It’s 113 years since Simcha Baevski arrived in Melbourne as a near-penniless immigrant from Belarus. But this remarkable man is still changing the face of Australia, almost four decades after his death.

As the youngest of 11 children, Simcha might never have been born. But by the time he died of a heart attack in 1934, he had made a substantial fortune and created one of Australia’s most famous and enduring brands.

He was, of course, Sidney Myer, and he makes it onto this list because he left one tenth of his wealth to the community and established a tradition of giving in the Myer family that has lasted four generations and is still going strong.

Today, the Sidney Myer Fund and Myer Foundation (set up in 1959 by sons Kenneth and Baillieu) give away $12 million a year to 150 different causes, with the aim of building “a fair, just, creative, sustainable and caring society, through initiatives that promote positive change in Australia”.

Hardly any of these projects are overtly political, but the Myers don’t waste their money on cats’ homes or soup kitchens and they don’t give it to mining companies. They funnel it to causes that help the poor and disadvantaged, or that foster democratic values or enrich our cultural life.

And that’s how Sidney would have wanted it. A model employer who provided sick pay and holiday homes for his employees, he distributed shares in his company to staff and executives, and rebuilt his Bourke Street store in the midst of the Great Depression to provide jobs for Melbourne. “It is a responsibility of capital to provide work,” he explained. “If it fails to do this it fails to justify itself.”

On Christmas Day 1930, Sidney Myer served up lunch for 10,000 unemployed and their families at Melbourne’s Exhibition Building, complete with a band and free tram travel, and gave a present to every child. Four years later, 100,000 mourners lined the streets to see his funeral procession.

Nowadays, “half the Myer family is left wing, and half is right wing”, according to Peter Winneke, who runs philanthropic services for the Myer Family Company, which manages the family’s investments.  But you get a distinct flavour of the way the philosophy leans by looking at the causes they support.

There is a strong bias towards indigenous kids in their educational and poverty programmes; they give large amounts of money to the Australian Conservation Foundation and Australian Wildlife Conservancy; they fund programs for asylum seekers and torture survivors; and their arts program rewards “courage” in performers as well as talent.

Read the rest at The Power Index.

Peter Fray

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