Starting out: Community philanthropy
Robin: We’ve got two arms to our giving: through our company Abergeldie, and through the Jaramas Foundation, which is our family foundation.
Mick: Abergeldie has had a strong community investment philosophy ever since I started it in 1994. We give a percentage of our turnover to charity, regardless of what our profit is, focusing on homelessness and depression. For the former we sponsor a St Vincent de Paul van which goes to Western Sydney every night, and we and our staff volunteer on the van’s monthly roster. The other charity Abergeldie supports is beyondblue, in honour of one of our employees who committed suicide. It was very traumatic for us all, as you can imagine.
Robin: We set up Jaramas Foundation in 2008 when we had a windfall from the business, and at the beginning our main focus was on the poorest of the poor: in our opinion, refugees. So most of our funds for the first three years went into overseas aid, specifically to Australia for UNHCR and Oxfam.
One amazing experience, in those early days, was when we helped fund a computer training centre in a refugee camp in Uganda. It was ostensibly a training facility to improve the camp inhabitants’ employment opportunities, but in actual fact a lot of them used the internet access to trace their families, lost because of civil war. One man was able to find his brother who was literally flying out of Nairobi the following week to go to Canada, so he was able to link with his brother and escape the refugee camp. I was just blown away by the impact of this project on people’s lives.
Tackling the root problem: The environment
Mick: When we added to our fund in 2010, so had more money for distribution, we decided to extend our giving to the environment and education. Originally we gave to refugees but our thinking changed: there’s not much point trying to save all these people when the environment is not there for them to live in anyway. We’re trying to get to the root problem, in a way, and it comes back to the environment.
So now we have four giving streams – environment, refugees, education, and an annual one-off grant which varies each year, last year going to support the homeless.
In terms of education, we donated $500,000 to establish a perpetual PhD engineering scholarship at the University of Sydney, with a specific environmental focus: looking at engineering solutions to providing sustainable power generation and water supply.
Supporting sustainable farming and food production
With our environmental funding we’ve leaned towards supporting sustainable farming, looking at the importance of food production, so last year we gave to Landcare Australia to support six of their projects in NSW.
Robin: There was one fantastic project which addressed soil care. The mob we supported, Glen Innes Natural Resource Advisory Committee organised a seminar in outback NSW and 140 farmers turned up. A number of them then continued with training through TAFE as a result, so we think this is a great outcome. Just to bring those farmers together under the banner of caring for the environment was quite satisfying.
Choosing what to fund
One of the things we’ve learned, in our short time of having our Foundation, is that you’ve almost got to be blinkered about what your chosen cause is, because there are so many competing needs. You’ve just got to narrow it down and focus.
Mick: We believe that in order to improve the environment we need to find a better way of generating electricity and recycling water, and we have to do this for a lot more people, world-wide. We spend a lot of time at work in the water space, building water recycling plants and cleaning water so it can be released back in to the environment.
Philanthropy – an extension of personal and business interests
Robin: Funding environmental programs was an easy decision for us, it’s just part of who we are. My father is a birdwatcher and at 82 and he’s still propagating little gum trees in his back garden! My parents grew up during the war so they are very focused on not wasting anything – we always composted and recycled, long before anyone else was doing it. So looking after the environment just seems normal for me, that’s my perspective.
Mick: And I married you [laughs]. Our philanthropy is another extension of our business and personal interests. We run an engineering and construction company so we spend a lot of time building infrastructure. We know there are limited resources, but we also know that you can’t take electricity away from people once you’ve given it to them. It has improved people’s lives enormously, so the real challenge is to find a way of providing electricity and water in a sustainable way. That’s where our focus comes from.
Our kids are still quite young, and it takes a lot of time and energy to run the business. It’s been good to us, and it has generated the money we put into the PAF, but we’re still a long way from being retired so at this stage we haven’t got a lot of time to spend on our giving. We need someone to help us out, and other AEGN members have been really helpful.
Setting up the Foundation
Robin: When we set ours up we didn’t know anyone who had a PAF. We read about them in the newspaper and then approached our own work solicitors, and set it up without knowing anyone who was engaged in philanthropy.
Initially we definitely wanted to go under the radar, and didn’t tell anyone about what we are doing. But we’ve changed our minds on that, becoming more open about it. Once we joined Philanthropy Australia and began to meet other donors, we realised it is really valuable to talk to others about things like how public you are, and how your foundation going to pass on to the next generation.
Our company became a member of Sustainable Business Australia last year. We got to know Rob Purves and got in touch with AEGN through him, he suggested we go along to an event, which was the launch of the Green Giving Guide. It was perfect timing for us, as we were thinking of increasing our environmental giving, and there we were at a seminar which would teach us how!
We involve our children (currently aged 18, 16, 14 and 10) in the discussion about where we are going to give, so they are very much aware that we’ve got these funds that we have to give responsibly, and they have their input. Having a family wasn’t a key driver of setting up a PAF, but we realised it’s better to give them responsibility than money: inheriting a PAF is probably less of a burden than inheriting wealth.
Mick: The PAF has worked well for us, but we may not necessarily add more to it. I think that if we are setting more aside in the future we will probably do that outside the PAF. Through it we can only give to DGR 1 organisations, so we feel a little hemmed in. It suits us now because we haven’t got time to be assessing projects ourselves, but down the track it might be nice to have more flexibility.
We’ve met so many interesting people through our giving, clever people doing inspirational things, really passionate people from all walks of life. That’s been a real bonus that we hadn’t expected. There is nothing more interesting than imagining how the world could be a better place, and how you could possibly help with that.