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Of Forrests and acorns: philanthropic gift may seed other university giving

This week’s A$65 million pledge by Nicola and Andrew Forrest to all five West Australian universities alters the philanthropy landscape in Australia. The Forrests' donation comes less than a year after…

Will philanthropy in Australia change because of the recent donation by Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest to Wes Australian universities. Seed image from www.shutterstock.com

This week’s A$65 million pledge by Nicola and Andrew Forrest to all five West Australian universities alters the philanthropy landscape in Australia. The Forrests' donation comes less than a year after Louise and Graham Tuckwell’s A$50 million donation to Australian National University.

Not long ago, some of the larger philanthropic funding of Australian universities emanated from the US – either through mega-generosity like businessman Chuck Feeney’s Atlantic Philanthropies or from big stateside foundations.

Nonetheless, the university sector more frequently sees more moderate scale donations, and these are mostly only given after the institution has worked on developing relationships with people who care or might care about higher education. All these gifts are needed and welcomed but both the magnitude and leverage of the Forrest’s pledge merits particular comment.

Like Feeney, the Forrests (the first Australians to join the Gates’ Giving Pledge) have talked openly about their contribution as a way to model large generosity in a country where giving happens often anonymously and well below need or potential.

In fact in Australia, sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. High net worth giving is not the norm here. Tax data consistently confirms about four out of ten affluent Australians give nothing. There’s no doubt that Australia’s culture of moe sustained and talked about large giving could certainly be improved.

The Forrests set out to inspire, and even though theirs is reportedly the largest single gift ever made by an Australian couple, it is more than just the impressive amount that might do that. The choice of scholarships and post-docs as the beneficiaries squarely applies some sound philanthropic strategies: funding good people and matching opportunity with dollars.

It showcases where the smart money thinks others should invest. Not everybody can fund a suite of scholarships but given the increase in wealth over the past decade here many Australians could fund one scholarship in their field of passion.

This pledge is unique in that it funds a state in its bid to be more of a knowledge force and it is a state that has lagged in giving despite its cornucopia of mining wealth. The donation also embraces all WA’s universities rather than just Andrew Forrest’s alma mater, the University of Western Australia (UWA), although A$15 million is apparently earmarked for a world leading residential college there. At UWA, the Forrests’ input is the confidence boost and attention grabber that invigorates a $400 million fundraising program.

But will others follow? As a general rule, giving research across the world and locally confirms the link between education and giving: those with higher education give more partly due to higher income and partly to higher awareness of need through wide networks. It is likely we will see more university graduates giving back over time, especially as the alumni and development function within Australian universities matures.

Many alumni and development offices here are less than two decades old and in a scenario where lengthy relationships and trust are at the core of giving, the plantations of philanthropy have not been long enough cultivated by much of the higher education sector.

The Forrest gift is the proof that untapped major giving exists in this country and it may spur other university and foundation boards to put in more effort (that is, funding and prioritising) to engage the community’s mind and heart. It also is tangible evidence to governments that philanthropy can be a viable funding partner that strengthens education strategies. Matched giving by government that has triggered strong donations to higher education in some Asian countries, and initiatives like the UK government’s support for fundraising infrastructure in universities, are all worth considering here.

Universities these days reflect a wide range of funding sources, from government to corporations, from individuals to philanthropic foundations and the lines between these sources are sometimes blurred. Corporations that can see a synergy of interest may fund scholarships or chairs in their discipline and individuals may fund where their personal linkages, experiences or beliefs lead them.

The challenge for universities is to locate the synergies and their own pool of “true believers” in education and the array of community benefit that comes from university teaching and research opens many avenues.

The linkages and benefits that the Forrests have identified in their action are a strong object lesson not just for other givers but for universities to ponder. Most academic causes will have their logical link to a giving source. That’s where development comes in. Relationships are key but it takes prioritised time and budget for universities to develop them.

So this pledge directs the focus of government and graduates to universities as a giving destination at a time when giving is settling back into growth post-GFC.

Mostly though, it is a thought starter for other Australian figures of success. Research tells us that people give according to their value (income) but more so according to their values. The Forrest’s pledge says: this is what our work and lives stand for.

The “stop and pause” power of what Nicola and Andrew Forrest have pledged may well cause others to reflect on what their dollars might do and whether the proverbial bigger boat really is a symbol of whom and what they are. To me this is the real Forrest’s acorn that they have planted here.