The second annual Ethics in Philanthropy Debate, presented by the Australian Communities Foundation in conjunction with the Melbourne Writers Festival was held this evening at BMW Edge at Federation Square in Melbourne.
Before discussion could really even get started,(well after some brief discussion from each of the panelists on whether philanthropy is part of the problem or part of the solution) there was quite robust discussion about what philanthropy even means.
Rod Quantock went back to the literal translation from the Greek of loving humanity, and talked about how people who volunteer are really the ones within our society who change things, while Professor Dennis Altman AM seemed to want to restrict philanthropy to the idea of “giving away money to established causes which are tax deductible”.
As an aside, Philanthropy Australia has recently started using a broader definition of philanthropy than just charitable giving, and which does recognize volunteer participation in the not for profit sector, which I think is partly in response to Peter Winneke’s view that Australians are not particularly generous. Philanthropy Australia’s definition of philanthropy is: The planned and structured giving of money, time, information, goods and services, voice and influence to improve the wellbeing of humanity and the community.
Quite vigorous discussion ensued around whether it would be more beneficial for the government to have higher taxes which would go towards things people particularly want such as health and education, or whether this would mean that things not on the government agenda would fall by the wayside.
Cath Smith, CEO of the Victorian Council of Social Service, talked about how research has shown that people are prepared to pay more tax in return for services they believe are necessary, but that politians refuse to believe the research (and that this is demonstrated clearly by the debate around the carbon tax).
Emeritus Professor Dorothy Scott OAM talked about the downside of having higher taxes redistributed by government, in that money from government has strings attached and can muzzle debate and advocacy.
It was suggested that philanthropy emerges where the government chooses not to assist, and Dennis Altman refuted the kind of free market idea that private philanthropy will fill gaps as needed. He gave the example of dental health – which is not government subsidised, and which has not had much interest from the philanthropic sector, despite being very important to basic health.
Peter Mares asked about the strings attached to philanthropic dollars, such as naming buildings and having commemorative plaques. He asked whether the best philanthropy is anonymous but Dorothy Scott spoke of the need for people to speak about their support (but with the focus on the recipients).
Stephanie Alexander talked about the tensions that can arise when donors who like and believe in a project feel they can influence policy and direction and Dorothy Scott stated that philanthropy should not interfere in the governance of an organisation receiving a grant, though this can become complicated where the philanthropic body is involved in initiating a program. (I wonder here if she was referring to the Myer Foundation’s involvement in ClimateWorks).
Dennis talked about the dangers of donor assumptions about how their money may be spent, particularly in endowed chairs at universities, where there may be implicit assumptions about ideology, and the sometimes questionable motives for businesses involved in philanthropy.
The conversation here touched only lightly on the difference between corporate sponsorship and philanthropy. It would have been great to have had a little explication of what is what, as many businesses do make legitimate (according to tax laws) “gifts” but sometimes the line can be blurred as to whether it is a gift or a sponsorship. (See my previous posts about tax and gift agreements).
Peter Mares brought up the eternal question for ethics in philanthropy about whether it matters where the money comes from and comedian of the evening Rod Quantock quipped that “the only problem with tainted money is that there t’aint enough of it“. On a more serious note he concurred that the origin does matter, but that some might believe otherwise, and that it wipes away any blood or guilt.
Stephanie Alexander talked of the importance of research in this instance, as it can be difficult to find the links, interests and connections that might lead one to question a potential donation. Dorothy Scott said it was important for community organisations to be careful about lending their name to donors who might be trying to buy respectability. This part of the conversation mirrored a little of last year’s debate – (see last year’s post and also my post on The Philanthropist which is a novel which also considers these issues). The conversation then turned to ethical investing which is even more fraught with difficulty.
Cath Smith feels that one needs to consider the community view and community benefit in taking dubious gifts. She talked about the current disquiet over distribution of funds from revenues raised by poker machines.
Questions from the floor covered issues such as:
the Aidwatch High Court decision allowing charitable organisations to undertake advocacy and lobbying activities and whether philanthropy would therefore now support more advocacy activites. Cath Smith was of the view that donors would still want to see what the practical outcome of the advocacy would be, while Dorothy Scott felt that this decision would be particularly beneficial for environmental issues. Peter Mares questioned whether this could still be considered philanthropy or was political activism.
unsexy and unattractive projects – such as those dealing with marginalised members of the community and the example given was criminalised women and how philanthropy is reluctant to become involved in these areas. Dorothy Scott countered this by referring to a number of philanthropic bodies which will fund highly marginalised sections of society but agreed that areas of high social stigma can be difficult for philanthropists. Cath Smith noted that the causes least supported by philanthropy are indeed prison related and those relating to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights.
remembering that not all philanthropists are ultra-wealthy and that many people support organisations financially at a small level with a notion of contributing to their community. Dennis Altman noted that the Australia Day stamp set honouring philanthropists a few years ago featured four multimillionaires, and that most people only think of philanthropists as being rich. Rod Quantock talked about how volunteers action their commitments by contributing time, giving the example of Margaret Oats (who never got her name on a stamp but I found out now has one on a soup van).
one observation from the floor in defence of philanthropists noted that it costs many wealthy donors more to give away their money than to keep it.
and a big question for the evening: would people still if they didn’t have tax breaks. Dorothy Scott’s response to this was that the tax breaks allow middle income earners to give away more than they could otherwise, so it is not only just for the super wealthy.
a reminder that there are three ts in philanthropy: time, treasure and talent
a question from my fellow blogger at 3eggs, about whether altruism is incentivised and the example of crowdfunding (apologies for yet another self reference) and the rise of social ventures. Dorothy Scott spoke quite strongly about altruism and the advantages to the group and that we need to transcend the notion that we are only motivated by self-interest. She said that cooperative behavious has enabled the species to survive. Dennis Altman said he was not against tax breaks, and in the only statement that drew spontaneous applause from the auditorium all evening noted that “philanthropy is an alibi for government reneging on its responsibilities“.
A final statement from the crowd drew attention to the website: www.givewhatwecan.org and asked how to make informed decisions about where to give.
All in all it was a lively discussion which showed up some interesting differences in opinion about the state of philanthropy.
Did you go? Please share your thoughts with our readers.