Corporate king, philanthropist, and member of the Prime Minister’s Community Business Partnership, David Gonski AO is able to change the colour of his skin at will, and his many hats give him a unique perspective on the community.

davidGonski2Corporate king, philanthropist, and member of the Prime Minister’s Community Business Partnership, David Gonski AO is able to change the colour of his skin at will, and his many hats give him a unique perspective on the community.

In a world where we are continually told that things move “seamlessly” from one area to another, it seems the word was invented for David Gonski. He can slip from the corporate jungle to the hallowed halls of the Art Gallery of NSW, and then on to Canberra to lobby the government. It’s all in a day’s work.

His directorships read like a shopping list of the premium brands in corporate and community Australia. Space does not allow for a full rendition, but the corporate list includes: chairman of Coca-Cola Amatil; director of ANZ, Westfield, ING and John Fairfax.

His community hats include: chairman of the Council of the Arts, chairman of the National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA) and chairman of the Art Gallery of NSW.

And then there’s the role he plays in advising the federal government on issues related to charities and the not-for-profit sector. He was instrumental in helping to establish private prescribed funds as a new way for wealthy Australians to give more easily to not-for-profits.

The human hatstand stood still long enough for a brief chat between appointments.

What events and experiences shaped your keen sense of community and views on philanthropy?

My mother was very socially aware and I remember she was always bullying me from a young age to think more widely than the commercial side. She was keen that I was always thinking of the underdog, the person who always needed assistance.

I was also very fortunate to be placed on the board, at a tender age (23), of the Roma School for the Disabled. The kids there got into my heart and suddenly I found myself really wanting to do more for these people. And the irony was that the more I did for them, the more reward I got. Whether it be a smile of a child, the glow of the parents …. it opened my eyes.

People in Australia generally don’t like to talk about their philanthropic acts, probably because they don’t like to “big note” themselves. However in America the subject is a lot more open. I wonder if this cultural trait of ours actually inhibits the growth of philanthropy in Australia?

I think that in 2004 there is a lot more being discussed about philanthropy than there was in the year 2000 and certainly than the year 1948 when the old tax act was put together.

On the question of people not wanting to talk about their giving, firstly I champion that right, there is absolutely no reason if people don’t want to talk about it, want to give anonymously, that’s up to them. But I think a lot of people are realising that part of philanthropy is to own up to it and thereby set an example for others.

We are an interesting nation in that, quite a lot of the time when people do good things or achieve success, we criticise. In America quite often they emulate rather than criticise. When it comes to philanthropic acts I hope we are moving more towards emulation.

People in Australia have been giving, be it time or money for years. I hope that philanthropy is not just associated with the rich, but rather be something that everybody feels they should do. I’m trying to push some of our bigger donors to take naming rights, to actually stand up for and be proud of their deed, and certainly it’s beginning.

Do you actually talk amongst your peers about philanthropy?

People talk about it all the time. At my age, 50, a lot of people who have been lucky enough to have jobs and to get the financial rewards that have come through the last 20-25 years are saying to themselves they want to give back. A lot of people are realising that in giving, you actually get.

For example I’ve done a lot of work with the arts and I have gotten so much back from it. I’ve met artists that I would never have been able to meet otherwise, and who probably wouldn’t have wanted to meet me.

Arthur Boyd taught me to look at the differences in green in a forest. I mean who would have thought that somebody trained in commerce and law would ever be interested in looking at different greens other than green pens in an audit. Arthur showed me that very innocently and I’ll never forget it all my life.

You’re a member of the Prime Minister’s Community Business Partnership – what have been some of the outcomes of this group?

Our achievements have been twofold. Firstly, the tax amendments that we sought to implement have set a course that made it easier to give, and they have shown that the legislature is in favour of giving.

The second part is in trying to change thinking. I believe the Prime Ministerial Awards did something for the community to put CRI (corporate responsibility indexes) on the map. I think that has also helped an increase in giving.

Some fundraising professionals believe that philanthropy, in the purest sense of the word, doesn’t exist in corporate Australia. When it comes to a relationship with a charity corporates are focused on attaining leverage and benefits for themselves.

I’d agree that corporate philanthropy has dropped. My view is that corporate sponsorship, as distinct from philanthropy, is very important.

Corporates need, in fact I’d go so far as to say if a corporate just gives, for example a corporate giving anonymously, I’m not sure it’s the right use of a corporate’s money.

Corporates have certain other things that they’ve got to achieve. They’ve got to achieve benefit from their money in some way; it might be increasing their standing or getting their name as a household word because they backed something.

Individuals don’t have that. Individuals can, in the definition of true philanthropy, just do it because the heart moves one to do it.

In terms of corporate life I think that workplace giving and the matching of workplace giving schemes is going to grow a lot. And when corporates ask me “how do you reconcile just giving money to a charity”, I say well don’t do that, ask your staff what they’d like to give to, then match their endeavours. This is very motivating for staff.

So if your colleagues are saying that they think corporate philanthropy is dropping, they must define what they mean by corporate philanthropy. If they are saying that the giving by a company willy-nilly to just anybody is dropping, they are absolutely right. If they say that matching schemes, which is giving by companies are dropping, then they are wrong, because that is increasing.

A number of corporates have set up foundations over the last few years, but it seems there has been no real increase in giving from this sector. Have the foundations been set up to give the impression that corporates care but in fact aren’t walking their talk?

Foundations make corporate support more professional and transparent. In years gone by it used to be the CEO or chairman who decided what support was given.

David, you’ve been involved on both sides of fundraising, the giving and the asking. What has been the best approach to you? What are the key things that impress you about a good ask?

The first thing is the link between me and the person asking me. The chance of getting a decent sized gift out of me by a stranger who has just walked in the room is small. If the person is a friend, colleague, or someone I’ve heard of or aspired to be, they’re much more likely to succeed.

Secondly, you’ve got to tailor the ask to the individual. I will never forget somebody coming to see me and asking me to give money in the name of a person, who, frankly I’d had a big fight with and it was quite well known I had. Of course I didn’t support that particular project.

Thirdly, the potential donor must have an empathy for your cause. For example, in the arts I might be a soft touch. Whilst I love sport, to come to me for sports things is probably not a brilliant move because I’m not a great sportsman.

What role should CEO’s or board members of nonprofits play when it comes to major gifts fundraising?

The head of the organisation is always the best weapon. If you are blessed with a head who is flamboyant and can sell a dream, who walks and talks their organisation and has charisma, you’re very lucky.

If you’ve got a wonderful person who doesn’t have any of that charisma, it’s a negative. My recommendation in that situation is find somebody who does have it and appoint them quickly.

And what about not-for-profit board members?

I think the Americans have probably got it right when they say “give, get or get off”. It’s very blunt, but let’s face it, in not-for-profits, most of what you (board members) are there for is to help on the financial vision side of things, and that includes working out where to get money and helping get it.

There’s probably a perception amongst Australians that it’s the government’s responsibility to support not-for-profits and charities, and some people use this as an excuse not to give. What are your views?

I hear that all the time and I understand it, but I look at it like this. The government pays for the big battleship that moves through life. Philanthropy can pay for the little frigate that can do the extra bits, go round the battleship, go and deliver some extra supplies to some needy people.

There are some Canadian stats which show that total giving in Canada (which is not insubstantial) amounts to about 1% of the annual health budget.

You might say “so what – 1%”, but that 1% may be the defibrillator that’s in the ambulance that you may need. It might be the extra thing that allows a kid to travel to America for surgery. It’s the thing that can actually bring compassion. Governments have to be for everyone throughout a country. But philanthropy can give the extra specifics, the caring bits.

The arts are close to your heart, but this sector seems to struggle for funds. Do you think it’s more difficult to raise funds for the arts than for other causes?

Compared to what? Against children’s charities and disaster relief, then yes it’s more difficult. We don’t get our share of the pie. However, the arts is central to people’s lives and it’s up to arts organisations to show the importance of the arts.

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