John M Green has stuck his philanthropic toe in the waters of public giving for the first time, with a $500,000 gift to University of New South Wales. Greg Johnson learns about the latest chapter in his journey.

If ever there was a philanthropist who has experienced all the phases of the journey to becoming a major donor, Sydney-based novelist and company director John M Green would be it. Born into a migrant working-class family, Green received a scholarship to study at University of New South Wales’ newly-created law faculty in the 1970s – where he was first exposed to volunteering as president of the student’s union and later a board member of UNSW Press.

The 59-year-old’s career in the corporate world included time as a partner at legal firm Freehills, before making the switch to investment banker as an executive director at Macquarie Bank, where he was also director of the Macquarie Group Foundation. Green currently sits as a non-executive director on the boards of engineering firm Worley Parsons and QBE Insurance, while assisting daughter Alison with the running of the publishing company they founded, Pantera Press, and finding time to author his own novels.

“For many, many years, what I was doing was giving my time because I didn’t have any money,” explains Green. “As my career started to do reasonably well, then I started to back that with money as well.”

A life-long bond with UNSW

There’s a strong connection between Green and UNSW. It was more than just his alma mater – it represents an important period of Green’s life, during which he married teenage sweetheart Jenny, who also studied at UNSW.

Green’s involvement with the university has continued over the last four decades. He has donated privately to the institution and has even served on a capital campaign committee. But it was a $500,000 donation last year towards law scholarships – valued at $100,000 each for students from disadvantaged backgrounds – which saw Green’s philanthropy enter a whole new domain: the public one.

“The law faculty’s 40th anniversary was coming up and my wife and I talked about what we could do as part of that,” recalls Green. “We discussed the idea quite a bit and approached the university about what we might be able to do and we decided on scholarships. Clearly, the idea of trying to encourage others as well was tied into it.”

Finding philanthropic inspiration among friends

Amongst Green’s philanthropic inspirations is close friend and fellow UNSW alumnus-turned-chancellor David Gonski. Observing the impact of Gonski’s public philanthropy, along with that of another friend Simon Mordant, led Green to make his first public major donation to UNSW.

“I think what I’ve taken out of them … I guess I’ve changed my approach,” starts Green. “Previously, the philanthropy I’ve been involved in has been anonymous or quiet. When I’ve seen what they’ve done by not being anonymous or quiet – they are actually encouraging others.

“I guess I woke up one day and thought that that’s actually the right thing to do, because we need to encourage our friends and peers who have the opportunity to do these things, and it is a bit hard to do that if you’re quiet,” he continues.

Searching for the right ingredients

While his approach to giving had historically been emotion-driven, in more recent years it has migrated to a strategic approach to ensure it achieves a direct impact. As part of his consideration process, Green looks at an organisation’s track record and its leadership at CEO and board level.

He points to former chief executive officer of The Smith Family, Elaine Henry, as an example of a nonprofit leader with the ability to inspire major donors through their leadership. Green supports the organisation’s Let’s Read program through a three-year agreement with Pantera Press, which not only donates part of its profits towards the creation of 14 new Let’s Read communities, but encourages everyone who purchases one of its books to also make a donation.

“She changed the organisation from providing tactical to strategic help – and that’s what we’re much more excited about. Not only does it change lives, but it actually does it in a way that takes the community forward.”

He also considers the cost of administration and fundraising figures, yet his views on these areas are somewhat refreshing. Green wants to see a reasonable amount spent on administration to ensure a project can be delivered in a professional and efficient manner.

“I’d much rather have a little bit higher admin costs to make sure that the impact is greater, than have it run on a shoe-string and not be efficient,” he says.

Giving privately vs publically

Green’s scholarship donation to UNSW was his first step into the world of public individual philanthropy. He is yet to decide whether any possible future major gifts will be in a public or private fashion, but the experience has helped open him to the possibility of more public giving as his philanthropic journey continues to evolve.

“I am much more alive to it than I was before,” he admits. “It’s not something I feel so naturally comfortable with; I like my privacy, so this has been quite a step in a way.”

Since our interview, the Greens have been named amongst the donors to the Museum of Contemporary Art’s $53 million redevelopment, but have chosen not to disclose details of their contribution. 

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