Aussies aren't as stingy as we think

12 July 2013

It often surprises Australians when I suggest - as a transplanted American fundraiser heading the nation's largest campaign ($600 million) at the University of Sydney - that the precept that Americans are more generous is inherently flawed.

Much has been written about wealthy Australians' so-called penurious giving habits, that affluent Australians donate considerably less than their counterparts in the US and Britain.

Admittedly, the statistics tend to corroborate this view. According to a report by the Australian Centre for Philanthropy based at Queensland University of Technology, Australians give less than 3 percent of their net worth to charity while Americans give about 12 percent of their assets.

But affluent Australians, I believe, are no less generous than Americans; what has been missing is a professional fundraising infrastructure. Institutions that have adopted a donor-centric approach to philanthropy have had great results. Five years ago, the University of Sydney was averaging $30m a year in gifts. Today that annual total is more than $80m.

The Australian National University has employed a similar "donor-focused" program as evidenced by its recent record-breaking gift of $50m from Graham Tuckwell.

How can Stanford University raise more than $US1 billion ($1.09bn) a year in philanthropic revenue? It has less to do with a spirit of magnanimity and more with its engagement of entrepreneurs looking for partnerships that deliver. Last year, three prominent families each contributed $50m to support research at Stanford Hospital. Leading philanthropists want reliable results, and smart institutions deliver.

Are there billionaire Australians who will never be inspired to give prodigiously? Yes. But the US has them too. At the University of California, Los Angeles, I met wealthy people who claimed that paying taxes was their contribution to the community.

Australia is on the cusp of a philanthropic seismic shift. A decade from now, the per capita "giving gap" between the US and Australia will be bridged.

How can I be so sure? I have witnessed the generous DNA of Australian donors.

A few months ago, I sat in the living room of a supporter who donated more than 70 percent of his wealth through an outright gift that lowered his net worth from $5m to just more than $1m. In my 20 years in philanthropy, I have never seen altruism on a similar scale as I did that day in Narrabeen. The donor said, "I really want to see students benefit from my good fortune while I am still alive to enjoy it." And he will. This is a country where people look after one another, and our best days of generous giving are just around the corner.

Chief development officer Tim Dolan oversees the University of Sydney's fundraising programs.

Follow University of Sydney Media on Twitter

Media enquiries: Kirsten Andrews, 02 9114 0748, 0413 777 404,