Vale Neill Martin

I noted with much sadness the passing of Neill Martin on Friday, 26 August 2011.  Those regular visitors to the ‘top end’ of Collins Street in Melbourne would know Neill as the proprietor of Shiny Shoes Shoeshine outside Harrold’s. So young, at the age of 49, a father of five and engaged to be married, Neill’s sudden passing is tragic.

For those of you not familiar with Neill’s story, I can assure you it’s an inspiring yarn. I am not the person to tell it, but I am certainly one that has been inspired by it. If I ever needed evidence of the impact of a little bit of philanthropy and a lot of determination, all I need do was walk outside my office and there he was, rain, hail or shine. It’s been a sad few days walking down Collins without hearing Neill’s deep voice selling his wares to punters – Shoe-shine, Shiny shoes…ladies shoes.

It takes a lot for person to pick themselves up and attempt to recover from drug addiction, alcoholism and homelessness. People like Neill are proof that you can, but that it can rarely be done alone. John and Theo Poulakis, the owners of Harrold’s, who in the spirit of true benevolence, helped Neill establish his small shoe shine business are said to be devastated by his passing.  There will be many across Melbourne sharing their grief.

My condolences go out to Neill’s family and friends. For whatever it is worth, there hasn’t been a day in the last four years when I’ve walked passed Neill and he hasn’t put a smile on my face. Speaking to colleagues and the other eggs, it’s clear I’m not alone.


Funding for a more equal society

Sometimes all it takes is a spark. Whether it’s revolutions in the Middle East or riots on the streets of London, it can be difficult to predict what ‘it’ is that ignites tensions into rebellion (or revolution).

I have read with interest as social commentators from across the globe try to make sense of what has been a year of tremendous civil unrest in many countries.  In the aftermath of the London and Birmingham riots, the Cameron Government has responded strongly to what it perceives as a ‘moral decline’ in British society. A review of all government social policy is now to take place. In response many, including Tony Blair and Darcus Howe, have claimed that the riots are reflection of a growing disconnect between the country’s haves and have-nots and that talking about a moral breakdown might be good politics but leads to bad policy.

The issue of social inequality (perceived or real) is a common trend among much of the civil unrest we have seen in 2011. Pushed too far communities can respond, sometimes violently, to the excesses of the few.

All the talk of inequality reminded me of a wonderfully though provoking Communities in Control Conference in Melbourne last year.  Of particular note was a session by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett discussing their book The Spirit Level. The book examines how virtually everything, from life expectancy to homicide rates and literacy levels, are affected by how equal a society is.  In short, a big gap between a country’s richest and a country’s poorest leads to bad outcomes for everyone (including the wealthy). There is, in typical British fashion, a 3.5minute punch and judy-esque video below explaining the book’s content in a little more detail.

Is it possible for philanthropy to address the issue of inequality in a way that could lead to change for an entire nation? In response to the overwhelming evidence pulled together in The Spirit Level, the authors of the book established The Equality Trust. Set up with funding from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT), the mission of the The Equality Trust is simple – advocate for a more equal society.  By analysing and disseminating the latest research, the Trust provides campaign groups with the substance required for their advocacy to be impactful.

So how compelling is the evidence presented by The Equality Trust? Well let’s have a look at a couple of graphs provided in The Spirit Level and made freely available to the public by the Trust:

The graph below looks at imprisonment rates in ‘rich’ first world nations.  In countries like Japan and Norway, where income inequality is relatively low, you’ll note imprisonment rates are also low. The converse is true in the United States and Singapore.

Another eye opening graph shows  us that the level of social mobility in less equal societies is low – meaning the poor stay poor. It’s much better to be born poor in a Scandinavian country, where you have a strong chance of breaking the cycle of disadvantage.  In the UK or United States, if your parents are poor, the chances of you breaking the cycle are much lower.

The Equality Trust provides sets of their ‘evidence’  via their website and it’s definitely worth a look over.

Ultimately, the book concludes that politics in wealthy countries should move away from an obsession with more and more wealth creation and shift the focus to creating more equal societies. There comes a point when more wealth creation stops having benefits for the community.

So if philanthropy is to have a role in creating more equal societies then its role needs to be influencing politicians. If we jump from the UK to other side of the Atlantic we have one of the world’s more generous philanthropists attempting to do just that. Warren Buffet drew the ire of a few of America’s most wealthy last week when he wrote a New York Times article calling for greater taxes on mega-rich:

“While the poor and middle class fight for us in Afghanistan, and while most Americans struggle to make ends meet, we mega-rich continue to get our extraordinary tax breaks”

The fact that ‘equality’ in wealth distribution leads to perceptions of socialism will do proponents no favours.  How to achieve these more equal societies is also open to debate.  The key issue remains that there needs to be robust debate around social and tax policy, debate not driven by fear and political posturing.  That’s the role philanthropic bodies in the UK like the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation have long played.  Those philanthropists in Australia interested in improved health, education and social outcomes might need to bite the advocacy bullet.

You can follow the musings (good, bad and boring) of Caitriona Fay on Twitter @cat_fay

When is a wealthy entrepreneur a philanthropist?

I watched with interest a couple of weeks back as word hit that Graeme Wood and Jan Cameron had tipped in $10million to buy the Triabunna woodchip mill in Tasmania. While Wood and Cameron have already established outstanding philanthropic credentials, many environmentalists would argue that the acquisition of the mill, which they intend to transform into an eco-tourism site, is their greatest gift to the community to date.While some media used language to infer the purchase was philanthropic, others simply referenced Wood and Cameron as two wealthy, conservation-minded entrepreneurs. Environmental philanthropy has long been a game of semantics.

So was the purchase of the mill philanthropic?  If we believe that philanthropy is the love of mankind, or the desire to improve the well-being of humankind, then strictly speaking I’d suggest that the purchase certainly came from that place for Wood and Cameron.  Regardless of your beliefs or mine,  both Wood and Cameron would believe deactivating a native woodchip mill is for the benefit of all people; a healthy environment is good for us all. On the flip side, those in the forestry industry have argued that the purchase will lead to jobs loses, will do little to protect the environment and will be an economic failure as an eco-resort. But consensus on the value of the gift has never been required to define philanthropic acts.

The purchase of the mill has got me thinking; is this a sign of  philanthropy moving away from its passive roots? If the purchase of the mill isn’t philanthropy, what is it? Who is it that ultimately gets to define what constitutes philanthropy?

The growth of social enterprises, crowd funding, CSR and giving structures are mixing the world of philanthropy into the world around us. Apart from the Wood and Cameron example, I’ve heard recently of a number of unique approaches to funding and fundraising.  For example Anh Do’s gift to the Australian Cancer Research Council of 1% of his book takings looks set to reap some nice financial rewards – a definite act of altruism and philanthropy.  I’m also hearing more regularly about the establishment of investment circles, where a percentage of income earned goes to the circle’s charity of choice. And what about sponsoring a friend to grow a ‘mo’ in November, is that an act of personal philanthropy (by both the donor and mo grower)?

No doubt, when the figures are compiled at the end of the year many of these unique approaches and ways to give back to the community will not be recorded in our ‘giving’ data. So, how much should be considered philanthropy and how much should we disregard? Does it need to  pass all the public benefit tests before we can celebrate it as philanthropic?

In environment funding, litigation, advocacy and campaigning have always been the bedrock of funding approaches in the United States.  It’s been tougher here in Australia.  The approach taken at Triabunna Mill by Wood and Cameron is regularly at play in the United States and much of the time it is underwritten by philanthropic trusts and foundations. Perhaps what the environment (and the rest of the NFP sector) needs is less philanthropists and more wealthy, conservation-minded entrepreneurs?