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Why is Philanthropy Important?

Before I answer that question specifically, I want to tell you a story. It is an old Korean fable that is told this way –

A man died and went to heaven. He was greeted by an Angel and asked if he could be allowed to see what it was like in hell before he entered heaven. “Certainly,” said the Angel, so downstairs they went.

Hell was a dreadful place … there were starving and miserable people everywhere, which was strange because there were tables piled high with the most inviting food. “Why are the people starving when there is so much food?” asked the man. The Angel replied that the people had to eat with chopsticks two metres long.

 “Oh”, said the man, “that really is hell!”

Back in heaven, everyone was happy and obviously well-fed. “Aha”, said the man, “it’s easy to see that there are no chopsticks two metres long here!”

“But there are”, replied the Angel. “It’s no different here.”

The man was very puzzled. He could not understand why these people in heaven could be so happy compared with the people in hell until the Angel explained:

“You see, my friend … the people feed each other in heaven.”

The strength of this nation, any other country, or the world will depend upon philanthropy, and I use the word in its true sense. The translation from Greek means the “love of mankind”.

People who help others of their free will, share their time, talent, and treasure, perform a vital service to the community. One of the mainstays of society is the common understanding that the strong must share their strength with the weak. There will be no social order if the community interest does not come before purely selfish pursuits.

The not-for-profit sector is what we call the THIRD SECTOR. After Government and commercial interests, this not-for-profit sector contributes a considerable amount in economic terms to do more for society than governments could ever afford. It adds immensely to our quality of life and especially helps those disadvantaged people among us.

Governments did not start the Multiple Sclerosis Society, Autistic children’s groups, Schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, various adult and children’s cancers support services, homeless shelters, and we could go on and on about so many other NPOs. These good causes began because of the individual efforts of parents, families and groups of people who saw a need and decided to do something. At first, they started small and eventually attracted many others. They grew and pressured governments to take notice and do much more to support these causes. I have a personal philosophy that governments start nothing much and only respond to the pressure people apply.

The Arthritis and Osteoporosis Foundation of Western Australia (AOWA) started the same way fifty years ago. Then, a few individual doctors and patients realised we had to do more to educate people about arthritis, help them with pain management, and support research to improve their treatments. Through good times and some tough days without enough financial support, in 2022, AOWA has become a beacon in all of Australia for what it does. Our services and facilities to help arthritic patients cannot be matched by any other organisation anywhere else in this country. And it has thrived because of the many thousands of donors who support this urgent work.

I have been personally involved with AOWA for more than twenty years. As a result, I have come to know many of your wonderful donors. They are people who respond to mail and social media appeals by giving regular gifts. Some of our donors have surprisingly given many thousands of dollars over decades. Others have responded to help specifically fund juvenile arthritis kids’ camps, to support research or to establish the Chair of Rheumatology at the University of Western Australia that has been successfully occupied for eight years.

And what about those wonderful people who find it necessary also to leave us a bequest because we were important to them? Of course, they look after their family first, but as an extension of a lifetime of support for our cause, they also make a provision for us in their Will. Bequests make it possible for us to do more and more in future.

We should all be very proud. We are in the people business. Though we concentrate on arthritis and osteoporosis, people just like us make it possible to provide for the sick and lonely, the frail and elderly, the young and abused, the maltreated, the starving, the forgotten, the innocents – we make it possible to help people we may never meet and are never likely to know.

Philanthropy is not a whim or a fancy – it is an important commitment to life itself.

By Michael Downes

About the author: Michael Downes founded a philanthropy advice consultancy in 1984 that became the largest such firm in the world with offices throughout Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada and South Africa. Though retired now and only helping AOWA, he remains a widely acknowledged leader in fundraising for the not-for-profit sector.

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