Philanthropy in Australia: Are the rich morally obliged to give?

By Lorrin Windahl.

The other night I caught the ABC’s  Compass report entitled ‘Hey Big Spender’. It discussed the idea of philanthropy in Australia and looked at why the wealthy are reluctant patrons. As a whole we are a very generous nation with our time and money. However we lag behind other countries when it comes to the generosity of our wealthiest. They seemingly have deep pockets but with rather short arms.

videoSo why is philanthropy relevant to a blog about socially responsible design you may ask. Well, if you have ever designed anything in the not-for-profit sector then you will recognise the importance of philanthropy.

The report made mention to a recent study, funded by the Petre Foundation and undertaken by Swinburne and Queensland Universities, to review philanthropy in Australia. The study discovered that the majority of patrons to philanthropic organisations are deceased. These were largely made up of corporate or deceased estates and it highlighted the fact, somewhat shockingly, that the living wealthy are just not giving.

But why is this? Well, philanthropist Daniel Petre (whom the Petre Foundation is named after) has a theory. He believes that it is because our wealthiest are ‘morally bankrupt’. This may seem a little harsh. Do the wealthy really have a moral obligation to donate a little of their money to the greater good? Apparently, as the study suggests, the majority of Australia’s wealthy don’t seem to think so.

But what can we do to change this – if in fact we feel that the wealthy do have a responsibility. Well, Petre has another suggestion. Bring back the death tax. Apparently we used to have such a tax but it was phased out years ago. Countries such as Britain and the US still have this tax though and it seems to work. This a tax imposed if you die wealthy. If you bequeath some of your wealth or give it away while you are still alive then you can avoid the death tax. However if you decide to do neither of these then your wealth is taxed. Petre suggests that this tax should be given to philanthropic organisations. But is it right to force people to give? The idealist in me would like to think that the wealthy see the value in giving back to society and think it is worthwhile without being forced. But unfortunately this doesn’t seem to be the case. So perhaps reimposing a death tax in Australia is a good way of getting philanthropy back on the agenda.

But that said there are some wealthy people in Australia who do give. Philanthropists such as those interviewed for the show. And I take my hat off to them because without their financial support programs such as cancer research, indigenous health and support for women and children would not survive.

So next time you are out buying a third Ferrari for your collection perhaps you should consider becoming a patron to a worthwhile cause.

To watch the show or read the transcript visit the Compass website.

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