In this Q&A, Simon Mordant and John Grill share their insights on modern philanthropy in Australia.

Between them, philanthropists Simon Mordant, AM and John Grill, AO have plenty of experience in both major gift-giving and big business.

Mordant is a long-time corporate advisor and recently retired managing director of the global investment banking company Greenhill. With his wife, Catriona, Mordant started making significant charity gifts 15 years ago after they resolved to give away all their wealth during their lifetime. In 2010 they gave $15 million to support a major re-development at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

As for Grill, in 2012 he supported excellence in industry through a $20 million gift to establish the John Grill Centre for Project Leadership at the University of Sydney, where he studied before going on to become chief executive officer of international resources and energy company WorleyParsons.

At Fundraising and Philanthropy magazine’s recent major gifts seminar, they shared their insights, what compels them to give and the surprises they’ve encountered along the way.

At a very basic level, why give?

SM: I’m a new Australian – I emigrated here when I was 23. I’ve done well in this community and I want the community to be better. My wife and I don’t believe in inheritance – we’ve seen the damage that the prospects of an inheritance or an actual inheritance has done to many families. Instead, we have a shared passion to give everything we’ve got while we’re alive. Our view is we’d like to leave the community in better shape in the areas that we’re passionate about by the time we depart the planet and that’s what drives us.

At what point in life you did you start thinking about giving at higher levels?

JG: It happened around the time I was looking to step down as CEO of Worley Parsons. I was in an aeroplane 60 per cent of the time prior to that, so the ability to give thought to philanthropic donations was limited.

When I went through with the university donation it was a process of probably 18 months, working with the university, the vice chancellor and agreeing to a structure for how that donation would be used. It started from a casual conversation I had with the dean of engineering. I had an idea that Australia was deficient in its project leadership education, and the dean and I had quite different ideas on how we might fill that hole. So we then agreed that we’d have a workshop with a number of different faculties and business people and myself where we would work through a plan for what something might look like if it were to succeed in the project leadership area.

To cut a long story short, ultimately that plan got the agreement of the vice chancellor and faculty heads who were all intimately involved in the process and I think we’ve ended up with a very worthwhile end.

What was the trigger for you to give larger amounts? 

SM: I used to prepare my own tax return so, every year, I’d see I was doing a lot of small donations really without much thought – mostly to friends who had involvement in community organisations. About 25 years ago my wife and I realised that wasn’t a very effective way of going. We decided we wanted to be more impactful and as a consequence, that meant we each wanted to get involved in the organisations we were going to support. That had consequences – the first was time.

The writing of the cheque is actually the easy bit, but if you want to get involved in understanding the issues you need to put time and effort into that. Then our financial circumstances obviously defined an amount of money we had to give away and that grew as my business became more successful. Our philosophy has evolved and we now support a very small number of organisations, but in a very big way. Mostly one of us is heavily involved with that organisation as well.

Did you have any particular mentors or role models?

SM: Someone like Chuck Feeney comes to mind as a person who did very well in business and decided to give everything away during his lifetime and is a big believer in partnerships like my wife and I, though we didn’t know of him or what he was doing until a long time after we embarked on our journey.

Was the decision to go public about your giving a difficult one to make?

SM: It was a difficult journey for us, but having been asked to lead the campaign to raise $53 million for the redevelopment of the MCA we felt not only did we have to make a leadership gift – which was very natural because we were very passionate about the project – but if we were then going to go out and ask other people to support us, it was inevitable that we were going to have to go out ourselves.

It was a really challenging thing for us because we were very nervous about our perception of the tall poppy syndrome that we thought still existed in Australia. I have to say, I think we’ve gone well beyond that today but at the time we were so concerned about it that we took ourselves overseas knowing the date of the announcement. But the response was extraordinary – not only did we not get any negative feedback but within 24 hours another two families each came forward with seven-figure donations.

How do you measure the impact of your charitable investments?

SM: I think it really depends on the specific area you are giving to. When we decided to get involved with the expansion of the MCA, we were obviously interested in what benefits the institution would derive from an expansion, just putting up another building in itself wouldn’t necessarily solve a problem so I wanted to understand the issues, then we wanted to make sure the proposed solution met the issues head on and could solve them. We also wanted to be sure the project could be delivered on time and on budget so we brought some discipline to how the institution thought about that.  Next, we wanted to be sure the finished product would be impactful so that visitation would increase and organisation would be more sustainable as a result – often with expansion projects all they do is increase the overheads.

I don’t like supporting institutions that I don’t feel not empathy with. I should also say that the support often comes when you’re on the board and you get to know the institution better and can see how you can help them. Getting involved in governance for us is not necessarily the starting or finishing point but it can be the catalyst to learn more about institution and how you can help them.

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