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Philanthropy and Higher Education in Australia

Sydney, Australia–How do you take the “culture of giving” that fund raisers believe can be found in every country, and turn that culture to the advantage of universities? Australia has been seeking its own answer to that question.

While it is old news that Australia has begun fund raising, I have heard from university leaders here that some of them are beginning to throw down strong challenges to the country’s corporate leaders and university alumni. And they are getting some traction with their efforts. Any fund raiser starts by being aware of the local economy. Australia’s experience in the last three years has been unusual: With only one quarter of negative growth, the country has technically avoided a recession. The economy’s strength has largely been due to mining-company exports, such as iron.

But there is much talk here of a “two-speed economy.” Tourism, for example, has suffered. Australian tourists are eager to take their dollars, which have risen to as high as U.S. $1.10, and spend them overseas. Foreign tourists are often avoiding Australia as too expensive. On an early morning bicycle ride with an academic acquaintance through the Gold Coast, a city similar to Miami, he told me a tale familiar to Americans: Architects and builders are out of work, and real estate is sitting on the market, unsold. Coping with the two-speed economy and a recent bout of cyclones and floods has made life difficult for fund raisers at Australian universities, but they are battling back with some novel strategies.

In the first week of March, the University of Queensland, with some partners, arranged a tour of the capital cities of the four Australian states by the authors of Philanthro-capitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World. (The authors are Michael Green, a writer and consultant, and Matthew Bishop, the New York bureau chief of The Economist.) In each city one workshop was held for philanthropists and one for nonprofit organizations. The goal of the philanthropists’ workshops, intended for those with a net worth of roughly $100-million or above, was to get wealthy people who live in Australia to think about how they could make a strategic difference in solving some of the world’s hardest problems.  The workshops themselves cost about $50,000 to put together.

Clare Pullar, pro vice chancellor for advancement at the University of Queensland and one of the workshop organizers, was worried about what would happen when philanthropists opened the university’s event-related mail. “People with money are very suspicious of getting an invitation from a university to come and talk about their money,” she said. Ultimately about 150 philanthropists and 300 organizations attended.

“It’s a rare event in this country, in my experience,” said Ms. Pullar in an e-mail, “for a broad range of philanthropists to come together in a single setting to discuss approaches to their philanthropy. In the past it’s been very much a private matter, a family matter, or discussed in very closed circumstances.”At the workshops, philanthropists had questions about tax laws, accountability, and the risk of starting out with big projects instead of smaller pilot programs. Then there was a question that would warm many a fund raiser’s heart: “How do we learn to put our egos in the background when we are giving?”

Much of the initial success in Australian fund raising has been with foreigners who have an Australian connection: Americans and Asians with second homes in Australia or children in Australian universities. Charles (Chuck) Feeny, an American who made much of his money from duty-free shops and owns a home in Australia, is often regarded as “Australia’s biggest philanthropist.” He is helping universities and other nonprofit organizations by approaching wealthy Australians to create a donor network that might encourage the sort of strategic giving discussed at the workshops. Through his organization Atlantic Philanthropies, he has helped to negotiate matching funds from federal and state Australian governments for the organization’s philanthropic donations to universities.

Most recently, Atlantic Philanthropies helped to leverage money from a variety of sources, turning a philanthropic gift into $354-million for a Translational Research Institute now being built at the University of Queensland. The institute will push biomedical discoveries from the laboratory bench to the hospital bedside. Along with tackling diseases, the institute will help keep some of the research money for clinical development of drugs inside Australia. In an outline of how the package came together, the University of Queensland describes Atlantic Philanthropies as “the glue and the twine that held it together.” (The federal government, the state government, Queensland University of Technology, and the University of Queensland itself also kicked in.)

At most Australian universities, the focus is on setting up the basics, not on major gifts. At Macquarie University, the deputy vice chancellor for international and development, Caroline Trotman, told me that in 2007 the university only considered itself engaged with 1.5 percent of its alumni. It has since increased that proportion to 30 percent, using the traditional channels, such as events, direct mail, and LinkedIn groups. The university is trying to connect with as many alumni as it can by the year 2015, its 50th anniversary. It sees much promise in potential bequests from alumni who graduated in the university’s early days, who are especially loyal to the institution and are beginning to think about how to distribute their worldly wealth. Just recruiting more students will only get Macquarie so far, Ms. Trotman says: “The classrooms get full.”

“When we get outside support,” she adds, “that is when we can make the big leaps.” The big question for her and other fund raisers “down under” is when Australians who are still getting used to annual funds will start converting to making big gifts.

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