Ethics in Philanthropy Debate

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.

Hosted by Peter Mares and recorded for later broadcast on Radio National, this year’s topic was: Philanthropy: Does it reinforce the distinction between the haves and the have nots?

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: 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.

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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7 Responses to Ethics in Philanthropy Debate

  1. Caitriona Fay says:

    What a wonderful recap Sharon – I think you captured the conversation well. To be honest, I thought the tough issues and questions were skimmed over. Very little was said about the lack of transparency in philanthropy and the question of ‘how’ we give and to whom was addressed at a surface level only. Ultimately, when you are speaking to crowd with a diverse understanding of the role of philanthropy in our community, there is a need to speak broadly.

    I hope the question can be revisited at the Philanthropy Australia Conference next year. Ethics – It’s a big question and one philanthropy and the broader non-profit sector should take some time to debate further.

    Congrats to MWF and ACF on bringing the debate to the public.

    • Thanks for this Cat, and also for your question about incentives – particularly around crowdfunding. I did feel after some further thought, that although nearly all of the participants have first hand experience in philanthropy (as grant makers, philanthropists in a personal capacity or fundraisers) that there was not an “expert” feel to the evening – but then again, if this is representative of how the broader community views philanthropy then we (the professional philanthrocrats) possibly need to be working harder to explain it more clearly.

  2. Caitriona Fay says:

    Absolutely agree with your comments above. Keep up the great work.

  3. Celine Bowler says:

    Sharon I agree with Caitriona’s comment – you did a wonderfully accurate recap! I missed the beginning of the forum but wondered if there was anything said about the increasing instances in Australia of Honorary Doctorates being awarded 10 seconds before a major donation is announced? Just because it is done overseas does not necessarily mean it is ethical. Also my understanding of philanthropy goes a little over Philanthropy Australia’s… ‘The planned and structured giving of money, time, information, goods and services, voice and influence to improve the wellbeing of humanity and the community.’ I would add to this… ‘ without expecting or gaining any benefit whatsoever in return’. Thanks for your fabulous input Sharon.

    • Hey Celine, lovely to hear from you here. No – no mention was made of those kind of university honorary doctorates being offered close to the time of a donation – though it would have made for extremely interesting debate.
      thanks for your comment.

  4. As Cat has already said, you have provided a great summary Sharon.
    The evening was a great initiative. I did feel uncomfortable however that in order to give the debate some pep, the starting assumption seemed to be that philanthropists, especially very generous philanthropists, are somehow of questionable character! Goodness me, as was pointed out on the night, if you give a dollar and get a tax deduction, you still end up with less money in your own hand than if you don’t give anything. It seems to me that the debate was targeting the wrong people … generous, wealthy Australians are very much in the minority. So let us encourage and celebrate generosity. If we really do need to be disparaging and disdainful, let us direct that towards those who do not give – and not at those who do!

    • Hi Christopher. sorry for the late response on this but ozphilanthropy has been on leave.
      I agree with your comments – philanthropy should not be viewed as a suspect activity at all and we should do more to celebrate all donors (even the not so wealthy ones!).

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