Behind the flapping of Dick Smith’s Aussie flag is a small Scout selling social good, Sam Gibbs discovers.
He’s the bloke who floated across Australia in a hot air balloon, the larrikin who dragged a prank “iceberg from Antarctica” into Sydney Harbour, the Australian Geographic guy. Several years running, he’s been named by Reader’s Digest readers among “Australia’s Most Trusted”, with the likes of neurosurgeon Charlie Teo.
But Dick Smith (right) is adamantly not a crowd-pleaser. He readily voices strong opinions on overpopulation, energy, the economy – and being called “generous”. “I don’t want to be labelled a ‘do-gooder’,” he says. “I don’t want to be seen as generous. I don’t belong to any philanthropy groups. I don’t like to be seen to be talking about my philanthropy, and I don’t have any qualifications. I’m a nothing. I’m antisocial. I just like going bushwalking by myself.”
The problem is that Smith – driven by the belief “everyone deserves a fair go” – is one of Australia’s most generous businessmen philanthropists.
Over 400 nonprofit causes and projects have received more than $6 million from Dick Smith Foods – his all-Aussie company which gives 100% of profits to charity. Among them are museums, fire brigades, hospitals, kids, veterans, people with disabilities, threatened animals, surf lifesavers, galleries, medical research, crisis centres, aid providers, emergency services, education, and community events.
“We copied the Newman’s Own Foundation,” Smith says of his trademark simulation business strategy. “They’ve donated $18 million to charity in Australia by selling their foods. We set up Dick Smith Foods to do the same. We’re on a little over $6 million now.” (In October, another focus for the company was fighting to avoid the threat of closure, lost jobs and “millions less that we will be giving back to our community.”)
Smith’s proudest charitable achievement? Starting the Variety ‘Bourke to Burketown Bash’ (as it was first known). In 30 years these rallies have raised over $200 million for disadvantaged Aussie kids. “It’s the most pleasing thing I’ve been involved in,” he says.
Sir Vincent Fairfax and a boyhood dream
“When I was a little boy – maybe six or seven – my mother asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up,” he says. “‘A thilanthrupist’ I told her.” (Young Richard had a speech impediment that he often cites as feeding his determination to succeed).
“She asked me what one of those was, and I told her, ‘It’s a person who has done so well, they can give money away to other people.’ I was hopeless at school. I never expected to make money. But I knew I wanted to give some away.”
Then when he was 20, Smith’s Sydney East Roseville Scout Hall received a visit from Sir Vincent Fairfax – then Chief Scout Commissioner of Australia – in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. “He shook my hand,” says the now 70-year-old excitedly. “A Knight of the Realm! It was like meeting the Queen!” When Sir Vincent told Smith he’d come to show support for Scout volunteers, “I knew, then, that he was a great philanthropist. He has been my inspiration ever since.”
Giving a family affair
You won’t ever spy any Dick Smith buildings, hangars, or ovals – Smith abhors the idea – but you’ll find both his and his wife, Pip’s, names on the family foundation, which like The Dick Smith Foods Foundation is a Private Ancillary Fund (PAF).
“Pip recently received an AO,” he says, “and she deserves the credit. Most of these foundations have just got the name of the bloke who set it up: the Fairfax Foundation, The Myer Foundation. It was fair that we call ours the Dick and Pip Smith Foundation. Because Pip’s been here all the way, and it’s half her money!”
“About 20% of our giving goes overseas – we’ve built a school in Afghanistan and a hospital in Somalia,” he explains. “Ten per cent goes to arts and ballet interests of Pip’s. The rest goes to local causes, charities, and people who won’t find help elsewhere … Every day I sit at my desk and go through more than 50 letters from people asking for help.”
In 2013 the family PAF partnered with the Lions Club in Smith’s first gift-matching project. Lions received $1 million and the challenge to raise an equal figure. “It means we’ve really doubled the money that reaches families in need,” he says happily. “We might do it with Rotary next – if they’re interested.”
Carrying it forward
Smith doesn’t like to mention how much he and Pip have given away since starting Dick Smith Electronics with $610 at the ages of 24 and 19, but says when he reaches the pearly gates, most his wealth will have been pledged – with his family’s blessing.
“We had a family meeting, and both of our daughters – and their families – were delighted that most of our money will go to charity,” he says. “We’re no billionaires, but a substantial amount will go into the Dick and Pip Foundation when we die. And hopefully they’ll carry it forward.”
Sam Gibbs is the outgoing editor of Generosity (www.generositymag. com.au) where this article was first published.