Australians donated a record $1.16 billion last year but our mega-rich are laggards on the world stage for giving. Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury, Andrew Leigh calls for Aussie billionaires to think less about their backyard size and more about their philanthropy. 

An Australian-first report from the Centre for Social Impact (CSI) delved into who was giving and how much in 2021, finding a measly 2% of the top earners in the country gave a higher proportion of their income than the everyday Australian.  

That’s despite the wealthiest 200 people owning 3.8% of the country’s wealth – some $555 billion – with the top five owning $143.28 billion alone. That means Australia’s giving total is 0.81% of the country’s GDP, behind Canada at 1%, half of New Zealand’s at 1.84%, and less than a third of the US’s, at 2.1%. 

Indeed in the US, 90% of people earning over $1 million make tax-deductible donations, compared to only 55% of Australians earning the same amount. Why? The wealthy in Australia just aren’t thinking about giving enough, Leigh tells The Ethics Centre. 

“I want the main topic of conversation among Australia’s successful business leaders not to be the size of your yard, but the impact that you’re making with your philanthropy – where your giving is going, how it’s changing lives, how you’re managing to have a transformative impact beyond the business,” Leigh says. 

“I’m reaching out to many business leaders who are pioneers in terms of corporate philanthropy, and just asking them a simple question: ‘If you were in my shoes, how would you look to maximise impact giving in Australia?’” 

And as the country emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic into a time of economic uncertainty with the cost of living surging, Australia’s charity sector faces new and frightening challenges in providing care to our most vulnerable.  

Put simply, “there are more people to help and fewer people who are giving,” Leigh says.

Four out of five community sector charities struggled with an increased demand for services during the pandemic, the CSI report found. About half (54.9%) of aged care charities and income support charities (48%) made a loss or a small surplus in 2021 (whereas 44.2% of religious charities and 41% of emergency relief charities made a surplus).  

“Our goal of doubling philanthropy by 2030 really is one that sits outside the business cycle. We want to permanently increase the level of generosity of Australians, not because we want government to step back, but because we think these challenges are so busy that government can’t do it alone,” he says. 

And there’s plenty of reason for optimism, Leigh says, amid a growing list of billionaires parting with their wealth in the name of civic responsibility. Last December, Australia’s richest man and Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes and his wife Annie Cannon-Brookes vowed to invest $1.5 billion of their personal wealth to financial and philanthropic ventures aimed at fighting climate change.  

Overseas, Bill Gates has pledged to part with “virtually all” of his wealth, while Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg made a 2015 pledge to donate 99% of his Facebook shares to charity. In September, Patagonia’s founder donated his entire company to the fight against climate change. 

“I think it’s really apparent that a lot of the successful technology entrepreneurs in Australia have the mindset that they don’t want to leave most of their wealth to their kids. They want to give it back to the community,” Leigh says. 

So how can Australian businesses emulate this groundswell to give? Consecutive lockdowns saw a reduction in corporate volunteering and pro bono services, replaced by corporate investments of products and cash. Leigh says this is a valuable opportunity to evolve our concept of giving into “impact giving”. 

“We’re actually seeing quite a shift in corporate volunteering away from the sort of ‘let’s go and paint a fence on Friday’, to ‘let’s match up our skills to what the sector needs’ – more planned and more intentional corporate volunteering,” he says. 

Leigh continues there is an abundance of unused corporate volunteering hours in the economy, and the MP has been meeting with businesses and the philanthropic community to discuss the smartest way to give back – the key to this, he says, is thinking about one’s “comparative advantage”, the special sauce that the next firm doesn’t have. 

“The free training that’s being provided to community organisations by Canva, for example, allows designers from disadvantaged backgrounds to learn IT and design skills and get better earnings as a result. That’s something that only Canva can do.” 

Leigh says for him it comes down to “putting the S back into ESG” – for Australian corporations and the billionaires that head them up to think deeply about the value of their social impact on Australia’s most needy.

“Let’s encourage a race to the top in supporting community organisations,” Leigh says.