Harold Mitchell says he gives for the same reason he takes – because he wants to build things, better things, things that improve and enrich lives. Greg Johnson sat down with the media boss and discovered a passionate yet assertive lover of society who believes strongly in the value of philanthropy.

For decades, Harold Mitchell has been widely regarded as the second most influential figure in Australian media behind Rupert Murdoch – though, as the nation’s biggest media buyer and sporting rights negotiator, you could argue that he has always held the power in that relationship, too.
 
After leaving his hometown of Stawell, Victoria, Mitchell cut his teeth in the fierce advertising world at USP Needham and Masius Wynne Williams in the ’60s and ’70s.  It was his decision in 1976 to establish his own media agency, Mitchell & Partners, which would see Mitchell become one of Australia’s most respected businessmen and ultimately venture into philanthropy.
 
After growing the business over three decades it was sold to listed company emitch in 2007, forming the Mitchell Communication Group where he continues to serve as executive chairman.  
Mitchell’s philanthropic journey was already well underway at that point though. After sporadic giving when and where he could, he launched the Harold Mitchell Foundation in 2000.
 
“I made about $10 million in 2000, and that gave me the chance to start the Harold Mitchell Foundation,” he explains. “Before that I’d just been very busy building up my business.”  
He attributes his desire to give to a phrase his father, who is now in his 90s, often said: ‘Son, always leave something for someone else’. It’s a responsibility that Mitchell believes should be shared by all.
 
“We will only do better as a society if we keep a balanced society, and the only way we can do that is by giving back,” he says. “We can do that by a taxation system which taxes us more and gives back that way, but inevitably governments will never be able to tax high enough, because they won’t get re-elected.
 
“So, it’s going to make a better society if firstly we as a nation spread our wealth and we as individuals do exactly the same,” he adds. “The great societies in history have done that, and so should we.”
 
Give, or get off
 
Mitchell isn’t just a major donor to Australian nonprofits – he has also brought his commercial acumen to the boards of many over the years. He has presided over Asthma Foundation of Victoria, National Gallery of Australia and Opera Australia in years past, and is currently chairman of CARE Australia, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and director of Deakin Foundation, to which he gave $1 million in 2010 towards the development of the Institute of Koorie Education. 
 
With all that board exposure under his belt, Mitchell is a passionate advocate of board members giving financially, in addition to their business skills. “Totally – if you expect others to give, you have to, too. It’s as simple as that,” he says. “We need to understand that much more, and not have people that are mere observers – you have to be a participant.” 
 
Evaluating the giving process
 
Mitchell, who is passionate about sport and well versed in its history, is uniquely positioned to comment on how fundraisers are dealing with major donors. As well as being a sitting board member and a major donor in his own right, Mitchell has also led a review of private sector support for the arts.
 
“I think we’re underway with a learning journey of how we deal with society in realising that people want to give, but they want to have a real reason that’s personal to them as to why,” he says. “So, it’s incumbent upon nonprofits to find that reason, satisfy and appreciate it.
 
“That means a lot of hard work, research, understanding and gratitude along the way and that’s something that we’re all getting better at,” he adds. “We’re quite good, but we can get better at it.”
 
While Mitchell does the due diligence you’d expect from a businessman of his ilk, there’s ultimately one thing he looks for when it comes to considering a major gift.
 
“I do look for one simple thing: will this amount make a difference? That’s probably the key, will it make a difference; will it be a slightly better world because of it. Simple.”
 
Anonymous giver goes public

While the 69-year-old doesn’t portray the image of someone who has many regrets in life, he has learned the importance of being open about his philanthropy during his journey.

“I did everything anonymously in the beginning, but later I felt it would be helpful if I told more about it,” he explains. “It wasn’t so I’d feel better; it was so that more would give. It’s been part of my journey in philanthropy, absolutely.

“I did many things, including a $1.5 million gift to an arts organisation on the proviso that they didn’t tell anybody – including my family,” he laughs, recalling his 2001 donation to the National Gallery of Australia towards the purchase of After Cezanne. “I realised later that it helps others if they know you give something.”

A reminiscent smile adorns Mitchell’s face when asked if he knows just how much he’s given away over the years. His support staff indicated that $6 million had been granted through the foundation, but that even Mitchell didn’t know the total tally including his private donations. “They’re absolutely right – it’s another amount, but no, I don’t know,” he responds.

Mitchell expects to become the chairman of his foundation in 2012, as his focus shifts more towards philanthropy. While the foundation’s support has been predominately in the arts and health over its first decade, Mitchell expects the scope could widen over coming years.

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