Australian tech giving: three trends to watch in 2024

By Antonia Ruffell

The tech sector faced a tumultuous year in 2023, grappling with slowing capital markets amidst global challenges such as war, climate change, and deepening inequality. Nevertheless, as we step into 2024, there’s a cautious yet palpable sense of optimism. Despite the difficulties of the last 12 months, tech founders remain eager to leverage their resources and skills for social good.

This article delves into three current giving trends, highlighting how, even in uncertain times, tech founders are uniquely placed to drive impactful change.

#1. The rise of ‘everyday’ tech givers: more giving and not just from billionaires

Many Australian tech founders are redirecting their innovative spirit from the business realm to philanthropic efforts, mirroring trends in the US, as seen with leaders like Bill Gates, Dustin Moskovitz, Mark Zuckerberg, and Pierre Omidyar, all of whom feature in the Forbes 2023 Top 25 American Philanthropists.

Australia’s own poster children for tech philanthropy are Canva co-founders Melanie Perkins and Cliff Obrecht, who have pledged to give away most of their wealth. (You can learn more about their thoughtful approach to giving in this StartGiving podcast.) Melanie and Cliff are known for their discomfort around their wealth, asking ‘who needs a billion dollars?’. For them, satisfaction comes from much more than riches – they’re driven by their values and sense of purpose, and a genuine desire to do good in the world.

Yet philanthropy in the tech sector isn’t exclusive to the billionaires’ club. A growing contingent of tech entrepreneurs with more modest means are making strategic, impactful donations. These entrepreneurs are using their unique skills, experiences, and perspectives to address a myriad of social and global issues.

The anticipated market recovery suggests an uptick in founders starting or scaling up their giving. The indications from StartGiving’s conversations are that more founders will formalise their giving with a philanthropic structure, such as a private ancillary fund or sub-fund in a public ancillary fund. I am seeing a shift towards giving as a standard practice, irrespective of wealth level.

#2. Artificial intelligence and philanthropy: transforming the way we give

Artificial intelligence (AI) is poised to revolutionise philanthropy by enhancing the efficiency, scale, and effectiveness of activities. Key trends to look out for include:

1. Reducing inequality: Bill Gates shares some optimistic predictions about how AI can supercharge innovation (the key to progress) and reduce inequity in his Year Ahead blog. He cites initiatives such as AI powered ultrasound machines, faster data analysis for medical research, and personalised tutors for every student. AI can reduce or even eliminate the lag time between when the rich and poor world gets access to a particular innovation.,

2. Data driven philanthropy: AI excels in analysing large datasets to uncover trends and insights that were previously difficult to identify. In philanthropy, AI can process vast amounts of data from various sources to identify the most urgent needs, predict the impact of interventions, and measure the effectiveness of different approaches. This helps funders to make data-driven decisions and tailor their strategies to achieve the greatest impacts.

3. Personalised donor engagement: AI-powered tools are now able to create personalised experiences for donors. By analysing past donation history, social media activity, and other available data, AI can help charity fundraisers craft personalised messages that resonate with individual donors, increasing the likelihood of engagement and recurring contributions.

The impact of AI on philanthropy is profound, offering the potential to not only increase the quantity of giving but also significantly improve the quality and effectiveness of charitable efforts. While AI carries inherent risks, it is set to play an integral role for philanthropists and non-profit organisations looking to maximise their social impact.

#3. Beyond effective altruism: tech giving will be bold, impactful, and multi-faceted

The effective altruism movement, recently marred by Sam Bankman-Fried’s downfall, is likely to remain a cornerstone among tech philanthropists. Effective altruism is an approach that uses evidence and reason to combat the world’s most pressing problems, such as reducing malnutrition and malaria. This rational, evidence-based approach aligns with the tech mindset, advocating for impactful spending. Organisations like Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save that provide vetted lists of the ‘most effective’ charities make giving to certain causes easier and will continue to flourish.

However, effective altruism is by no means the only approach. Australian tech philanthropy is multifaceted, supporting a broad spectrum of causes and initiatives. For example:

  • Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes tackles climate change through Boundless Earth.
  • The Susan McKinnon Foundation, established by MessageMedia co-founder Grant Rule, focusses on strengthening Australia’s democracy.
  • The Canva Foundation, set up by Melanie Perkins and Cliff Obrecht, tackles global poverty through its partnership with GiveDirectly.
  • MYOB founder Craig Winkler’s Yajilarra Trust (which topped the AFR Top 50 private givers in 2023) has a focus on First Nations people, climate change and disability.
  • Harrison AI co-founder Dimitry Tran founded the Australasia Social Impact Foundation to empower change in Vietnam through health and education projects.
  • Canva Co-Founder Cameron Adams focusses on conservation and biodiversity through the Wedgetail Foundation.
  • Aconex co-founder Rob Phillpot’s Gravel Road Foundation supports young women and Indigenous Australians.
  • Afterpay co-founder Anthony Eisen addresses climate, medical and mental health, and the creativity of future generations, while Nick Molnar invests in young Australians through his foundation The Next Generation.
  • Founder of Orc Software John Cameron’s The Cameron Foundation and charity Talent Beyond Boundaries provide global responses to the current refugee crisis.

One thing is certain. With tech entrepreneurs’ penchant for disruptive innovation, their evolving philanthropy is likely to be active, bold, scalable and impactful, and we can expect them to continue making significant, far-reaching contributions across various social issues.

A final thought: proceed with consideration and embrace the opportunities ahead

Here’s a challenge for us all: If you’re an emerging philanthropist, listen first to those you’re aiming to help, consider the lessons of more experienced givers, then think about how you can really make a difference.

If you’re on the receiving end of philanthropic funds, publicly share your thoughts on what your organisation needs and what works best. Together, thoughtful tech givers and innovative charities can create truly meaningful change.

Let’s shape a future where tech giving in Australia is not only about the size of the donation but the magnitude of its impact.