from Kant to Catherine Keener


Immanuel Kant: Wikipedia

The Inaugural Great Philanthropy Debate was presented in 2010 by the then Melbourne Community Foundation  (now known as Australian Communities Foundation) and the Melbourne Writers’ Festival.

With a theme of ethics in philanthropy, and titled – The Giving Agenda: There’s Always an Agenda, the panel did not formally debate but took questions from the audience.

The panel was made up of:
John Armstrong, at the time, philosopher-in-residence at the Melbourne Business School
Amanda Martin, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network,
Andrew MacLeod at the time, CEO of the Committee for Melbourne and recently appointed as the Foundation Chair of the United Nations Global Compact Principles for Social Investment
Rupert Myer, at the time, Chairman of the National Gallery of Australia and Director of the Myer Foundation and Meredith Sussex, board director and public policy consultant.

The panel responded to questions from the floor. Please find below my summary of what was discussed. I would love to take credit for insightful comments and asides, but alas, I am just transcribing the most interesting parts.

Moderated by Hayden Rowsmith, at the time, Chair of the Abbotsford Convent Foundation, the discussion commenced by examining whether there is an underlying assumption that the philanthropic sector is intrinsically ethical by its very nature. There was talk of old style philanthropy or benevolence – not necessarily being ethical because of the perceived imbalance of power between the giver and the recipient.


Catherine Keener by Jeff Vespa

The “complex and contrary human motivations that underpin giving” – as exemplified in the recent film Please Give (with Catherine Keener) were brought up and this fed into later discussion on how to rank philanthropic needs – are some recipients and causes more worthy than others.

I didn’t really feel this was an ethics question, but a good example was brought up of a recent $7m gift to the National Gallery of Australia from John and Pauline Gandel. Apparently the gift was criticised because the money could have been better spent elsewhere. So perhaps one person’s personal choice/pragmatic dilemma could be another’s ethical conundrum.

Another question related to the ethics of the source of philanthropic funds – how responsible must an investor be in relation to the activities of a company in which they have a shareholding. Perhaps the company is doing something “dodgy”. Should investment income from that source not be passed on as philanthropic gifts? Is it ok to accept money from a drug dealer or warlord who might be seeking respectability by building a hospital for which the community will be grateful? What is more important – the hospital or the source? Should there be a disconnect between the ethics of how money is earned and the ethics of how it is distributed?

One argument was that if the money is used well and something good comes from it then the source is not so important (but this leads me to consider the prohibition against accepting philanthropic gifts and sponsorship from tobacco companies in Victoria – as outlined in the Tobacco Act).

Corporate social responsibility, or enlightened self-interest, was touched on briefly – highlighting that companies are now seeing the value of promoting particular programs in the communities in which they operate (for example BHP running an anti-malaria program in Mozambique) which, while benefiting the local community, bring in much better returns for the companies themselves in terms of less absenteeism and better productivity. Is it therefore unethical of the companies to “use” these programs to their advantage? Should ethics be defined by success – ie if a program is good for everyone is it ethically good, but if it doesn’t succeed is it just manipulation?

A particularly eloquent question referred to “floating on an iceberg of the unassailability of globalised capitalist society”. Some members of the panel argued that philanthropy is growing in importance because of the economic structures in place, which replace government with communities working in partnership with philanthropic bodies while other members of the panel felt that the current economic system reinforces our need and reliance on the welfare state safety net.

The costs and efficiencies of grantmaking bodies was touched on briefly, with a general consensus from the panel that costs are relatively low, and that philanthropy needs more professional staff involved.

Other issues which came up which were only bordering on ethics and which deserve their own discussion/debate related to funding urgent issues such as indigenous disadvantage, the tax incentives relating to deductible gifts and whether donors have a right to control the spending of their gift or how much say they should/could have (sponsorship vs donations).

Kant, as referred to in the title of this post, made an appearance at the end, with a reference to his dictum that an action is only good if it is done for the sake of pure principle, not for any benefit accruing back to the donor.

What are the biggest ethical issues in philanthropy for you – as either a donor or a recipient? and  what questions would you have asked of the panel.

I look forward to your comments.

About ozphilanthropy

#Philanthropy. #arts Posts by Sharon Nathani, PhD candidate at the Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne focussing on philanthropic funders of the arts. Sharon's study is supported through an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.
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4 Responses to from Kant to Catherine Keener

  1. Swag Of Sins says:

    Fascinated by the assumption that philanthropy might be benevolent by nature, when stacked up against the corporate imperatives of drug lords. It goes to a question that intrigues me – whether “bad” people can do “good” things. To extrapolate alarmingly, look at the filial and familial love and sacrifice that exists in criminal clans. It seems to me to come back to loyalty. Where do loyalties lie? And how do we “educate” or move loyalties? Such great questions posed here, even in the summary. Wish I’d been there!

  2. Damien Hodgkinson says:

    Hi Sharon

    This is a great summary of what I thought was a really interesting debate.

    I would have liked the discussion around the ethics of the source of philanthropic funds to go more into how the corpus is grown through investments. Much of the discussion focussed on the original source and less on the responsibility of trustees to grow funds in a way that is aligned to their giving strategy. It is my understanding that some foundations treat the growing of their investments as an opportunity to have a double social impact – ethical investment of funds bringing financial return with environmental, social and governance considerations; and secondly the distribution of these earnings through philanthropic giving.

    I also thought that the discussion around the cost of philanthropy could have also included the cost to grant seekers through resources allocated for dedicated staff focused on grant writing and acquittals. It has been great to see moves by foundations such as The Myer Foundation to reduce the burden of application writing by implementing a streamlined EOI process that then goes to a full application for a smaller group of applicants.

  3. skittlebup says:

    that is a very precise summary of what seems to have been a fascinating discussion.

    I was intrigued by the arguments about ‘dirty money” – the old warhorse Bernard Shaw was interested in that one too – his plays and prefaces to ‘Major Barbara’ (her father is the arms manufacturer who has an enlightened approach to the management and housing of his workers) and ‘Mrs Warren’s Profession’ (she owns a brothel) discuss the issue.

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