G’Day Phil Cap!

Abbreviation is something of an art form in Australia. A pickup truck is a ‘ute’ (from ‘utility vehicle’), university is ‘uni’ (a term that was once alien in Britain but is now ubiquitous through the influence of Aussie soap operas like ‘Neighbours’), afternoon is ‘arvo’ (not be confused with ‘avo’, an avocado), and the global financial crisis has become, simply, ‘the GFC’. So (ignoring the comments about philanthrocapitalism being a tongue-twister) we were honoured when our hosts on our recent book tour to Australia bestowed philanthrocapitalism with its own matey abbreviation, ‘Phil Cap’.

The question that came up in almost all our media interviews was ‘why is there so little philanthropy in Australia?’ The media seemed unaware that only last year, Australia came top of a ranking of the World Giving Index. On the other hand, as philanthropy expert Peter Winneke points out, at 0.4% of national income, Australian giving lags behind the UK (0.7%) and the US (2.0%) and doesn’t even have the excuse of a recession for increasing sluggishly.

The paradox of Aussie generosity comes down in part to the problem of bad data. The numbers that Peter is quoting refer to donations to government approved ‘Deductible Gift Recipients’, according to the tax code. One of the messages we heard from philanthropists and nonprofits alike in Australia is that qualification for ‘DGR’ status is tightly drawn (whereas the US has far the easiest qualification for tax exempt status), so it would be mistaken to infer that Americans are five times as generous as Australians. The World Giving Index tries to fix this problem of international comparisons by using polling data but its results are heavily skewed by responses to a question about whether the interviewee would help a stranger.

Many Aussie philanthropists – and we met lots – remain media shy, fearful of what they describe as Australia’s ‘tall poppy syndrome’. Yet donors such as Andrew Brice, co-founder of last minute hotel booking website, are starting to raise their profile. One philanthrocapitalist, Simon McKeon, was named 2011 Australian of the Year.

Like their counterparts elsewhere in the world, Australian philanthrocapitalists are looking not just to do good but to have an impact. Some are sticking close to home, such as  Gordon Merchant, the founder of Billabong surfware, who is supporting medical research to find a cure for skin cancer, a particular problem for Australians. (The Merchant Foundation and the University of Queensland, its lead partner in the new Skin Cancer Network, were sponsors of our visit.) Former banker Andrew Penfold is supporting indigenous education, a problem that large dollops of government money has failed to tackle. So is Australia’s second richest person, Andrew Forrest, who is also launching new initiatives to help abused or neglected children abroad. IT entrepreneur Steve Killelea has gone for worldwide impact through advocacy, by creating a Global Peace Index and supporting organizations like the Center for Advancing Health‘s research on the health benefits of plants like marihuana.

So is philanthrocapitalism booming in Australia, despite the disappointing figures on total giving? Aggregate data on giving can hide underlying trends. For example, in the US even the mega-philanthropy of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and other signatories of the Giving Pledge has not shifted the needle much on total giving. From what we saw, a new generation of philanthrocapitalists is emerging in Australia, which like America, the UK and new economic powerhouses such as India is centred on the country’s newly successful entrepreneurs. Government, too, is starting to pick up on the potential of new innovations in social investing such Social Impact Bonds.

Maybe it is time for Messrs Gates and Buffett to visit Australia and encourage Phil Cap with a supportive G’Day!