The fourth annual Philanthropy and Ethics debate was entitled: Mind the Gap: Philanthropy, Social Policy and Government. This topic floored me a little and I felt I was playing catch up listening to the four speakers, Mary Crooks from the Victorian Womens’ Trust, Terry Moran, the former Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Miriam Lyons, Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Development, and Sayajit Das, writer and economist.
Mediated by Peter Clarke, the discussion hovered quite a lot around comparing philanthropic giving in Australia with the US, which is always problematic, and whether Australia is moving in the direction of philanthropy dictating social policy.
Sayajit Das quoted Peter Buffet, (son of Warren Buffet) who has labelled philanthropy “a charitable industrial complex” noting that with more than $300 billion USD in charitable giving last year, this does create space for philanthropists to influence policy.
Mary Crooks preferred to speak about “small p philanthropy”, noting it plays a critical role in the formation of civil society, but often flies under the radar and does not get the credit or recognition it deserves. Mary is in favour of growing the role of philanthropy. She gave examples of foundations which have championed community rather than government policy, such as the Reichstein Foundation, Stegley Foundation (which is now wound down) and Victorian Womens Trust in the 1990s through their work on the Purple Sage Project.
Terry Moran spoke about the differences between the US and us, and how Australians give less as a proportion of gross domestic product, but that Americans use philanthropy to leverage relief from tax much more than here. He doesn’t believe that philanthropy here “leaks into the political madness of the US”.
Miriam Lyons spoke about how and what philanthropy funds, noting her view that right wing interests fund ideology and left wing interests fund practically. Her key example was the Koch brothers, who fund research refuting climate change. While stating that it is philanthropy which allows civil society to exist, but that donations in Australia are only 1% of GDP, she championed the fact that philanthropy can be risk taking, localised, personal and fund advocacy. However, she questions this structurally, noting that it would be unusual for philanthropists to want to change the system which has brought them their financial success.
Terry Moran disagreed with Miriam’s views, saying that philanthropists do not influence academic research here, and pointing to several think tanks which are not right wing, such as the Grattan Institute, Lowy Institute, the recently established Mitchell Institute for Health and Education Policy at Victoria University, counterbalancing the views of organisations such as the Institute of Public Affairs.
Mention was made of The Patriots by David Frum, a novel which outlines how politics is manipulated by money in the US, but there was general consensus that we are not yet in that space here.
I have to say I felt a bit like a kid having dinner at the adults’ table – so if you were there, or have some comments about this, I would love to have further discussion for clarification. I partly felt that I hadn’t really got the topic straight in my head, but also that not every one was speaking the same language. My view of philanthropy is probably similar to Mary’s small p philanthropy, many people in the community supporting issues and causes they feel passionate about. The idea that there is a conspiracy of ultra-high net worth individuals creating agendas through their giving is anathema to me. It does remind me though of some of the debates I had with colleagues earlier in the year over the mandate of philanthropy to direct policy and social change through the very act of choosing what to support. But I feel that the scale considered in this debate was quite different.
to continue: and perhaps to revert to the question of philanthropy and ethics in itself – there was mention of the Oxford Business School turning down a large gift due to the affiliations/behaviour of the donor, and Sajayit Das mentioned his view on the hypocrisy of George Soros in destroying the British pound through short selling in 1992 and then gave away his proceeds through his foundation.
Terry Moran believes that how taxes work is what underpins philanthropy. There are many views on how tax deductibility is or isn’t a motivator for philanthropic giving. Again, this discussion was around the larger donors. Terry also pointed out that our system is very different to the US as we don’t have death duties and wealth taxes.
Miriam Lyons agreed we are not like the US but voiced concern we could be heading in that direction and that we are becoming a more unequal country and that our taxation system is pulling the fabric of society apart (for example schools are financially unequal) and that we are becoming vulnerable to a narrow group having undue influence. I don’t believe that it is philanthropy which is creating inequality or philanthropists who are unduly influencing policy.
Mary Crooks noted that the UK Commission on Social Justice stated that “communities are not strong because they are rich, but are rich because they are strong” and that she prefers the term “social investment” to philanthropy, and that this is about investment of time, skills, and resources along with money.
Miriam Lyons agreed with Terry Moran in wanting philanthropy to grow but she again stated her concerns about the growth of inequality (I don’t see a direct correlation there myself, but I am happy to hear more arguments for this).
Terry pointed out that one should not confuse the tax system and rebates with philanthropy (thankfully), and Mary Crooks pointed out that tax deductibility is not a key motivator for giving. Mary noted that philanthropy occupies a unique place in our social work and is not subject to the same constraints as the market place. Philanthropy can be innovative and can fail. Mary said that while its uniqueness is its power, perhaps trusts and foundations here do not yet understand this.
The question of distortions was raised and there was some discussion of the struggle for support for the arts. Mary Crooks suggested that philanthropy could be more targeted, more gender-wise and less homogeneous.
In response to some questions from the audience the following points came up:
Society is more than dollars and cents
Q: Why is philanthropy only interested in medical research – what about social research? A: it exists but is untrumpeted
Q: Risks of being above the radar
A: not enough time or resources for self promotion (I would add that the press is also not that interested in stories of philanthropic achievement – in my experience): and there are risks in not being able to communicate the social impacts brought about by philanthropy in a nuanced enough way.
Q: Difference between Labor and Coalition
A: Coalition’s stated objective to close the Australian Charities and Not for Profit Commission; Coalition’s interest in UK Big Society terminology. Mary Crooks noted the 2013 election result for the seat of Indi, currently held by Sophie Mirabella, and the campaign to present an independent opposition candidate has been a kitchen table community consultation process hearkens back to the work of the Purple Sage project mentioned above. Mary said this was a model which was invigorating democracy (supported by philanthropy).
Were you at the session? Share your thoughts. Do you think philanthropists are taking over policy development? Do you think that this debate was about Ethics in Philanthropy – or is it time for a new title to cover the broadening scope of the discussions. I look forward to hearing and sharing your views.