Last year I worked with a small and dedicated group to establish Australia’s first Chair in Philanthropy, to be created at the University of Melbourne.

During the research for this pioneering initiative, a great deal of material was assessed to help define the purpose of the role, what it would achieve and what might be the expected results.

Certain themes came to light, prompting much consideration and discussion.

Philanthropy comes from Greek and is defined as “the love of humanity”. So it follows that a philanthropist has an interest in humankind and thus wants to support endeavours that advance humanity or improve circumstance for others. It also implies that a philanthropist has admirable values and worthy character traits.

If you ask people who they might nominate as a philanthropist, the replies often contain the names of wealthy people, usually men, over 60 years.

But is money the true measure of philanthropy? What about impact? Is lending your voice stronger than we think?

I propose that one of Australia’s greatest philanthropists in recent times is not wealthy, is under 60 and is female. Her name is Rosie Batty. She lent her voice.

Advocacy and commitment are the premier attributes of philanthropy and money is its most potent partner.

Rosie’s voice has changed the way communities, governments and agencies now view, manage and respond to domestic violence. As a result of her voice, policies and attitudes are changing and money has been given in support of reforms. Her love of humankind (and of course her son, Luke), has promoted profound change. Her voice has had a greater impact than money.

So, therefore, can anyone be a philanthropist?

A person advocating for a cause and to effect change for the betterment of humanity can be a philanthropist. Lending a voice to support a vision is a potent concept that should not be underestimated and such a notion connects with the definition of philanthropy that centres on, and involves, people.

It is often said that philanthropy responds to a vision, rather than a need. If its two influential partners are money and advocacy, another ingredient to consider is impact.

The size of the impact can vary; for example an endowment to support cancer research may take some time for results to be known and quantified. On the other hand, a gift to support the development of an app for domestic violence victims, so they have help knowing how to cope, can have an immediate and positive effect. As long as there is a measurable and positive impact for people, the gift can be described as philanthropic.

Another element of philanthropy to consider is its enduring nature.

The establishment of enduring charitable trusts that have made countless donations over the decades have certainly had lasting impact. Are such philanthropic acts more influential than a single gift to a current project or cause? Could this notion be a strong motivating factor for establishing a PAF?

When does a donation move from being an act of generosity to being philanthropic?

Do we answer this question by assessing the legacy or impact or size of the gift? Maybe it is a combination of these three attributes.

The new Chair in Philanthropy may provide some guidance in this instance. Its three core themes are: advocacy, education and research.

Advocacy: promoting the awareness and potential of philanthropy.

Education: educating fundraisers, board members, senior executives about the role of philanthropy in the non-government sector.

Research: what is the scale of philanthropy in Australia (remembering there is a distinction between philanthropy and fundraising)? We can capture data about donations from credit card transactions but a cheque for a large sum can be made with little or no knowledge to those outside the organisation receipting the gift and thanking the donor(s).

In my view, philanthropy in Australia is gaining momentum and status. We now welcome philanthropic stories compared to some time ago when philanthropy was seen as the preserve of the wealthy. The changing climate should encourage more people to be open about their philanthropy as an inspiration and example to others.

Let’s all lend our voice.


Generosity_WoinarskiGavan Woinarski runs his own consultancy specialising in securing major gifts and building an enduring culture of philanthropy in organisations. Learn more here