In criticising the poor record of charitable giving among the nation’s wealthiest individuals and corporations, Australian entrepreneur and icon Dick Smith has a point. But whether a “name and shame” approach will do anything to change the culture is highly debatable.

There’s no doubt that the US has a thriving philanthropic culture with a long tradition behind it. Andrew Carnegie, once the richest man in the world, loved to say: “The man who dies rich dies disgraced.” His idea was that if you had the optimism and drive to amass a fortune, your obligation was to use it for good purposes. The whole point of making money was to give something back to the community.

This was in the context of 19th century America, a land of rip-roaring capitalism and rugged individualism with little in the way of a social safety net.

By contrast Australians have tended to place greater weight on social solidarity, buttressed by an egalitarian ethic. This equality might have been more of an idea than a fact, but an appealing idea to a people whose national story encompassed the goldfields and Gallipoli by way of the shearing sheds and factory floors of the early labour movement.

Australians believed everyone deserved a fair go, but more than Americans they looked to the state to uphold it. Quite rightly, the social provision of decent services and a hand up to society’s most disadvantaged, was seen as a sign of a democratic and fair country that looked after its citizens.

But this did also encourage the view among some that meeting your basic obligations was enough. You paid your taxes, which the government then used to provide welfare, so there was no great need to voluntarily cough up more.

Several reports over the past decade, such as those prepared for the Petre Foundation, have shown that philanthropic giving in Australia is at a much lower level than in the US, and that the reasons for this are largely cultural.

This matches with our own experience at World Vision.  World Vision is fortunate to have the support of some exceptionally generous individuals.  But analysis of giving by postcode has shown us that overall, it is people in the middle and lower socio-economic areas that give more as a percentage of their income.  In a sense Australia’s greatest philanthropists are to be found in places such as Toowoomba and Frankston, not Toorak or Potts Point.

Why is this so? Possibly it’s the case that people closer to poverty have more empathy for those less well off. Perhaps people who have to manage their own money carefully are more likely to believe that a little can achieve a lot if it’s well spent.

Dick Smith is to be congratulated for his own efforts in giving 20% of his income to charitable causes. People who fall into the rich and mega-rich camp should note his example, and join him. But where I think Smith is a bit off the mark is the idea that you can change a culture by shaming people into good deeds.  You might achieve some short-term gains but the old thinking will slip back into place once the fuss has died down.

What we need to change is people’s belief the difference their contributions can make.

If we step out of the bubble of our comparatively comfortable lives, and find ourselves in the company of children living with poverty, we can see the amazing human potential and also our own power to make a difference.

So many of the interventions that have made a huge impact in relieving poverty and suffering have been very simple and inexpensive ones.

Something like 22,000 children still die every day due to largely preventable causes. This is a shame and a scandal. But it also represents incredible progress when you consider that figure was more than double that 40 years ago. Much of that progress has happened because of very simple things — such as better nutrition for mothers and babies, cleaner water, rehydration kits and cheap immunisations.

I think Dick Smith is right to say what he thinks, and to say it in his distinctive way. But in the long run we will encourage greater generosity, not by shaming the rich, but by helping people understand the power they hold to change the world for others.

*Tim Costello is CEO of World Vision Australia.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey