Making giving the norm in the innovation community

By Catherine Feeney

As the wealth of our richest citizens has doubled in the last five years, Australia’s collective giving has barely grown. StartGiving, the not-for-profit organisation founded by leading player and investor in the tech industry, Daniel Petre AO, is on a mission to change that.

Petre’s journey into philanthropy started in the early nineties as a vice president on Microsoft’s Seattle campus. He arrived in the US “as a very normal human being, having not really been exposed to wealth or wealthy people.” However, one of the first things he noticed, was how wealthy people in America were philanthropic.

“I remember distinctly being on a plane with Bill Gates, my boss, and talking about philanthropy. He talked about what his mother, Mary Gates, said. She was a great philanthropist in the Seattle area and chair of United Way. She had this view that if you’re successful in life, it should be your responsibility, not your choice, to give back. I remember how much sense that made and how obvious it seemed to me that if you have ended up with more in your pocket than others, then you should feel this responsibility to give some of that back.”

The first thing Petre and his wife Carolyn did on their return to Australia was move around 35% of their net worth into a foundation, the Petre Foundation, and started giving from that to causes they cared about.

At the same time, the Foundation started funding academic research to understand more about Australian philanthropic giving levels. The most recent iteration, from 2022, showed that Australia ranks well below comparable nations like the US, the UK, Canada and New Zealand when giving levels are measured as a percentage of GDP. In addition, the average wealthy person in the US allocates about 15% of their net wealth to philanthropy. In contrast, in Australia, the top 1% of wealthy people allocate, on average, less than 1% to giving.

After spending close to 30 years giving through the Petre Foundation and trying to get the “old rich white guys” (Petre’s words) to give more money and failing, he realised that there was an opportunity to try something new with the tech founder community he had worked so closely with during his venture capital career, and as a co-founder of Airtree.

Petre observed that tech founders are far more socially progressive than their counterparts in the traditional economy, don’t generally believe they deserve the wealth created through their company, have a distinct discomfort with the inequality in the world and are problem solvers, by their very nature.

He surmised that the combination of the founders’ characteristics and the burgeoning wealth of the tech sector created an opportunity for him to realise his long-held dream of increasing Australia’s giving levels.

Recruiting Antonia Ruffell, former CEO of Australian Philanthropic Services (APS) and one of Australia’s leading experts in structured giving as its CEO, Petre founded StartGiving with a mission to change the culture of giving in the Australian innovation sector.

“In my role at APS I worked with hundreds of wealthy individuals and families to help them structure their giving and have a greater impact. But the sad reality is that philanthropy could do much better in Australia. I saw the opportunity with StartGiving to try and move the dial on philanthropy and do something a little different,” said Ruffell.

A trusted guide for founders’ philanthropic journey

Aiming to create millions in new funding for charity and build a dynamic community of givers, StartGiving wants to make giving by successful founders the norm and the expectation.

Using their knowledge and networks to concierge founders through the process of setting up a giving structure (for example a private ancillary fund, or sub-fund in a public ancillary fund), they connect them to ideas, specialists and like-minded peers. With deep expertise in managing the complexities around foundation establishment, donating equity and dealing with third-party regulators, founders are in expert hands. Fully funded by Petre, StartGiving’s services will always be free.

StartGiving covers the upfront costs of establishing a philanthropic structure and is agnostic about where founders want to donate their money.

“In the end,” Petre shared, “all of us have to put our heads on our pillows at night and deal with our thoughts. If you can sleep soundly in the knowledge that you could have helped those in need today but decided not to, then that is your choice. However, I have yet to meet one founder who feels like that.”

(This article first appeared in OnImpact.)