Victoria wouldn't be Victoria without philanthropy

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Monday, 20 November 2017

Monday, 20 November 2017

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The Foundation was honoured to invite the Governor of Victoria, Her Excellency The Honourable Linda Dessau AC to deliver the 2017 Inspiring Philanthropy Oration.

The full transcript of the Governor's speech is published below.

Mr Andrew Baxter, Chairman, Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation

Current and former Board members

Ms Catherine Brown, Chief Executive Officer, Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation

Distinguished guests

Ladies and gentlemen

First, I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land upon which we are gathering and pay my respects to their elders past and present and to any elders here with us this morning.


Victoria wouldn't be Victoria without philanthropy

The Lord Mayor’s Charitable Fund is a wonderful force for social inclusion in this city, and so I am delighted to be with you this morning.

That is, with one reservation.

I looked up the previous speakers and topics of this oration.

I saw that Michael Northrop from the Rockefeller Brothers’ Fund had given his oration on ‘The role of Philanthropy in Creating Sustainable Cities’ and Gillian Triggs, on ‘Human Rights and Philanthropy’.

My reservation is that I, of course, am not an expert on philanthropy, and I certainly cannot talk from the specialised perspective of those who’ve gone before me. Nor can I offer anything on policy, up to the moment world-class evidence-based practice or, for example, legislative or tax incentives for philanthropists.

That said, it occurs to me that, as the Governor of Victoria, in fact I do have a very privileged vantage-point from which I can talk about philanthropy.

In this role, I have the opportunity to see the variety and impact of philanthropic work and how philanthropy underpins much of what makes Victoria…. well…. Victoria.

I have a keener appreciation than ever that philanthropy is not just an added extra for our State. It is not the icing on the cake. It IS the cake. Victoria would not be Victoria without philanthropy.

And although the title for today’s oration is ‘Inspiring Philanthropy’ – and there is definitely philanthropy that ‘inspires’ – Victoria’s prosperity is also underpinned by what I would call ‘inspired’ philanthropy.

We in Victoria have been particularly enriched by giving that has been borne of great vision: that is, vision accompanied by structures that have made it sustainable, and capable of being built upon further with the passage of time.

In other words, we have been the beneficiaries of philanthropy that has enhanced the long-term wellbeing of our community.

I want to talk about several examples of individual and collective inspiring and inspired philanthropy.
 

Great philanthropists: Alfred Felton

When we think about enduring philanthropic legacies of individuals in Victoria, we can choose from a long list of names.

It is hard not to start with Alfred Felton – the flesh and blood man who has perhaps faded a little behind that phrase so beloved by art lovers and administrators: ‘the Felton Bequest’.

Alfred Felton’s story is a classic story of 19th century Victoria.

Born in East Anglia, in 1831, he came to Melbourne with little more than some training as a chemist, but just in time for the gold rush. For several years he carted goods to the gold fields before he became a merchant, and opened a wholesale druggist’s business in Swanston Street.

With the gold rush boom and frenetic growth in the colony, his business activities expanded. With shrewd acquisitions, he moved into chemicals, glass, manufacturing and pastoral interests.

Alfred Felton lived modestly. He never married. He lived out his final years in simple rooms in St Kilda’s Espy Hotel, surrounded by his treasured collection of art. He died with a fortune equivalent today to about $80 million.

Of course, Victoria is lucky to have had many generous citizens. But Felton had great vision to match his wealth. It was shown by two different bequests in his will.

The first, as we know, went to the Melbourne Gallery, later the NGV.

It represented a community-building optimism that is so striking in our early philanthropists.

Felton was part of a generation motivated by great civic pride. These were business and community leaders who wanted to furnish their young colony and its expanding capital with the institutions they considered essential to a civilised society: libraries, universities, symphony orchestras, and museums.

Felton’s bequest to the gallery was specifically given to support the wellbeing of the community. His will made that clear: he specified that the money for the gallery be spent on works ‘with artistic and educative value’ – works that were ‘calculated to raise or improve the level of public taste'.

Felton had no doubt that enriching the cultural experience of every Victorian was a goal of the highest importance.

Nowadays, the Edwardian notion of ‘improving public taste’ sounds a bit old fashioned, even a little embarrassingly patronising.

However, a good vision, a strong vision, although expressed in words of its time, is an enduring vision. Felton’s vision passes that test with flying colours.

We need to ask: would our NGV have become the country’s leading gallery without Felton: without the art from his bequest now valued at some $2billion?

Would Victorians be educated to art, have an appetite to see more and have pride in their gallery without those rich beginnings?

And more broadly, without Felton’s generosity in establishing such an important collection here, would the NGV today draw the exhilarating international shows that it draws: exhibitions such as Van Gogh’s masterpieces garnering more than 420,000 visitors as it did earlier this year, and could our gallery possibly have become the 19th most visited gallery anywhere in the world?

I think the answer is clear. Felton’s bequest has ensured that his vision for Victoria – that it should have a world-class art museum, even though it was located so far from established art centres of the Western World – has not only been realised, but it has helped to underpin Melbourne’s confidence as a cultural and creative hub.

His bequest laid a cultural cornerstone for Melbourne.
We are a UNESCO City of Literature. We have one of the oldest International Film Festivals. The first symphony orchestra in the country was founded here. We are the city that attracted the famous Italian arts festival from Spoleto to our shores more than three decades ago. And the city that has just been chosen to feature its design prowess at the Hong Kong Business of Design Week next year, following Milan, Chicago and Stockholm. (Good company)!

Would Victoria have become – if I may risk sounding a little parochial for a moment – Australia’s most creative state, without the NGV? I don’t think so.

But there was a whole other part to Felton’s bequest.
Half of his fortune was directed to charities supporting the poor, and women and children in need.

It is another gift that keeps on quietly giving to the people of Victoria.

In 2004, during centenary celebrations for the Bequest, Sir Gustav Nossal, who had then served on the Bequests Committee for 35 years, said ‘It is the Felton Bequest’s work in the charitable sector of which I am perhaps most proud.’

The Bequest continues to distribute sums approaching $1million each year to innovative programs: tackling problems such as aged care for the homeless, child welfare and prisoner rehabilitation programs.

In this financial year, the Bequest has committed $250,000 to Fitted For Work’s SheWorks program, which helps disadvantaged women find and keep meaningful work.

When Alfred Felton made this bequest, the speed of growth and change in late 19th century post gold rush Melbourne had produced its fair share of social problems. Many Victorians lived in dire need.

Times and social circumstances have changed. Alfred Felton might not have envisioned a charity that would assist women to have something appropriate to wear to return to work. But it is a fine example of how a sustainable vision can ensure help to the community’s evolving needs across generations.
 

Great philanthropists: Dame Elisabeth Murdoch AC DBE

Another philanthropist whose vision has helped shape this State is Dame Elisabeth Murdoch.

There is actually a link with Alfred Felton. As the first woman Trustee of the NGV, Dame Elisabeth would have had many occasions to reflect on Felton’s great gift to the Victorian people.

I know Dame Elisabeth Murdoch has been fondly remembered and celebrated by other speakers on these occasions. And rightly so. She touched so many different aspects of Victorian life.

I want to mention just two.

Perhaps it is for her contributions to medical research and children’s health that succeeding generations of Victorians can be most grateful.

Dame Elisabeth became interested in children’s health when still just a girl herself.

At the age of 16, the then Miss Elisabeth Greene knitted a record number of baby jumpers for the Children’s Hospital. Her prize was a guided tour.

The sight of small children crying as they came out of theatre ‘devastated her’, she said later. It sparked her lifelong passion for supporting medical and scientific research. And she supported it in the fullest sense.
As Dame Elisabeth told Andrew Denton during a rare interview many years later: 

‘If you’ve got money it’s perfectly easy to give it away and nothing to be particularly proud of. But it’s being involved and knowing you’re helping and really being committed… it’s very rewarding when you feel that you are making a difference to the lives of other people.’

Dame Elisabeth was certainly committed. She was, of course, heavily involved with the Royal Children’s Hospital. When she retired as President way back in 1965, she was only in her mid-fifties, but had already clocked up three decades of service in different capacities.

And she was really only just getting started!

Perhaps the most visionary of her contributions to the health of Victorians was the Murdoch Institute, now the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, which she helped establish in 1987.

It shows best how far-sighted her philanthropy could be.

Together with inaugural director, Professor David Danks, who had originally foreseen an independent research institute to study genetic disorders affecting children, Dame Elisabeth drove the concept of co-locating a genetics institute with a children’s hospital.

Many others have since made remarkably generous contributions to the MCRI. But without the passion for children’s health that was sparked in that teenage knitting whiz, the MCRI would not be what it is today: the largest child health research institute in the country, and a world-class centre of genetics research and clinical genetics services.

We could go further: without Dame Elisabeth’s enormous contribution, I doubt the biomedical research precinct in Parkville could have grown into the concentrated hub of world-class bioscience it is now, some 30 years later.

Today the MCRI has 1900 staff located at the very heart of that precinct. Its researchers work with partners within the Royal Children’s Hospital and experts from the University of Melbourne on some of the most complex issues in paediatric medicine, from allergies and anaesthesia, to stem cells and skeletal biology.

They study the causes of disease in the lab. They work on the wards to translate discoveries into more accurate diagnoses and better treatments. And they work in the community to understand the impacts of childhood diseases across whole populations.

Even into the last years of her life, Dame Elisabeth remained a frequent visitor to the MCRI. She is still recalled with tremendous respect and affection by the researchers and specialists there for her real curiosity about and careful listening to their ideas and their work.

What is striking about Dame Elizabeth’s philanthropy is how it covers such a wide range of community well-being, including some ‘less popular’ causes, such as prisoner welfare, substance abuse and mental illness.

But this morning I want to highlight her contribution to regional projects, in particular the Shepparton National Piano Award that is held in northern Victoria every two years.

(As the award’s Patron in Chief, I trust you won’t mind me taking this opportunity, in a room full of generous benefactors, to give it a special mention…)

In the early 1990s, Shepparton arts enthusiasts began working on a plan to create a major piano competition. They appealed for a foundation gift from Dame Elisabeth, and duly received one.

What they didn’t realise was that they weren’t just getting Dame Elisabeth’s personal cheque. They were getting Dame Elisabeth too.

She was well into her 80s at that time. And the piano competition was held several hours’ drive from her home at Cruden Farm, but her enthusiasm wasn’t bridled by that.

There she was at the official launch of the Award, asking questions of the young pianists, charming the locals. There she was at every Award finals performance she could possibly get to over the next decade.

Dame Elisabeth was simply modelling what she espoused, that: ‘It’s not just about giving away money, you’ve got to give yourself’.

But it’s also about her vision: her ability to see possibilities, to be prepared to take a risk, and to have faith in the energy and ideas of others. 

For most of its history, I think it is fair to say, Shepparton has not been a place generally associated with world-class musical performance. Now, thanks to Dame Elisabeth, and to the passionate organisers and of course many other generous donors and supporters from the Goulburn Valley, it very much is.

Thousands of people have had the pleasure of hearing brilliant young Australian pianists playing the most demanding classical repertoire, barely an apricot stone’s throw from some of the country’s busiest orchards.

And who knows what the flow-on effects have been, or will be in the future? Who knows if one day a small, bored child, perhaps dragged along to a recital on a ten-dollar ticket, will experience a thrilling, life-changing encounter with classical music? Perhaps she already has.
 

Collective philanthropic efforts

I have spoken of two outstanding philanthropists and how they have influenced Victoria’s cultural, community and scientific assets.

But others of our outstanding assets have been the result of collective philanthropic efforts.

Some of you will be familiar with the Churchill Memorial Trust.

I am extremely fortunate to be one of the 4,000 or so Australians who have experienced the life-changing opportunity to explore new skills and ideas on a trip abroad, having been awarded a Churchill travelling fellowship.

Those Fellowships have been made possible by the collective philanthropic vision of many people.

It started in 1962, when the Duke of Edinburgh was tasked to enquire of Sir Winston as to what type of memorial he would like so that the world could remember him.

Talk about vision. Sir Winston suggested something like the Rhodes Scholarships, but available to all people and on a much wider basis.

Thorough planning then occurred in secret so that, on Churchill’s death, on 24 January 1965, a nationwide appeal for funds was launched by Prime Minister Robert Menzies, with Sir William Kilpatrick as the Chairman of the Appeal Committee.

The Returned Services League brilliantly planned and executed a nationwide door-knock on what became known as ‘Churchill Memorial Sunday’ – Sunday 28 February, 1965 – within only four weeks of Churchill’s funeral.

More than the equivalent of $1.8million was collected door to door. By the time the contributions and pledges from the Commonwealth and State Governments, and Australian companies, institutions and individuals had been collected, the Appeal target had more than doubled. The equivalent of nearly $4.5million was raised.

It might just sound like fund-raising, but given the detailed vision behind it, it was definitely philanthropic, albeit based on an early version of crowd sourced funding!

The idea of the Trust was to create a fund that could empower Australians from all walks of life to change their communities for the better.

This is an Australian story, but Victorians were instrumental in setting up the Trust, not least Prime Minister Menzies himself, and Sir William Kilpatrick who was, at least, an adopted Victorian.

With the support of the Trust, countless ideas and passions have been generated into projects and programs that are now part of our landscape.

Crime Stoppers was borne of a Churchill. A gait laboratory at the Royal Children’s Hospital too, the prelude to clinics nationwide and Australia’s leading role in gait studies, evaluating both conservative and surgical interventions for children with physical disabilities. And Victoria’s Donor Tissue Bank can trace its origins to a Churchill Fellowship. These are just several of many examples.

The point of all this is that through the philanthropic vision of the founders of the Trust, – across half a century, and several different generations – the fruits of these fellowships have been able to evolve to meet different needs, expectations and ideas, as the times have changed.

Like all good philanthropists, those Churchill Trust founders truly created a gift that keeps on giving.
 

Conclusion

There is no doubt that the example of our great philanthropists has inspired and continues to inspire many other Victorians to give, and to consider philanthropy an essential part of a life well-lived.

As we travel to different parts of Victoria, we see that spirit played out at the community level. We are repeatedly struck by the willingness of ordinary Victorians to contribute money or goods, their talents and their time to things that they value in their communities.

I know that, strictly speaking, volunteerism and local fundraising are not quite the same thing as philanthropy. But I think they spring from the same source, from the same desire to build stronger communities and from the shared faith that, together, we can achieve the things that matter to us all.

In any event, we also see people with the big ideas, with vision and a commitment to the greater good. I can give countless examples. But I want to finish by mentioning just one.

ICAN, (the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons), started with a launch here in Melbourne in 2007. National campaigns have now been organised in dozens of countries in every region of the world.

ICAN has just won the Nobel Peace Prize for 2017.
I am not suggesting that ICAN dates its origins only to Victoria, but Melbourne was absolutely instrumental in its founding days.

Although the original and continuing fundraising for ICAN in Victoria has been modest, compared to say the might of the Felton Bequest, it has still been driven by the same values as the philanthropy of Alfred Felton, Elisabeth Murdoch or the Churchill Trust.

The philanthropic commitment is to the common good: driven by the belief that all of us have it in our power to make things better for others. And that giving, in whatever way we can, is an essential part of a rewarding, well-lived life.

That ethos is not unique to Victoria. But earlier generations of Victorians, who were so determined to build a more just, inclusive and compassionate society, bequeathed to us not only our libraries and museums, free kindergartens and gorgeous parks but, most importantly, a sense of ourselves as a participatory community, an in-it-together society of contributors.

That philanthropic ethos – that personal commitment to the common good – is our patrimony. It is the inheritance of all Victorians. We can be very grateful. And, hopefully, inspired to contribute to that patrimony for future generations.

That is how we can best ensure the ‘peace and prosperity’ of Victoria’s State motto.