Hamish Balnaves sat down with Liz Henderson to discuss his giving inspirations, his goals and what it’s like being a second generation philanthropist.


Hamish Balnaves with CCI scientists Dr Dan Carter and Dr Vincent Jing- SMALLER

Caption: Hamish Balnaves with Children’s Cancer Institute grant recipients, Dr Dan Carter (left) and Dr Vincent Jing.

Hamish Balnaves says philanthropy was something his childhood in Sydney was preparing him for, even though it wasn’t a particular focus of his family’s life then.

“Rather than it being very obvious or talked about when we were younger, values were being instilled in us – a sense of civic duty and concern for others,” he remembers.

So when the successful media entrepreneur, Neil Balnaves, opened discussions with Hamish and his sisters, Alexandra and Victoria, about putting the wealth that would have become theirs into a family foundation, “it was kind of a no-brainer for all of us,” Hamish says. “We were all happy with the idea. We wanted to be part of it.”

He grins a little, as he adds: “I guess you could say, in a cheeky way, that if there was going to be less inheritance, we wanted some say in how it was going to be spent.”

Hamish is certainly doing that. The Balnaves Foundation was established in 2006 and three years later, aged 32, he became its General Manager.

A learning curve

Hamish has an Economics degree majoring in social sciences from The University of Sydney, and trained as a high-school teacher. He’d been teaching both in Australia and overseas including in the Czech Republic and Argentina when “I was ready to try something new,” he reveals. Working in the foundation was his father’s idea.

“Many times growing up, I’d said ‘No’ to him, when it was potentially working with him in his business career. At that point in time I thought I’d try it. No-one would be surprised if working with your father didn’t work out. Fortunately it did, and six years later I’m still here!”

“It was definitely a learning curve, doing some grants to see what worked and what didn’t,” he admits. “But I was given the space and room to jump in and make errors, rather than sitting down and learning a theoretical framework.”

A typical day now sees the 38-year-old managing the portfolio of investments that comprise the foundation’s corpus, which is currently around $47 million. Over $2.4 million is distributed to not-for-profit organisations each year. He also manages the six other trustees, who include his parents and siblings, in reviewing and deciding on grants.

Love of giving grew ‘organically’

Neil Balnaves’ drive to give stems in part from having childhood polio then in 2002 barely surviving a boat accident, after which he sold his entertainment company, Southern Star, and resolved to use his wealth to help others.

His son describes the inspiration for his own philanthropy as being “more of an organic passion than a watershed moment. It’s something that’s grown in me, seeing what’s possible and what you can do, and by seeing the fruit of our giving over a period of time.”

Although he’d like to start being more proactive in seeking out the best organisation working in a cause area and funding it for the greatest social return, Hamish isn’t seeking a different path to his father’s. He’s equally committed to the foundation’s cause areas. 

“Medicine, the arts and education, they are the three basic pillars for bettering society,” he points out. “The very core of innovation is the arts, it is the proving ground for ideas.”

Not just funding, but believing

Asked about the foundation’s approach to grants, Hamish says this goes well beyond simply handing over a cheque.

“We don’t just fund something, we become a believer in it,” he notes. “We turn up to things. Often if we can, we provide other support like introductions or just general observations and ideas. Once we get to know an organisation it is not unusual for us to provide further funding that builds on or complements the first grant.”

Of the grants that have meant the most to him, he mentions a recent donation of $100,000 each to young postdoctoral researchers from Children’s Cancer Institute – one is investigating leukaemia; the other, the devastating and aggressive cancer type, neuroblastoma.

“That grant was backing young researchers,” he says. “It was not just important for the scientific outcomes, but it also helped those young scientists access more grant funding. Young scientists are often in the catch 22 of needing successful research outcomes to get government funding but they need funding to get that initial research success. Those we supported have all gone on to receive larger government grants and have accessed federal funding earlier in their career as a result. Effectively it helped kick-start their career.”

Another highlight, he says, has been committing $1.4 million to UNSW to fund scholarships for indigenous people to study medicine, which he believes will play a key role in closing the health gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. “Yesterday I went to a graduation,” he says. “To see these students go on and make a difference is what brings it into focus.”

Weighing up the merits

When choosing which charities will receive grants, “It’s different for every grant application,” he says. “Some require more management consideration, especially if they’re a bit entrepreneurial or the organisation is smaller.”

To monitor the foundation’s impact, milestones are identified at the outset for successful applicants. They’re also expected to provide at least six monthly reports, read by the trustees before their quarterly meetings.

“But being able to observe, experience and feel, to meet people, is far better than something in writing,” says Hamish. “Like when we meet medical researchers and find out their aspirations – it becomes personal and real.”

Asked what mistakes charities make when dealing with philanthropists, he says attention to detail should never be overlooked.

As an example, he explains: “We send a letter to a charity confirming a grant and it gives a schedule of when we will pay the money. And one month before the payment is due, they’re asked to please send an invoice requesting the funds. It is amazing how often we don’t get that, the time period expires and we have to chase them to send us an invoice. You would just think that’s so bread and butter, and it makes you worried.”

It’s Hamish’s belief, though, that philanthropists themselves should reconsider what they’re doing if they never have any concerns after making a grant. “They’re maybe doing grants that are too safe,” he reflects. “The social problems are big and the solutions are going to be creative and entrepreneurial, especially in our fast-changing world. The government isn’t good at funding such solutions, so there is a role to fund things that otherwise wouldn’t get funding or have no chance at getting government funding.”  

Giving through the generations

Reflecting on his dad’s description that passing on too much wealth to your children is a “curse”, and being a dad himself (to two-year-old William – who he laughingly reveals is currently “more concerned with what’s ‘mine’ and taking things off other kids”), he says: “As a parent you want and hope your kids will be okay, and you want to look after them, but not too much to dampen their interest in working. Work is important psychologically.”

On the challenges of being a second generation philanthropist – especially within the structure of a family foundation – Hamish sees one as being the need to find a balance between both building on and evolving the goals set by the founding generation.

“The founder of a foundation is a unique and one-off role,” he says. “It’s the person who made the money, and respect is due to them.”

“However any philanthropic fund should change significantly over time, in line with the passions and interests of the next generation. Otherwise the foundation would not be dynamic and something that brings the family together to do things the family is passionate about. But at the same time it’s important to build up that collective wisdom and experience, and not lose the core principles set up by the founder.”

As for the rewards of following in his father’s footsteps? “The best thing is that usually over a longer period of time you’ll get to see the fruit of what you’re doing,” he says. “I look forward to being 70, 80, and being able to look back on what we’ve achieved over 30, 40 years.”

The Balnaves Foundation fast facts

Structure: Private Ancillary Fund

Corpus: $47 million

Annual grants: Over $2.4 million

Mission: To create a better Australia through education, medicine and the arts with a focus on young, disadvantaged and Indigenous people

Organisations supported: Children’s Cancer Institute, Bond University, UNSW, Cerebral Palsy Alliance


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