Generosity Forum – Chris Cuffe – a philanthropist’s “voyage”

Chris Cuffe Loise Kennerleyb

Photo: Louise Kennerley –  Australian Financial Review

I can’t adequately capture the tone of this highly amusing session at the Generosity Forum.  As we had heard so many stories of journeys, Chris told us he was going to talk about his “voyage”.  He was interviewed by Angela Catterns who asked Chris a series of quite cheeky questions about his life, career, generosity and philanthropy, and he answered with humility, authenticity and as someone very at ease with his choices, his direction and his giving. Here’s the essence of it.

Chris says he had an unremarkable first part of his life, though living in regional NSW in Griffith from when he was 5 – 10 years old did have an impact on him.  He grew up with his mum and dad, two siblings, went to school and to uni and thought he was fairly normal.

Chris knew early in the piece that he had entrepreneur genes.  When a tooth fell out and he was rewarded a sixpence, he went out to a back paddock sheep graveyard armed with a hammer, and promptly filled a jar with sheep’s teeth.  The tooth fairy wrote him a note saying she could tell the difference between a sheep’s tooth and one from a little boy.  He also thinks his love of finance could be related to his passion for monopoly, or his family’s vocation as accountants.  Commerce, he said dryly, was in the blood.

Chris didn’t consider that his family was especially generous as far as he was aware, though his mother worked at the National Trust.  But in the country, everyone is fairly generous with their time.

Chris gave an entertaining and self-deprecating summary of his career, concluding that mostly he had been in the right place at the right time.  I won’t recap it as you can get the gist of it from these two articles: here and here.

Where his story gets really interesting is when he started his Private Ancillary Fund (PAF).  At the time, there was not a lot of information about them and they were very clunky vehicles for philanthropy.  You needed tax, accounting and legal advice to set one up.  It cost a lot to put one together (though not as much as it costs today).

The process lit a spark for Chris and inspired him with a passion to do this better.  At the time, no one was really looking at inspiring philanthropy through planned giving.  His idea was to provide a one-stop independent shop for donors.  Chris formed Australian Philanthropic Services as a not for profit entity to provide advice on giving through Private and Public Ancillary Funds and grantmaking.  They now service 200 clients with a view to connecting better with the 1700 wealth management advisers in the country.  Chris hopes that planned giving will one day be as well known and commonplace as self managed superannuation funds.

Chris feels that his connection to philanthropy and charitable organisations has been through “strange” organisations.  He describes Australian Philanthropic Services and Social Ventures Australia as enablers rather than typical charities, and he also supports Primary Ethics, which teaches ethics in public schools when kids don’t engage in religious instruction.

There is a perception that wealthy Australians are not as generous as their counterparts overseas, but Chris doesn’t accept that as a starting proposition, noting that the US system of giving has been strongly influenced by death duties and taxes, and that US philanthropy has been around for a much longer time, and there is the legacy of the Rockefeller and Ford families and foundations which have created a greater awareness around philanthropy, whereas the history in Australia is much shorter.

Philanthropy is evolving in that some people are being a lot more thoughtful and strategic about their charitable giving, but some people just get a kick from the act of giving and responding to whoever knocks on the door.  Chris acknowledged the importance of the Australian Charities and Not for Profits Commission and the push for greater transparency – that people are more aware of philanthropy now and more willing to talk about it.  He also noted that they had named their PAF after him because he was well known in the finance industry and he wanted to use his notoriety (or fame) for good.

Public recognition is not high on Chris’s agenda.  He has been through the experience of being hounded by the paparazzi when he left his job at Commonwealth Bank with a supposedly controversial bonus.  Chris feels he has become well known by accident and that he could have chosen to drop out of public sight or to use the fame/notoriety constructively, which he chose to do to help him in the world of philanthropy.

Chris established Third Link Growth Fund as a socially responsible investor where all management fees are donated to charitable organisations.  Eight years later that venture has been able to distribute $120,000 per month in grants to children’s charities.

Chris wouldn’t necessarily tell people about his interest in philanthropy and he doesn’t call himself a philanthropist as he is not so comfortable with the word and its connotations of “being up with the rich people”.  He feels more like the guy next door who likes to give $20 when the Red Cross comes knocking.

This piece also appears in Generosity: the online resource dedicated to nurturing, promoting and inspiring a greater culture of giving in Australia.  Generosity held its first forum in Melbourne last week.  I attended with a discount on my conference fee in exchange for some writing.


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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