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Giving while living keeps us at forefront of lifesaving research

Resource type: News

The Australian | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

By Peter Beattle

AMERICANS donated a staggering $290.89 billion to charities last year, notwithstanding the lingering effects of the global financial crisis. This was after a huge decline during 2008 and 2009, when donations dropped to levels not seen since the 1970s.  

Australia’s most generous philanthropist is not an Australian; he is an Irish-American named Chuck Feeney. Feeney has donated in excess of $500 million to medical research in Australia through Atlantic Philanthropies, a foundation he established in 1982 with the goal of giving away by 2017 the billions of dollars he made in his duty-free stores.

Sadly, the majority of the human race is hardwired to be self-centred, so rarely do you meet people who consistently put the interest of others ahead of themselves. Feeney is such a person; he is a rare but wonderfully humble, self-effacing human being who thankfully likes Australia.

Feeney was an invaluable partner in my government’s smart state strategy investments in the development of world-class research institutions in Queensland. His investments in Queensland, Victorian, NSW and Tasmanian universities and research institutes have helped develop key research programs for Australia. If ever anyone deserved an honorary Order of Australia it is Feeney.

Australia has not had the same culture of philanthropic giving to research and charities as in the US. There are several historic reasons for that, including our size, location, corporate culture and a different attitude to the role of government. Of course wealthy philanthropists such as transport tycoon Greg Poche, mining magnate Andrew Forrest and Graeme Wood, co-founder of, are making significant contributions, but no one in Australia is doing what Feeney is aiming for: giving away 99.9 per cent of his wealth as part of his philosophy of “giving while living”.

Feeney has met Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and Prime Minister Julia Gillard to try and establish new networks to encourage Australian philanthropy.

Indeed, Feeney is so keen to promote more giving in Australia that for the first time, this 80-year-old is “on the road” meeting Australian millionaires and billionaires, encouraging them to think about joining the Giving While Living networks, a series of giving networks in each state and territory made up of ultra-high net-worth individuals and families who regularly meet Feeney and his staff to communicate and, hopefully, collaborate on major giving projects of interest to Australia.

On every occasion I met Feeney I was struck by his humility and his clever strategic approach. By using leverage, he ensured the funds he was giving were matched by funds from the state and federal governments and the research institution or university receiving the money. The outcome was a much bigger research pie.

Even when I met him in San Francisco in the middle of the global financial crisis, when his funds had taken a beating on the world markets, he was still determined that his contributions to research would go ahead, provided the Rudd government stepped up to the mark. The federal government did more than expected and the gifts of over $102 million from Atlantic Philanthropies went ahead to Queensland’s Translational Research Institution, the Queensland Institute of Medical Research and the Queensland University of Technology, in the worst economic circumstance since the Great Depression.

The Feeney strategy also ensured the proposed research was benchmarked against world research to ensure the outcomes would be cutting edge and his money would achieve real outcomes to improve the quality of human life.

Our lifesaving researchers desperately need more Australian Chuck Feeneys to maintain the level of future research investment to keep us globally competitive, and to support our charities in their invaluable work.

It’s not hard to find brilliant Australian research. I will give one example. Michael Good and his team at Griffith University’s Glycomics Institute have patented a vaccine concept to stop the spread of malaria, which kills a million children worldwide annually. Vaccines have failed to date because the parasite rapidly changes its spots.

Good has put the malaria parasite to sleep by using chemical compounds targeting its DNA sequences. The sleeping parasite was injected in very small doses into mice inducing a strong immune response protecting the mice against multiple strains.

A human clinical study is planned within 12 months, using new Griffith facilities to produce the vaccine for human use. If successful, this cheap-to-produce vaccine will tackle malaria globally, especially in poorer countries.

Feeney’s enthusiasm is contagious; US billionaire investor Warren Buffett and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates have urged American billionaires to give away at least half their wealth. To date 69 individuals or couples have made the “giving pledge”.

In May, 61 very wealthy Americans met for dinner at the Miraval Resort in Tucson, Arizona, to discuss giving away large amounts of their fortunes. Feeney was there. Buffet described Feeney as the spiritual leader of the group, saying of Feeney’s plans to give his money away: “He wants his last cheque to bounce.”

I can only hope the Gates/Buffett pledge and US giving catches on in Australia. According to the 2011 Giving USA Foundation report, charitable giving increased by a healthy 3.8 per cent in the US in 2010. Where was the money directed?

Earthquake victims in Haiti received $1.4bn; education received $42bn or 14 per cent of all charitable gifts, an increase of 5.2 per cent; and human service organisations, which provide basic services to the victims of the economic crisis, were gifted $26.5bn.

Donations to humanities, arts and culture increased to $13.3bn; environmental and animal groups received less but they still got $6.76bn. Religion, which has been the largest charitable receptor for 56 years, received 35 per cent of all gifts at $101bn.

So who donates this $291bn?

Corporations gave only $15.3bn and foundations gave $41bn, however, both compared unfavourably to individual donations, which amounted to almost $212bn. That equates to $848 donated by every person over 18 years in the US.

Surprisingly, only 5 per cent of charitable giving comes from US corporations. This is at a time when investors and the community are increasing looking to companies to help solve health, environmental, economic and energy challenges.

Wise corporations in the US and Australia see strategic giving as a way to network with their customers and employees, building community goodwill and business loyalty; the benefits of being good corporate citizens may well be their financial future.

Prominent philanthropist Simon McKeon is determined to use his tenure and profile as Australian of the Year to convince the wealthiest in our country to increase their donations to charitable organisations.

I sincerely hope that those Australians who can afford to do so will think about following the philanthropic example of Chuck Feeney; not only will it make Australia a more equitable nation, donations will allow our research institutions to continue to place Australia at the forefront of lifesaving research.

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