back to work.”

English would help build Silver Chef into a business worth $120 million. He moved from CEO to chairman in 2010 and year later established his foundation with an endowment of $20 million worth of Silver Chef shares.

The foundation, which aims to distribute $800,000 to $1 million a year, splits its focus over three areas – 40 per cent goes to microfunding programs overseas, 40 per cent to groups in South East Queensland and 20 per cent to support social entrepreneurs.

English admits he supports charities in some different and difficult areas. These include Karuna, a hospice in Queensland that helps people and families dealing with the end of a loved one’s life.

"I’m probably not in the sexy space,” he told F&P Magazine. "I don’t go for puppy dogs and kids charities – I tend to go for the things that are a bit tougher in our community, which probably sometimes get ignored.”

English also makes no secret of the fact he wants to be seen as a leader in this space – the sort of role model Chris Cuffe says is invaluable.

"I think the only way we can get people who are creating wealth to see philanthropy as a worthwhile enterprise is if we start talking more about it and promote some of the benefits that can be gained from it.”

As Cuffe says, the flywheel is slowly turning.

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