Generation Next


Michael Gonski and his wife Kerry at the opening of the Sydney Story Factory

Michael Gonski is part of a new generation of philanthropists embracing digital technology to collaborate in new and exciting ways. Yet Michael respects the wisdom of older philanthropists and is mindful the lessons learnt are not lost in the digital age. In this interview, Michael shares his thoughts on innovation, the generational shift in philanthropy and how non-profits should respond to new models like crowd funding.

Your family has a heritage of philanthropy so you’re in a unique position to compare the approach between generations. How different is it?

I don’t really see many differences between the generations in their approach to philanthropy. The motivations are the same – backing ideas that wouldn’t otherwise be backed by government, as well as committing your time and putting your name behind a cause.

Technology has certainly added an additional medium for raising money, but my experience has been that giving via technology has to be thought of as the ‘cream on top of the cake’ rather than the cake itself.

What advice do you have for new philanthropists?

"My biggest piece of advice is ‘do it now’ – don’t wait until ‘x’ changes in your life as you will always be waiting."

I also believe that the next generation has a lot to offer. People may not think they have much experience, but everyone can contribute and everyone has a network which can be extremely useful to a non-profit.

IMPACTImage courtesy of The Sydney Story Factory

What opportunities and risks do you see in the generational shift when it comes to philanthropy?

I think the biggest risk with the next generation of philanthropists is that they move back to only funding specific projects and forget about funding ‘overheads’.  It is always ‘sexy’ to say that only a small percentage of donations goes to overheads but in my view any good philanthropist would say this is nonsense because charities need to be thought of as businesses.

"You need to give a dollar to grow a dollar."

Unless you fund overheads, you won’t be able to have the biggest impact. This is something the previous generation of philanthropists learnt through experience – I’ve seen compelling examples of the money saved by removing operational inefficiencies and creating synergies in shared back office functions.

Having said that, I think younger philanthropists are less risk averse and more open to backing projects that could fail quickly – so long as they fail cheaply. I think this entrepreneurial mindset is terrific because some of the most amazing projects involve risk.

When the inspiring Cath Keenan and Tim Dick came to see me with their idea for what is now The Sydney Story Factory, it was just a concept on a page. They had no track record and no hard evidence that their concept would succeed. This is what made it exciting for me and I wanted to back the people. Once you have five minutes with Cath and Tim, you immediately know that whatever they do will be successful as they are born leaders and visionaries.

Image courtesy of The Sydney Story Factory

What advice do you have for non-profits looking to adapt their funding models to new ideas like crowd funding?

Technology can certainly enhance fundraising activity but personal donor relationships will always be the key. So non-profits should be cautious about putting all their eggs in one basket when it comes to crowd funding. It is a powerful idea but I’m yet to see a significant amount of money being raised in Australia – our population is too small for micro-funding to make a big difference. Rather than being seen as the sole answer to a fundraising need, crowd funding should form part of a broader strategy.

I do think that the new generation of philanthropists like to give in different ways and this is something non-profits need to consider. Younger philanthropists like to get involved, to get their hands dirty. They are not interested in attending a fancy dinner to give their money away.

A great example of this is Laurie Marshbaum and Nina Skrzynski’s movement, 10x10. This is where 10 people invite 10 people to an event who have never given before. You pre-pay $100 to attend the event so there is $11,000 in the pot. On the night, the attendees are given $100 in monopoly money and give the money to the charity of choice that gives them an insight into what they are doing by pitching on the night.

"The new generation loves to see and feel where their money is going."

I do hope though that people will see in the future that an extra $10 should be given on each ticket to fund overheads as this should be part of the education of any up and coming philanthropist.

IMPACTImage courtesy of The Sydney Story Factory

How do you balance the demands of your legal career with your passion for philanthropy?

I am lucky that as an employment lawyer, my clients are often the Heads of HR and in charge of Corporate Social Responsibility. When deciding whether to leave the law and concentrate solely on philanthropy, I was lucky enough to have incredible clients who have been willing to assist me by being open to work on legal matters as well as collaborate on philanthropic ones.

I am also lucky to be a partner at Herbert Smith Freehills as it is a firm that does back those who wish to be diverse and entrepreneurial. By letting me pursue my passions in philanthropy and also in the venture capital and technology space, I am more committed than ever to the firm and I believe it has made me a better lawyer.

What philanthropic investments have you made that you are most proud of?

My wife and I support the projects that we are personally involved in. Accordingly, our main gifts are to The Sydney Story Factory and also to Variety the Children’s Charity (which is the charity my wife works for). I am very proud that my wife has led the charge by showing the value someone trained in ‘for profit business’ can bring to the not for profit world. Her six years in sales and marketing at Unilever has given her the experience to really add value to what Variety does and help to corporatise the great work they were already doing.

IMPACTImage courtesy of The Sydney Story Factory

I am also proud of the growth of New Gen (New Generation of Giving, a national program to connect and develop emerging leaders in Australian giving) as a group. It started with only eight of us having a chat at our house almost three years ago and now had around 150 members. I really hope the new members get the same joy as I have in meeting each other, collaborating and making social change.

"I look forward to the next generation having a strong voice in the community and using it for good."



In this video Kim Meredith, Executive Director at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, talks to Perpetual about the new wave of philanthropists coming out of Silicon Valley, and how their outlook on philanthropy differs from more traditional approaches.


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