Cliff Obrecht on how to give thoughtfully

Cliff Obrecht

Join host Daniel Petre and Canva’s co-founder and COO Cliff Obrecht as they discuss a practical way to start giving early and how keeping billions of dollars was never an option for him and his wife Mel (Canva’s co-founder and CEO).

You can also watch this episode as a vodcast.

Antonia: This podcast was recorded on the land of the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation. StartGiving acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the hundreds of First Nations across this richly diverse continent. We pay our respects to their Elders, past and present, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including to those listening.

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Daniel: Hello and welcome to the StartGiving podcast. I’m Daniel Petre, the chairman and founder of StartGiving. 

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Daniel: My guest today is Cliff Obrecht, the co-founder and COO of Canva, one of Australia’s fastest-growing and most successful tech start-ups. Launched in 2013 by Canva’s CEO Melanie Perkins and her husband Cliff, and Cam Adams, Canva is an online design and visual communications platform.

With a mission to empower everyone in the world to design anything and publish anywhere, Canva has over 130 million monthly active users in over 190 countries.

Cliff and Mel each own an 18% stake in Canva, valued at billions of dollars, and they’ve pledged to transfer more than 80% of their wealth to the Canva Foundation for charitable causes.


Daniel: Welcome, Cliff. So look to normal but very smart humans out of Western Australia who are now leaders of a massive global tech company. Where did the idea of philanthropy or helping others become something in your life?

Cliff: I mean, from the earliest days of travelling when Mel and I were at university, even before we sort of saved up all our pennies from our crappy part time jobs and travelled to cheap places, which inevitably had a lot of poverty. Like we went to India for three months as our first big trip together and it was quite confronting to see the level of inequality in the world which we really didn’t have that much awareness of. Like maybe going on a few trips when you’re a kid to Bali or whatever and you see it a little bit, but backpacking around India really brought home the inequality in the world and that really planted the seed.

And even back then when we had no money, we would just try to help people out like, just like haphazardly buy something, a meal or bought a bunch of kids, some clothes, etc., etc.. And then it just became part of like, our DNA like if there’s people in need and you have access, of course, you get to help. Like it wasn’t really like an aha moment and it just is like a commonsense thing and like a humanity thing.

And so when we, like Canva started to do well as the company, we’d done a bunch of things like we were already doing some giving through Canva and the 1% Pledge, but as a sort of our paper wealth started to grow, we started to think a lot more about, hey, we need to do something about this kind of now. Like we can’t be seen to be billionaires in paper, yadda yadda, and not be doing something proactively.

And so like, the weight of the resources we had at our disposal really prompted us to take that action. And even though it was all tied up in paper money, we said, hey, we actually need to start liquidating some of this stuff because the title of a billionaire doesn’t sit well with us and we need to start distributing that.

And that led us to sort of experimenting with…giving you a very long answer to the first question!

Daniel: No, it’s a good answer! 

Cliff: But we started experimenting with a huge bunch of stuff, essentially, like just like starting a company, you need to start. And that act of starting and taking that first step is probably the hardest thing, like quitting your job and doing things. That’s very difficult. But you learn so much in the process and we invested in a bunch of different projects. We made a bunch of mistakes. Some were good, some maybe not so effective, and we started to really hone in what was important to us.

And then over the years and a key part of what prompted that was the 1% Pledge. And so for anyone, I think this applies to individuals but especially to companies, just allocating 1% of your net resources or your income on an annual basis really is a good forcing function like 1% is not much, but just having that forcing function of what are we going to do with this 1% forced us to start taking those first steps.

And then from those first steps we learned, evolved and sort of continued on that journey.

Daniel: That looks at an amazing journey and an amazing insights for you guys to start so early. I want to sort of pick up on a couple of things there. One is, as you’ve already kind of said, you’ve pretty much at least publicly quickly decided to allocate more than 80% of your paper wealth, your Canva wealth, to charitable causes. And as we all know, that’s in billions of dollars. And you made that commitment much, much earlier than most people would do in your situation where you’re building a company. So firstly, what you’re doing is simply amazing. As I’ve said to you privately, the number of times it’s truly inspiring.

But how did you come to that decision so early, to publicly state that you’re allocating so much of that wealth to philanthropy?

Cliff: Yeah, I think it’s actually about 95%.

Daniel: Sorry.

Cliff: I don’t know how the dollar division has worked out over the last year with hiring people. You slowly get diluted when you own a decent-sized company and hire a lot of people. But we owned about 31% of Canva and we’re giving away 30% of Canva.

So like, yeah, we’re keeping 1% pretty much. And that’s just sort of like, who knows what’s going to happen. But we’ll give that as well.

We don’t want to go to the death and leave lots of money for our kids or anything like that. So I don’t know. It’s just like it not it wasn’t like a decision for us. It was a decision to start like, evoking the mechanics of how we need to transfer that and set it up logistically because that’s quite a process. It’s going to be the largest philanthropic transfer in Australia’s history.

So you need to get, I won’t bore you with the details but private taxation rulings, etcetera, etcetera. But the actual act of deciding. It was just obvious because like, how much money do you need?

Like, we’re very fortunate. We have a nice house. We have, like two cars. We got everything we need, we can travel. And it’s like and not fancy cars. We got a Corolla and my car, the Landcruiser for camping. But yeah, we’ve got all we need and we’ve got a bit of excess. And then how much? What are you going to do with a billion dollars? Seriously, it’s crazy. 

Daniel: It’s refreshing. And I 100% agree with all your comments. It’s just surprising to me how different it is from, you know, if you go back to the old rich white guy cohort, their argument and as I’ve had for 30 years with many, is that they can’t afford to focus on anything while they’ve got their day job.

And I think the way you’ve approached it, you come from a basic humanity, which is, well, of course, if we can help, we should help. How do you guys think about time allocation between, you know, work, family and philanthropy, given you’re still building your family and you’re building Canva still to what it can be, which is, you know, probably a lot bigger than it is today. So how do you guys think about time allocation between all these parts of your life? 

Cliff: Yeah, that’s a tough one. Um, and you know there are a few ways of looking at it.

There’s the Warren Buffett method, where he focuses 100% of his time on building wealth and then essentially distributed all that through the Gates Foundation, which is a fantastic foundation. We didn’t wanna to do that. We feel some of the best sort of skills we have to offer beyond like the money is our intellectual capacity. And while we don’t really think we’re adding tons of value right now because we’re just in a massive learning mode.

So we’re working with really, really good partners and we get deeply involved in these projects. GiveDirectly is the largest partner and we’re working with Prevail on a structured pedagogy and education project. You need good partners right? So you’re not having to dive in and problem solve every tiny nuanced thing in whatever project you’re running. So good partners are key.

And then just allocating time. So, Mel and I both have Wednesday mornings as our kind of philanthropic carve out and so if there’s going to be any like, we had some meetings today. I got an update from the structured pedagogy project, but Wednesday mornings is the morning we’ll take those meetings or do the thinking and we’ll sort of time box it.

Daniel: You mentioned and I think it might be interesting for people who are listening to the podcast to talk a bit about your sort of amazing partnership or commitment to GiveDirectly, which I think you guys have allocated over $30 million to already to help the poorest of people in Malawi. Do you just want to talk a little bit about that project and sort of the impact it’s having?

Cliff: Yeah, it’s an amazing project. It’s amazing team. Essentially, the premise is: You have a lot of poor people in the world and the world’s poorest people, how can you help them? Right. And there’s a lot of, probably great projects that give them goats or blankets or mosquito nets or whatever. And that sort of like implying that, you know what they need.

But GiveDirectly is just about giving these folks money. And the argument that everyone comes back with straight away that, oh, what are they going to spend it on drugs and alcohol. And the reality is, is that pretty much doesn’t happen. Like I’m sure there’s some edge cases but ultimately the data says and like the programs show that that doesn’t happen.

We started our first big give in Malawi last year with ten million dollars and then have scaled that up to twenty million dollars this year. And we plan to continue to scale that. And the goal is to first, well, it’s to figure out how to solve global poverty. There’s been more money that’s going into global poverty that could actually solve it. With the amount of money invested you could have solved global poverty, but it hasn’t happened because the money transfer has been very inefficient.

So we want to figure out an efficient way where we can get, firstly, a small village out of poverty then a district out of poverty, then hopefully a whole country out of poverty. It’s like a crazy big goal. But then if you can achieve that at a small level, it can be scaled broader and then hopefully then you can scale to other countries. And I know it sounds a bit batshit crazy, but it is, and we may never achieve it, but it’s what we’re wanting to do.

And by giving people money, it allows them to invest in things like invest in making a small business, buying a bicycle or a motorbike. We give people I think it’s $550 USD for the year and the first program gave them that on a monthly basis.

However, we’re editing the program for the second larger cohort to be $50 upfront, and that $50 upfront allows them to take care of all their immediate needs. Right? They may have debts, they may have to buy some grain, they might need food, they may have medical bills, they might have some urgent school fees, right? And that allows them to take care of that. And also then we give them a month or two to think about how they’re going to invest their $500.

So rather than it being like month on month, actually they are investing in much larger things, like hey, I can lease a plot of land, I can buy crops and fertiliser, I can buy a motorbike, I can invest in…Yeah, all of it’s like medical stuff in education or a lot of it’s like infrastructure for the houses. They don’t have to every year replace their straw roofs, etcetera, etcetera.

So it really empowers them to make their own decisions. And then probably the best thing is that money starts circulating around the villages, right? So when you have a village that all has an influx of money, they then start buying from the local store in the village, the grain provider, like they’re employing people to put that roof on their house or etcetera, etcetera. And so the uplifts in that money start circulating around the community.

What we’re also thinking about is how we can complement the cash transfers with things like educational interventions, so how can we uplift alongside the cash, the educational quality in these certain areas, and then what infrastructure do they need? Do they have access to clean drinking water? Because some of those collective larger infrastructure projects that generally these places aren’t good collectivising all their money in like, hey, let’s all chip in and build a well like that just doesn’t organically happen. So we’re thinking about a few periphery things.

Daniel: In our foundation we’ve probably started the other way. We’ve started with doing water bores in villages to stop people having to go to the river banks and get dirty water and all the complications. And it is this interesting trade-off between how do you put infrastructure, things that don’t normally come out of organic people coming together versus the how do you give agency to the individual. So, look, it’s extraordinary.

Cliff:  There’s always a bit of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, right? 

Daniel: Yes

Cliff:  Like, you can’t do anything if you’re not healthy. You don’t have clean drinking water, you’re going to have dysentery, you’re going to be very unhealthy. So, it’s not like, you need the very, very basics, which is like base health, because if you don’t have that base health, you can give people money and then all their money will be spent on solving the symptoms of those problems that are caused by malnourishment and lack of clean drinking water.

Daniel: Yeah, we started with drinking water. Then we’re moving on to sort of GM grain for drought tolerance and stuff. But you’re the sort of poster child in some sense. What you and Mel are doing is we want founders to start thinking about giving now and not waiting until they’re older because as you’ve pointed out, you know, suffering doesn’t wait until a funding round or an exit. And there are ways that you can start giving early if you want to. But just starting and as I think hopefully you seem to be getting this this sort of joy out of the help you’re providing to people, part of it’s clearly coming from a basic humanity you guys have got, that you just feel you should do the right thing. But also I sense is a sort of a joy you getting in helping others.

With your scale of problem, which is the billions of dollars of problem. How do you think about doing that effectively at scale? I mean, I know you use a very good example of a start up, an MVP and you’re building the MVP. How do you think about this sort of five years out? What does it look like, do you think, in the case of the work you’re doing?

Cliff: I think that’s why we’ve picked one or two projects, particularly the GiveDirectly project. We’re really doubling down on like we started off, I think winding it back, I think the best thing everyone can do to start is just commit 1%. It’s like not much like, are you wealthy enough to give out 1% to help the world’s poorest people in some way, shape or form? And I think for those that live in Australia or the US and are privileged, especially working in sort of like the knowledge work space, most of us are that privileged, right?

And the act of committing 1% then forces you to think through how you’re going to distribute that 1% and the act of thinking through how are you going to distribute that 1% starts to like get you to ask yourself questions. What projects do I care about? Is it education? Is that the environment, is it poverty? Like is it climate change? That commitment of 1% forces you to start that journey.

And then from starting that journey you realise and you’ll make some mistakes. There’ll be some projects that really resonate, there’ll be some that don’t. And then you’ll be like, hey I’m on the path now. And then if you choose, you can double down on things like, Oh, well, if we’re really proud of the impact I’m having with my $100 or $1,000 or whatever, do I think I can double down on that? Do my resources allow me to invest more? And is that a good use? Am I better off spending an extra $1,000 a year on fancy drinks at a bar? Or can I bring two people literally out of poverty and change their life. I’d rather probably spend $100 or $1,000 on helping people.

Daniel: The idea of starting early and we have a whole bunch of resources to help founders think about how they can liquidate small parcels of equity and so they can start that journey very early and started with small amounts. 

Cliff: Yeah, I mean, it’s easy to sell shares like, I mean, everyone’s always selling shares and doing liquidity events at some point and it’s pretty easy.

It’s more difficult to say, Oh, I’m going to liquidate $50 million and buy a Ferrari and like, a super yacht and blah, blah, blah. But we’re like, oh we’re liquidating $50 or 100 million for the next couple of years to invest directly in philanthropy. You can see where this money is flowing into our philanthropic organisations.

You’re not going to get much pushback from investors if that money’s going to make the world a better place. But if you’re going to buy stupid shit, that’s going to make you look like a weirdo to all your staff and investors, then the markets will push back and well, at least raise a few eyebrows.

Daniel: I think it is easy to get shares sold for good causes. Often when I’ve talked to wealthy people, young and old, it tends to be a top down discussion, which is oh, well, I’ve got, you know, a billion, 500 million. I’ll give away, you know, 5% or 10% and you guys seem to have started the other way around, which is how much do we need to live the life we want to lead and we have a right to lead and then with, I think in your case, a huge dose of humanity and sort of humbleness in that and the rest can get given away. If you are talking to an old rich white guy, as I have, who’s starting the top down sort of methodology and you’re the bottom up. How would you try and convince them to reverse their sort of their flow? 

Cliff: So we didn’t grow up with much money. Like my mum was a teacher, my dad was a boilermaker, then went into WorkSafe, which is like the safety inspection stuff. So I mean, we had a house and we grew up well, but we didn’t have much. We weren’t rich by any stretch, but we had an awesome upbringing, riding our bikes around and doing cool shit, going camping.

I actually think… And that’s really led us to believe, like, I’ll tell you, I went on a fishing trip last week and we went spearfishing and fishing and we just like, took the boats out every day. We’re lucky we had boats, but that was the best trip ever. Like that was so much better than going on like five star hotels and restaurants. We were staying in like, it was actually a dilapidated shack. And that was the best. That was the best holiday I’ve had. Didn’t cost much. Right?

And it’s like, what kind of life do you want your kids to live? Right? So, like, a lot of people said, Oh, I’m doing this as a family nest egg, right? Because you see all these people that have been given everything, right? It’s no satisfaction. I don’t want to be given everything. Like I think that causes a lot of mental health issues, when you essentially grow up knowing you don’t need to earn your way in life and you grow up not feeling proud of your accomplishments because you’ve got this huge pool of cash that you know is going to be there, that will mess you up. I think it’s unfair to take away the personal satisfaction from your kids of actually making it themselves. Because I don’t know, I’m happy we did it ourselves. 

Daniel: I echo all your comments. And actually the research actually shows that, you know, generally speaking, intergenerational wealth doesn’t help the children or the children’s children. You actually do corrupt their lives. You think you might be doing the right thing and you’re actually not. You take away their agency as you’ve talked about and they don’t turn into good humans, sadly. 

Cliff: I don’t like hanging out with super rich people that grew up rich. All my friends grow up just like us. And they’re the fun people because they just get it. 

Daniel: I’d agree with you. I’ve got this Venn diagram of, you know, of rich people overlapping with good humans. And there’s a very, very, very small sliver of overlap that I’ve found from, you know, my 64 years on the planet.

Look Cliff, this has been fantastic. And I think the humanity that you and Mel are showing in the way you, you just sort of focus on really doing something meaningful at scale too, it is truly inspiring.

And I am sure there’ll be hundreds of founders who will listen to this and feel inspired to do something meaningful, even if they’re starting at their pledge 1% or they’re moving a little bit of equity into a PAF or something just starting small and building that.

So I’d just like to close out with maybe just a rehash, a summary of if you are talking to a young founder now who’s starting the journey as you and Mel and Cam did so many years ago, and they haven’t had the sort of the exposure maybe that you had in your India trips, how would you get them to sort of just focus on trying to do something early? 

Cliff: Well firstly if you haven’t travelled, just go travel. Go to India. Like India’s the most amazing country in the world. It’s like, yeah, if you just lived in your bubble your whole life, get out of the bubble. That’s just like, not even to do with philanthropy. That’s just, fucking live, kind of thing.

And then, and then if you want to start on the philanthropy, I think the 1% thing is the best fund is like a small sum of money, and it’s a forcing function that gets you on that journey. So yeah. 

Daniel: Just start.

Cliff: Just start. Stop thinking about it. Just start. 

Daniel:  That’s fantastic Cliff. Thank you so much for your time. Again, I think what you guys are doing is inspiring and a joy and a humbling experience spending time with you. 

Cliff:  Pleasure, man. Take care. 

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Daniel: This podcast was written by Catherine Feeney and Daniel Petre, and produced by Audiocraft. Thank you to our guest today, Cliff Obrecht. Visit for today’s episode’s show notes and learn more about what we do. You can subscribe to the StartGiving podcast wherever you get your podcasts, or watch this conversation as a vodcast on YouTube.

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