Relationships are a crucial element of major gift fundraising for Paul Wheelton, who gave $500,000 to the Northern Health Foundation. Nicole Richards learned more about his views on philanthropic myths, education and the need for cultural change.

Paul Wheelton OAM is a straight shooter who doesn’t tiptoe around issues. He favours action over words and solid long-term gains over flashy short-term outputs. Above all, he is a passionate believer in two things: the power of education to change lives, and a shared social responsibility to help others.

“As Australians we like to think that we’re very generous when it comes to charitable giving, but in fact it’s a bit of a myth,” Paul says. “ATO figures show that 67% of tax payers do not claim a single deduction for a charitable gift – not even a two dollar donation!” 

Determined to lead attitudinal change by example, Paul uses a simple formula to govern his own giving: 20% of his income goes to nonprofits and 80% of his time is devoted to charitable causes. 

Paul is a committed exponent of the ‘living will’, believing it’s better to distribute money during your lifetime. “I just don’t think having family members waiting around for a person to die and then getting into acrimonious disputes is what it should be about,” he says. “If you give away significant amounts over several years it not only has the potential to change the lives of the beneficiaries but it also helps nonprofits plan ahead.”

An active member of the nonprofit community, Paul is currently deputy chairman of Life Education Australia, chairman of the Bali Children’s Foundation, and oversees the work of the Wheelton Family Charitable Trust.

Changing futures through education

Paul credits his own good fortune and business success to his education. Raised in an Anglican family of modest means, his parents borrowed money to give him a private school education. “Looking back, I can see the incredible advantage this gave me,” he says. “All my career achievements are due to my education – I’ve always felt very blessed.”

A certified accountant, Paul worked his way up in the vehicle rental industry to become chief accountant for Budget Rent-A-Car. He now owns Australia’s largest Budget franchise group and has numerous business interests in property and resorts.

Paul contends there is a powerful synergy between business and education as a force for change. “If I look around the world at what changes communities and brings people out of despair, it’s commerce and education,” he says. “The successful combination of these two factors in turn helps governments and NGOs to get on with their work.”

The Wheelton Family Charitable Trust is involved in long-term projects in Australia and overseas. Its support of the Bali Children Foundation encompasses five orphanages and enables 600 children to participate in a formal education program and English classes.

“Every parent wants the best for their child, but many families can’t afford school and that’s why so many kids end up working in the fields by the age of 10,” Paul says. “Helping these children stay in school is a huge step, and we’re seeing incredible changes locally with four students now on their way to university.”

Relationship fundraising

Beyond an education theme, Paul doesn’t have a fixed set of criteria for projects he chooses to fund, but he does like to know someone who’s involved. Networking, he says, is critical in the nonprofit sector.

“I don’t go out there actively seeking a project to fund,” he says. “Everything I’ve been involved with has come through various relationships.”

Relationships are a central theme of Paul’s work and he believes many NGOs could improve their nurturing of major donor relationships. “Everything is about a relationship,” he explains. “Nonprofits need to consider donors as key stakeholders and respect them by building them into the business plan. Make them feel appreciated – don’t just send a letter once a year asking for more money.”

Preferring to keep his involvement project-based, Paul believes in giving space for others to contribute their own strengths and skill sets. “I like to be the catalyst to draw others in and get the ball rolling,” he says. “Many projects need significant funding to get started, but once they’re up and running there are lots of people who are ready to help at the next level down.”

Expanding Northern Health’s horizons

One of the Wheelton Family Charitable Trust’s most significant recent gifts was a $500,000 contribution towards the construction of Northern Health’s Teaching, Training and Research Precinct (TTRP) in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. The area is home to one of Australia’s fastest growing and most diverse communities, and experiences substantial levels of socio-economic disadvantage. With the busiest emergency department in Victoria, Northern Health faces significant challenges to provide services that meet the growing needs of the community.

“My decision to become involved in the TTRP as a greenfield project was such a logical thing,” Paul says. “To be able to contribute to the training and education of the next generation of medical professionals, particularly in an area that has had trouble in the past competing for staff and resources with larger inner city health services, is enormously important.”

True to his ethos, Paul’s involvement in the TTRP came about from his existing relationship with Northern Health Foundation director, Ryan Brown. Paul hadn’t previously donated to Northern Health Foundation, but did know Ryan from a previous organisation.

“I’ve no personal involvement in the area,” Paul explains, “but when Ryan approached me with a comprehensive business case and detailed concept I was immediately interested.”

“I was very impressed with Ryan’s approach,” adds Paul. “Not only did he present me with an online 3D model of the TTRP, which was spectacular and completely engaging, but he also outlined his broader plan of developing a giving culture in the northern suburbs. It struck me that the whole concept and what they’re doing is very smart.”

With an estimated 600,000 nonprofits operating in Australia, achieving a competitive advantage is one of the biggest challenges facing fundraisers. “So many nonprofits fail to operate as a serious business,” Paul says. “Sometimes that means you’ve got to spend money wisely to make money. For instance, invest a little money to create a really impressive proposal that is going to help sell your proposition and get some cut through in what really is a busy, overpopulated space.”

Shifting philanthropic attitudes

Paul’s next philanthropic enterprise is the development of a website intended to draw attention to the true state of philanthropy in Australia. The site will provide statistics on charitable giving, publicise major gifts and encourage a nationwide culture of giving.

“We plan to use the site as an education tool to encourage all Australians – particularly the wealthy ones – to increase their rate of giving,” he explains. “6,395 Australians earned more than a million dollars in 2009 – yet 37% of these millionaires didn’t lodge a claim for any charitable donation whatsoever.” 

Despite those statistics, Paul remains optimistic that attitudes and rates of giving will change. “Historically, I think we’ve been limited by the tall poppy syndrome and I really believe education is needed,” he says. “I don’t believe in belting people over the head about it, but I do think we should be publicising donor gifts and going into schools to educate young people on the importance of giving.

“Some people think they can’t afford to give until their mortgage is completely paid off,” adds Paul. “Others get caught up in the media hype about the global economy and are afraid to give some of their money away. We need a commitment to give regardless of economic conditions – people are still in need whether the financial markets are booming or not. Charitable giving should simply be part of everyone’s budget.”

The Northern Health Foundation welcomes your feedback on philanthropy in Australia. To comment, please visit or e-mail [email protected]

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