The Future of Philanthropy for Australian Businesses


These days, giving is much more than writing a cheque – staff, suppliers, customers and communities expect an organisation’s philanthropic activities to connect to its wider purpose.

The top end of town is the apex of corporate philanthropy. That might seem obvious but it wasn’t always so.

“For the Giving Australia study in 2006, we tallied up where the money was coming from and it was a lot of small businesses doing the bulk of the giving,” says Associate Professor Wendy Scaife, who leads the Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies at Queensland University of Technology’s Centre for Future Enterprise. “We did the same study in 2016 and there’d been quite a change – most money was coming from large businesses. They’re getting into philanthropy in a determined, planned and strategic way.”

Last year, Australia’s top 50 corporate philanthropists made $1.22 billion worth of donations to a broad range of causes, according to Strive Philanthropy’s 2022 Giving Large report, which found that this community investment was up by 4 per cent – or $50 million – to reach the record total.

Philanthropy Australia CEO Jack Heath says the aspiration is for 1 per cent of a company’s profits to be directed to the community. In 2021, the organisation released its Blueprint to Grow Structured Giving, with a national goal to double philanthropic giving by 2030.

“We’re well-positioned, with a palpable and unprecedented level of empathy, kindness and compassion sitting in the community,” says Heath, adding that despite cost-of-living pressures, people say they’ll continue to give and expect the companies they work for to do it, too.

There are some inspirational examples to point to. Last July, Australian digital design unicorn Canva set up a charitable foundation, with co-founders Melanie Perkins and Cliff Obrecht pledging, over time, to give away most of their personal 30 per cent shareholding in the company, which is valued at about $11 billion.

When Atlassian co-founders Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes were starting out, they pledged 1 per cent of equity, profit, time and/or product to make a difference in the world. They said they were following the example of American software giant Salesforce. Both these companies are among the co-founders of Pledge 1%, a movement to accelerate corporate philanthropy.

“People learn how to give and get involved in giving through their peers,” says Scaife. “Companies like Atlassian have influenced others – even before they made money, they were pledging to give away 1 per cent.

“If you’re a startup, you have no money but you hope to make millions and that’s very motivating for the team as you grow.” Like salary sacrificing for superannuation, if you never see it, you don’t miss it.

Scaife is the judging panel chair of the annual Australian Workplace Giving Awards run by One Million Donors, which is aiming to get that many Australians donating through the organisations they work for. Regular workplace giving taken out of employees’ pre-tax pay – perhaps a painless monthly deduction the equivalent of a takeaway coffee – adds up quickly when it’s matched by company contributions. It’s a fast-growing part of philanthropy in this country.

“Giving is now much more sophisticated, authentic and driven by employees,” she says. “Back in my early days, big companies had a scattergun approach – 1000 cheques of $300. Now it’s about what people want to see their organisation achieve for their community.” Employee surveys and ensuring staff members from all levels are on the giving committee are essential.

On the receiving side, charities need to be able to demonstrate the impact of the donations. “You set realistic goals, you measure them to see what’s working and what’s not,” says Scaife. “Donating companies should also assess programs and decide whether to rejig, exit or find more resources to replicate something that’s working really well.

“It’s not about the numbers – it’s about the impact in the community. The flow-on comes to the company and the employees. There’s the warm glow that you get from doing something good but also that intangible thing of being part of a good company.”

Case study 1: ANZ seeds of renewal

When big business supports community

Ned Middleton

ANZ Seeds of Renewal, one of the bank’s four employee-led community grant programs, has awarded more than $5.5 million to about 900 projects in 23 years. Administered by the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal (FRRR), a not-for-profit that’s focused on delivering a range of support for those communities in Australia, it’s an example of corporate philanthropy with sustained impact that engages both staff and those it assists. “Regional communities face unique challenges in terms of access to services and facilities,” says Jenefer Stewart, general manager, business banking at ANZ. From the start, she says, this program had the objective of “finding ways to be more connected to local communities and businesses” beyond just banking services.

Seeds of Renewal began in 2000, a time of drought, and has endured through floods, fires, plagues and every other challenge thrown at rural and regional Australia since. Stewart says that it’s both “practical and tangible… the staff in those communities can walk past and see the projects they’ve helped support”.

The partnership with FRRR has been essential for success. “These communities can face extra hurdles in accessing philanthropy so we’re a conduit between the goodwill of many to the good purposes of rural communities,” says Sarah Matthee, the foundation’s general manager, partnerships and services.

Ahead of the annual grant assessment, FRRR does due diligence on the applications and presents the ANZ staff committee with a shortlist. Stewart says when they ask for internal volunteers, they’re “always oversubscribed”. Bank employees also give successful applicants the good news. “Those phone calls are such a joyous thing,” says Matthee.

The grants are up to $15,000 and a mix of dollars and sense. “We want to get grants to organisations in the most tax-effective and responsible way and FRRR helps us to do that,” says Stewart. “We want grants to genuinely do good and hit the mark on that purpose. The due diligence FRRR does makes sure of that.”

Seeds of Renewal grants are given to communities across the nation. The last round, announced in December 2022, included $15,000 to install solar panels on the community radio station at Narrabri, NSW; $15,000 for First Nations rangers to preserve endemic rainforest in West Arnhem in the Northern Territory; and $12,600 to a program developing arts projects to engage youth and people with a disability in Castlemaine, Victoria.

ANZ staff are often inspired to get more involved with the projects Seeds of Renewal is supporting and beyond. “Employees provide skilled volunteering for some of our other programs as well,” says Matthee. “We have such a good relationship that we’ll talk to ANZ about things we have on our plate where they might be able to provide assistance.”

Stewart says these staff-led programs are core to company culture – ANZ won a Workplace Giving Excellence award in 2022. “You can have a great corporate statement of purpose but if you don’t have clear evidence connected to that, which people can be involved in and see the impact of, you don’t get genuine buy-in. In regional areas, everybody knows everybody and they know if an organisation is true to the words on its billboards.”

Applications for the next round of Seeds of Renewal grants open in July.

Case study 2: Quest for a cause

When initiative aligns with activity

Anthea Dimitrakopoulos

As the affordable housing crisis in Australia escalates, one hotel chain is working on creative solutions to assist people and the environment. “We recognised early on the impact of homelessness in our local communities, where our properties are,” says Anthea Dimitrakopoulos, general manager, brand and ESG, at The Ascott Limited, which includes Quest Apartment Hotels. Since 2019, Quest has partnered with Housing All Australians (HAA) and its Quest for a Cause initiative encourages staff at its 160 properties to partner with local charities and social organisations.

Quest works with HAA to help furnish temporary “pop-up” residences for vulnerable Australians, as well as those who’ve been displaced suddenly. “It’s about utilising our resources as the largest serviced apartment provider in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji,” she says. “We draw on our relationships with our builders and furniture companies to do fit-outs and set-ups to accommodate people in need. We also sponsored Under Cover, a documentary shining a light on women over the age of 50, who are the most rapidly growing demographic of homelessness in our country. It’s a hidden pandemic.”

Hoping to make refuges for women in need feel more like a hotel, Quest staff have donated time and expertise to fitting out women’s shelters. “We donated more than $330,000 in fit-out, furnishings and staff time to make comfortable rooms in one particular shelter.”

Generally, hotels are refurbished every couple of years and that might include new beds, couches and armchairs. “That’s across the whole industry and the old furniture usually ends up in landfill.” Quest is working to check out of that cycle. “We donate furniture to HAA for shelters and our local business owners work with their communities to find people in need and give furniture to them.”

Another initiative Quest supports is the Sony Foundation’s You Can Stay program, which offers accommodation for regional teens and young adults who are cancer patients receiving treatment at metropolitan hospitals. Both schemes are prime examples of how a company’s business activities can align with its philanthropic endeavours.

Case study 3: Thankyou

When purpose is the mission

In 2008, a group of teenage uni students from Melbourne started a social enterprise, beginning with selling bottled water to fund safe-water projects in developing nations. They began with no money, a sense of indignation that Australians were buying water in bottles to the tune of $600 million a year and lots of chutzpah. They called it Thankyou.

Since then, Thankyou. has given away $18 million to a range of projects around the world, all aimed at helping people living in extreme poverty. “We’re owned 100 per cent by one shareholder – our charitable trust,” says Peter Yao, Thankyou.’s chief impact officer, who joined the company as a sales and marketing intern in 2010 when he was studying commerce and arts, majoring in international studies and management, at Monash University. “I hardly saw any examples of combining business acumen with a for-purpose structure,” he says of applying for the internship.

“Like a company, we operate with profits and expenses, and our 25 staff are paid in line with charitable wages. But while a company posts dividends to its shareholders, ours go to the charitable trust, which distributes all of the dividends to fund our amazing partners in the field.”

Thankyou.’s objective is to close the gap in funding needed to end extreme poverty, which Yao says is an estimated $100 billion shortfall each year. “Yet we consume $53 trillion of goods and services annually – this is our ‘why’,” says Yao, who completed an executive education course in evidence and impact measurement at the Harvard Kennedy School in 2018.

He says critical thinking about choosing partners to support is vital to ensure the “dividends” from the sales of Thankyou.’s range of products in Australia – mostly personal care – are actually making a difference. The company is currently funding six partners, including One Heart Worldwide, which works to make pregnancy and childbirth safer in Nepal. “We look at the evidence – we don’t just look at things like how many wells are filled or how many people are reached. We look at true, long-lasting impacts.”

Thankyou. has made changes along the way, exiting from its original water business in 2020. While it had been a successful launching pad for its mission, the organisation wanted to move away from the excess plastic waste it generated. “Social enterprises need to make these hard calls – we probably couldn’t have done it at the start,” says Yao. “We’re a more mature business, with other revenues, so we could take the short-term hit, knowing we’re making the ethical decision. But we could also use our resources and focus to expand our range to things we feel proud of, with high growth potential.”

He says defining purpose is key for startups, legacy businesses and social enterprises. “When companies grow rapidly but you’re clear about your ‘why’ and your impact, it stops mission drift.” 

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SEE ALSO: Kate Quirke on Why Leading with Empathy Is Non-Negotiable

Image credit: Midland Express (Ned Middleton), Cara O’Dowd (Anthea Dimitrakopoulos)

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