Neil Balnaves is no stranger to adversity. As a teenager he battled polio which crippled his right arm, in business he built arguably Australia’s most successful media production company, and in 2002 he survived a boating accident which almost took his life.

Beginning in Adelaide in 1960, Balnaves’ media career started in advertising, but over the next 45 years he progressed into senior roles in production companies, and he is probably best known for heading up the media and entertainment company Southern Star, which created some of Australia’s best-known TV dramas such as Police Rescue, Water Rats, Blue Heelers and The Secret Life of Us.

Balnaves’ business success enabled him to begin a journey in philanthropy, and in 2006 he set up the Balnaves Foundation which gives away around $2 million a year. He also likes to play an active role in the nonprofit sector, and he sits on a number of advisory councils and boards for organisations such as UNSW and the Surf Life Saving Foundation.

In 2010 Balnaves was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for his services to business and philanthropy, and here he shines s light on his philanthropic path.

Before you were in the fortunate position to have built wealth through your business, how would you describe your giving and support of the nonprofit sector?

It was relatively small scale and random. If I was approached on the street for example by the Red Cross or the Salvos I’d give $10 here or $20 there. Like many people I gave regularly, but it was small amounts.

At what point and why did you decide to start giving in a much more significant way?

The boating accident crystallised a number of things. I was almost killed and spent a lot of time recovering – so I had some time to think about things.

The injuries made it hard to go back to work in the way I was used to, so retirement was an option, but what would I do with my time?

The business had been very successful and the sale of that meant we suddenly had a lot of money. But what were we going to do with it? I could buy more houses or boats or planes, and I did a little bit of that, but I didn’t really like that very much.

We could have given it all to the kids, but I believe strongly in giving them the opportunity to stand on their own two feet and not putting a curse on the next generation.

Philanthropy-The-Balnaves-GiftI understand that your family were quite involved in the final decision to put most of your wealth into philanthropy?

Yes it was a defining moment for us as a family. We talked it all through, and it was a discussion that took place over about six months. The kids understood my philosophy about not leaving them a big inheritance, and we started to think about creating a foundation to make donations from.

The kids were keen about the idea of the foundation, and they said that if we decided to take that route then they wanted to be involved in giving the money away.

This was in the early days of private ancillary funds [a philanthropic structure] and we put the majority of the money into that to create the foundation.

Our son Hamish is now the general manager of the foundation and looks after the day-to-day running of it. Our daughters Alexandra and Victoria are also involved in decisions on who we fund and my wife Diane is also keen on helping.

What are the areas that you like to give to and why?

I love the arts, and that’s my wife’s fault! As a kid I didn’t understand what the arts was all about, but Diane introduced them to me and now I’m a collector and I’m hooked. I believe that we must have a strong arts culture – it’s a window onto the soul, and the arts play an important role in achieving a balanced society. Unfortunately the government doesn’t do much in supporting this area.

Medicine and health are another area of interest. This probably comes from having polio as a kid and growing up with a disability. Also the accident generated further interest. I was on life support for a while and didn’t walk for a year, and so I learned a lot about medicine and the health area from experiencing it as a patient.

Another one of our focus areas is indigenous culture. Growing up in South Australia we lived next door to Aboriginal people and we got to know them. As a result I didn’t have a negative perception of them like many of my generation. My daughters are now very passionate about supporting indigenous people and it’s great to see.

Do you have any particular philosophy behind your giving?

We are probably a little bit quirky. We aren’t traditional in our thinking – there’s usually a bit of a twist in our giving. For example, we might fund cancer research, but instead of supporting an established project, we’d rather support a young and promising researcher who isn’t going to get an NHMRC grant.

Or we might fund the salary of a fundraising manager at a charity. By investing in this way the fundraising person is out raising money, so we’re actually leveraging our original gift and helping the organisation to raise more money.

Another very recent example is helping to preserve Aboriginal culture. It’s an unfortunate truth but Aboriginal culture is dying out, and so we are funding the creation of a book to document and record aspects of indigenous customs.

What are the key criteria that you look at when deciding whether or not to support an organisation?

Firstly, does their mission/cause fit within our aims at the foundation. Next we look at the quality of the organisation – their people, leadership, what is their financial health? Then we look at the specific need they have and how we might be able to help with that.

You’re big on understanding how your gift has made an impact – why is that?

I believe you have a responsibility to ensure your donations are used well and effectively. The organisations you support need to be accountable for how they have spent your money. We usually ask for two six-monthly reports a year from the organisations we support so that we can monitor the progress of how the donation is being used and understand what results are being achieved.

There are a small number of nonprofits that don’t understand our need for this reporting. In fact I’ve been amazed by one or two that feel there is no need for them to report back to us or show any accountability.

Have you had any bad experiences with organisations you’ve given to?

The vast majority of the organisations we have supported have been great, but there’s been a small number where things haven’t worked out the way we hoped. For example our donation wasn’t fully used at one place; or we misjudged the skill set of another organisation to be able to execute a certain program; or sometimes personality differences make things difficult.

There’s an unofficial mafia who we can speak with to reference check nonprofits we are considering supporting. Disappointment with a particular organisation gets communicated among our peers.

Philanthropy-mosman-art-galleryWhat do you get out of giving?

Seeing the progress of the people and organisations we’ve supported is very rewarding. For example, we are currently funding scholarships for indigenous students at UNSW. It’s wonderful to see these fresh-faced kids start and then over the course of their studies to watch them mature into adults and to see them change and transform.

Why have you decided to be public about your giving?

It’s a difficult thing and a two-edged sword. Some people are resentful and suspicious of your motives and think you are trying to ‘big note’ yourself if you go public with a big donation.

The reason we are open about our giving is because I think there needs to be more examples of major donors to encourage others to do it.

There’s a strongly emerging group of Australians who have money, and those that give create curiosity. I get one or two phone calls a week from people who want to get into philanthropy and want to know about it.

Philanthropy shouldn’t be hidden in a cupboard or kept under the table – it needs to be much more visible.

Apart from handing over a cheque, do you like to be involved in other ways with the nonprofit sector?

We are pretty proactive in our engagement with the sector – we like to be part of the organisations we support. I think you have to be committed in a variety of ways. We attend charity events, provide advice or feedback as part of committees or boardroom discussions. We are constantly on the road. Hamish might be in Perth at an opening and at the same time I might be in Adelaide meeting with an organisation we are considering supporting.

Balnaves Foundation – sample of recent donations

  • Museum of Contemporary Art: To fund its teenage program, generationext, for three years $440,000
  • UNSW Foundation: Scholarships for indigenous students studying medicine $155,000
  • Cerebral Palsy Foundation: A world-first research program to help find a cure for cerebral palsy $450,000
  • Children’s Cancer Institute Australia: To fund research carried out by promising young scientists $500,000

///Photography courtesy of Cerebral Palsy Alliance and Mosman Art Gallery – ‘The Balnaves Gift’///