Mike Cannon-Brookes just led the way for Philanthropy 2.0 in Australia

| March 13, 2017

Elon Musk recently declared he could fix the South Australia’s power problems and was subsequently backed by Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes.  Audrey Melnik would like to see the rest of the top 1% direct their financial resources towards initiatives that benefit the country at large on a path towards an economy that doesn’t rely on primary industry.

Mike Cannon-Brookes, Australia’s unicorn-founding darling of Atlassian, has just shown us how to use economic and political power for the better of the entire country. You could be forgiven for not knowing what I’m referencing, as this situation has evolved rapidly over the last couple of days.

Our modern day Iron Man, Elon Musk, swooped in and offered to fix South Australia’s power crisis by providing much needed battery storage up and running in 100 days by his company, Tesla. Cannon-Brookes, the founder of Australian startup success story, Atlassian, picked up the baton and in a series of tweets, got a commitment from Elon Musk to make it happen.

This situation is fast gaining momentum, garnering support from all corners of the country. And why wouldn’t it? It makes tonnes more sense than building a new coal-fired power plant. But without the support of an individual with the clout of Cannon-Brookes, I’m not sure how seriously this offer would have been taken or how fast it would have progressed, even to its current nascent stage. I’m eager to see how this opportunity evolves and equally pleased to see Twitter used for the powers of good rather than its current utility to promote the 3 am rants of a tyrant.

Philantrophy 2.0

Taking a step back, I don’t ever recall seeing a situation like this emerge in Australia, where a member of Australia’s 1% sought to take up the reigns of a cause with such far-reaching impacts for the good of the country – economically and environmentally. I do apologise in advance if you can think of one and I have overlooked the righteous efforts of any of Australia’s elites. However, I do think that there is something most definitely new here that Cannon-Brookes has done. I like to think of it as Philanthropy 2.0.

Did Cannon-Brookes have to step in and back this initiative? No, energy is certainly far from being his wheelhouse industry. But he understood the need for a solution and the unattractive impacts of taking the alternate route. He stepped up, and I applaud him for doing so.

Several years ago, Dick Smith took aim at Australia’s elite for not doing their philanthropic duty.

‘In the United States, the rich donated an average of 15 per cent of their income, Smith said. But in Australia it was less than 1 per cent. “In America, I’m told that if you are wealthy and you’re not known as a philanthropist, you are a social pariah.”‘

I think I’ve uncovered the reason for the disparity between the US and Australia in relation to attitudes to philanthropy. It all has to do with inheritance taxes. In the US, to avoid inheritance taxes, many wealthy families in the US set up what is known as a Charitable Trust, which donates any interest earned for a period (usually 10–20 years) to charity. The interest earned thereafter is accessible to the heirs with no inheritance tax. As a result, during the first 10–20 years of the trust, beneficiaries get used to exercising their philanthropic muscle.

Australia, by contrast, has no inheritance tax, and therefore no vehicle created to bypass inheritance tax in favour of charities and non-profits. And therefore no philanthropic muscle developed within our top 1%.

Now, you may be thinking that what Cannon-Brookes did was not philanthropic; that he stands to make decent money out of whatever he ends up investing in this Tesla deal. So to that I have two points:

  1. The majority of philanthropy is not without self-interest. Be it a tax deduction or the advancement of an agenda of one sort or another — people need a motivation to contribute their time or money.
  2. Given that philanthropy in Australia has failed by world standards, perhaps this is an opportunity to define philanthropy as we need it here in Australia, in a way that galvanizes the top 1% into action.

I’ll get back to that in a bit. Bear with me.

The events that transpired over the last days required a visionary company to respond to an issue here in Australia and another individual with clout and means to take up the offer. In this situation it worked out. But it just as likely may not have. If either of these parties did not step forward this solution would likely not have taken hold in the way that it has.This brings me to the crux of the issue.

How can we create an environment that supports innovative solutions for our very real challenges here in Australia?

Now, if you think that innovative solutions will just magically appear again in the same way as has transpired in this current energy solution, think again. And if you think that it is the responsibility of the government to come up with these solutions, that may be good in theory, but in reality we’ve seen where that can lead us and it’s not anywhere near where we want to be.

I would like to see an Australia that has a system setup to respond to these types of issues: to proffer suggested solutions to problems and then work to garner the right kind of support for execution. And if it is to be in any way effective, it needs to be independent of government.

If we want to be a truly innovative nation, we need to be able to move fast, much in the way the events of the last couple of days have transpired. Government, by design, is not able to move fast in this manner (as President Trump has come to realise). It doesn’t mean we don’t seek the support of government when it’s needed; but it does mean we can be much more proactive and responsive, away from the factors that slow government down.

I could probably list half a dozen projects off the top of my head that I think would benefit from an independent body that has the dedicated creative and intellectual resources, as well as financial and political clout required for follow through. I’m sure you could too.

I’m definitely open to ideas, but my initial thoughts are that this type of organisation would be a cross between a think tank and a task force. So how, you ask, does this relate to philanthropy?

This is where we should put the call out to the rest of the top 1%, all of those individuals and families that we see listed in the BRW Rich lists time and again. Instead of using philanthropic funds to adorn their names on hospital buildings and school campuses, let’s discuss how to support change that creates an Australia that responds to global opportunities and local challenges and positions Australia as a truly innovative nation.

It’s about time that the rest of the top 1% direct their financial resources towards such initiatives that benefit the country at large and put us on a path towards an economy that doesn’t rely on primary industry. That is philanthropy 2.0.