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A chat with David Gonski

Is any change needed in the Australian philanthropy sector?

Philanthropist David Gonski is a man who wears many different hats: art connoisseur, university chancellor, education advocate and that’s just a start.

He is a powerful voice in the Australian social sector, with his passion for making the world a better place integrated into everything he does.

Gonski believes that in order to be a leader in the social sector, it is not just about having the skills – you need to have the passion. He explains why…

As someone who holds several leadership roles, what do you think makes a good leader?

The first thing I would say is that leadership has to adapt to whatever is needed at the time. Quite often somebody might be a great leader at a particular time, but at a different time their approach could be wrong. What is fundamental is that a leader should be right for the challenges at the time. This means that sometimes you need an authoritarian style of leadership, and other times a softer approach. A great leader is someone who understands the time they find themselves in, who looks at the context of a problem and understands it before coming up with a solution.

How did you become involved in philanthropy?

Firstly, one’s philanthropic bent is built on what they see at home. I came from a family that was very philanthropic at heart. My father was a brain surgeon who cared more about helping people than about earning money.

My involvement in the social sector started when I was a young lawyer. At 23 years old, I found myself on the board of the Miroma Special School for the disabled in Sydney. It was there that I became involved in seeing how NFPs work and how a dollar donated can go a long way.

My real involvement in philanthropy came much later, in 1999, when I was in my early 40s. I was at a discussion being led by the Prime Minister of the time, John Howard, about philanthropy in Australia. This gave rise to him establishing the Prime Minister’s Business Partnership. I was one of the original committee members, and was made chairman of the taxation sub-group, on which I served for many many years.

How important to the NFP sector is philanthropy?

Philanthropy is extraordinarily important to the NFP sector. You can give money for a certain project or give money generally. Giving money generally is invaluable as it allows NFPs to keep doing their work. Quite often, grants from organisations or the government, which are non-philanthropic, are much more focussed on one particular cause. This does not give the NFP the ability to use the money for whatever it feels is needed.

Is any change needed in the Australian philanthropy sector?

We have a very strong philanthropy and social sector. The GDP percentage related to NFPs is quite large. It is a sophisticated and often extremely well-run sector. Does it have to change? Well, yes, in some parts. I believe there has to be a much more targeted approach to raising money, and of course this is happening, but I think it is on a journey. Many NFPs need to become more professional and targeted in how they raise money.

This article originally appeared in the March edition of Third Sector’s print magazine. Click here for more information. 

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