Christopher Abbott at his home office in Sydney.

Before donating $7 million to University of Wollongong, Christopher Abbott had little history with the university. Greg Johnson explains how in three short years, the philanthropist made the largest ever donation to the university.

If there’s one thing Christopher Abbott is more passionate about than investing in business, it’s investing in children. He comfortably rattles off how many stimulations a child’s brain can process while sitting back in a hand-carved wooden armchair in a home office above his garage in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, yet details of the hundreds of thousands of dollars he’s donated over 20 years are less easily recalled.

It’s a clear demonstration that while Abbott is focussed on investing in children, it’s the outcome that matters most. “I’ve always been most interested in children, because if you give money to people my age there is no capital investment – it’s going to be lost in quite a short time,” he smiles. “Whereas if you help children become better educated, it’s going to last 50 years, maybe even 70.”

It’s no coincidence that Abbott uses the term investment so readily, having generated his wealth originally through the establishment of investment management firm Maple-Brown Abbott in the 1980s. While he’s now semi-retired, Abbott is still active in business and known as a prominent biotech investor through his firm Asia Union Investments.

Unusual path to giving

Dalwood Homes, which educated children with dyslexia and attention hyperactive deficit disorder, was the first recipient of Abbott’s philanthropy in the late 1980s. While he came to love the cause and people involved, giving around $700,000 over nearly two decades, it was an unusual trigger that prompted Abbott’s first act of philanthropy.

“I think the reason I gave them the first $1,000 was that someone wanted a political donation from me and I refused,” he recalls. “Afterwards, I wondered whether I had refused because I was tight or whether I just didn’t like the idea of political donations, so I decided to make a $1,000 donation to Dalwood.”

While Abbott only formalised his philanthropy in 2009 with the creation of a private ancillary fund (PAF), setup by PKF Australia, he has been giving ever since that first donation to Dalwood House. Ironically, having managed Myer Family Company money through Maple-Brown Abbott in the early days, it is now the Myers looking after Abbott’s funds, with the Abbott Foundation managed through its philanthropic services division.

After being established with a $14 million endowment, the foundation will have $10 million remaining following the capital investment in the University of Wollongong project. That will see it required to distribute $500,000 annually to meet its obligations as a PAF.

“The most exciting donation I’ve ever made”

His interest in children led Abbott to make his most significant gift yet to the University of Wollongong (UoW) last December. The $7 million donation – the largest ever received by the university – will be joined by $32 million in government funding to build an early start facility which will feature a children’s discovery centre.

“This is the most exciting donation I’ve ever made,” Abbott says, before describing room-by-room the different activities that will be available in the centre and how it will contribute to advancing children’s education.

While Abbott describes it has his first “very substantial” gift to the organisation, it is in fact his second gift to UoW, having previously given $170,000 to the university. Abbott’s relationship with the university only dates back three years, when a Myer Family Company staff member with knowledge of his interest in children suggested meeting the university and cold-called to arrange a meeting with then vice chancellor Gerard Sutton.

It’s clear that Abbott has a heavy interest in children’s discovery centres as he begins to explain the funding models of three different centres he has visited in the United States of America.

A few tips for fundraisers

Abbott strongly believes there’s a need for fundraisers to study the technique of asking for money. He also reveals that he very much likes the opportunity to visit projects he has funded and encourages such opportunities to be available to donors whenever possible.

“There was one girl who was here for 45 minutes and the only possible reason for her to be here was that she wanted some money,” he explains. “She never actually put the hard word on me though – she never asked. I e-mailed her later on to tell her she’s not doing it properly.”

While relationships are at the heart of major gift fundraising, Abbott’s experience shows that a shared goal and vision for how to achieve it can help to fast track the process. The crucial key to unlock that success, however, rests in the alignment of vision between both parties.

“If I like the people and we’re thinking along the same lines, then I will probably put my hand in the pocket,” explains Abbott. “I certainly don’t want fundraisers just coming and knocking on my door, but if someone came to me and said, ‘I want to start a children’s discovery centre, I’ve raised $300,000, and can you top it up” – that would definitely be appealing to me.”

Greg Johnson
Greg Johnson is the editor of Fundraising & Philanthropy Magazine.

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