RICH PICKINGS: Our leading giver

Australia's rich have short hands and long pockets according to philanthropist Daniel Petre. But Graeme Wood, founder of online travel company Wotif, provides an example that our super-rich should follow.

The richer Australia gets, the stingier it becomes, according to Microsoft- executive-turned-philanthropic-crusader, Daniel Petre.

Research commissioned by the Petre Foundation revealed Australians with more than $30 million in net assets give away less than 3 per cent of their net worth to charity, while Americans with similar-sized fortunes give away 10 per cent of their net worth. The report shows that while Australia's strong economic cycle has boosted the average household income of wealthy Australians (those with taxable incomes of between $100,000 and $500,000) by 36 per cent over the last decade, their charitable giving over that time only increased from 0.36 per cent of income donated to 0.45 per cent of income donated.

So why are Australia's super-rich so tight when compared to the US? The oft-repeated answer is that the United States has better established philanthropic culture than Australia, but I’m not so sure. Australia has had some great philanthropists in the past – Sidney Myer springs to mind – and given that so many of the members of the Rich 200 have charitable foundations, the infrastructure for giving would appear to be in place.

What Australia’s wealthy would-be philanthropists really need is a modern champion such as Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. Petre has a few examples, including mining men Clive Palmer and Andrew Forrest, who recently donated $100 million and about $80 million respectively to start charitable foundations. He also cites former transport magnate Greg Poche, who gave $32.5 million to a Sydney hospital in 2005.

But Business Spectator has found a new champion of philanthropy: Graeme Wood, founder of online travel business Wotif.

Wood received $42 million through the float and his remaining stake is now worth about $205 million. One his first acts after the float was to put $20 million into a charitable foundation focused on youth issues. Then in February, Wood committed a further $6 million of cash and Wotif shares to the University of Queensland (where he received his masters degree in information systems) to create an education and research fund. Fellow Wotif director Andrew Brice committed a further $12 million of shares to the fund.

Wood has a simple reason for donating more than 10 per cent of his net worth to charity. "I didn't want to take it to my grave,” he says. "I'd sooner enjoy the benefits of giving in my lifetime.” The biggest benefit comes from working with the young people that are in touch with his charity. "You meet some extraordinary people that you just never meet in business. It's inspiring. These young people are the hope. They are the ones we've got to challenge to find their own way, because we've fucked things up for them.”

Wood has been very hands on with his charity work. "If I do it myself I know the money is going to work hard and I know the people involved are working hard.” One of his passions is sailing and for the last two years, Wood has raced two boats in the Sydney-to-Hobart: Wot Yot and Wot’s Next. The latter is crewed by a group of disadvantaged youth from Sydney, who spend the year before the race learning to sail and the year after mentoring a new group of young people, thereby creating a type of virtuous cycle.

Wood is not surprised Petre’s findings. He says there are two reasons for the stinginess of Australia’s super-rich: out-and-out greed and a concern that rich people should be giving their money to their children first and charity second. Wood disagrees violently and says children (he has three) need to find their own way. "I've seen it too many times - kids given a lump of money they can't handle and it’s a disaster.”

Wood believes it will be difficult to change the behaviour of Australia’s affluent towards philanthropy in the short term, but he hopes that heightened awareness around issues like conservation and sustainability may help create a mood of change. And while he’s no crusader, he hopes he is setting the right example. "I would hope that some of the stuff I do make people look up and think.”

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