Glyn Davis delivers Kenneth Myer Lecture on the great impact of philanthropy

Glyn Davis AC Fri, 23 Feb 2024 Estimated reading times: 10 minutes

The Secretary to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Glyn Davis AC, delivered the Kenneth Myer Lecture at the Arts Centre in Melbourne. A public policy specialist, Professor Davis’s lecture traced the rise of large philanthropic foundations in Australia, pioneered by the Myer family, and discussed their role in helping – and challenging – government to work more effectively in communities that live with disadvantage. Philanthropy Australia is pleased to publish his lecture in full.

“The community in which I made my fortune”: The Myer legacy, foundations, and some implications for public policy.

Let me acknowledge the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung and Bunurong/Boon Wurrung peoples of the Kulin nation as traditional custodians of these unceded lands and recognise other Aboriginal people with connection to Narrm and the region. We are privileged to be on your country, to benefit from the continuing culture and care you bring to this community.

My gratitude to Dr Marie-Louise Ayres, Director-General of the National Library of Australia, and her colleagues for the invitation to deliver this lecture, first in Canberra and now in Melbourne.

Let me acknowledge Her Excellency Professor Margaret Gardner AC.

And regards to those representing the Myer Foundation and the Sidney Myer Fund.

My thanks also to former NLA board member, and Science Minister Barry Jones for his incisive comments.

Like so many others, I first encountered the National Library of Australia as a student.

It is a wonderful place — it sits at the heart of Canberra and offers a place to read, reflect and learn. It is a resource I first discovered as a doctoral student at the Australian National University.

The NLA is also home to many treasures, large and small.

In his history of the NLA, Peter Cochrane argues that we weave narratives not just from the books, papers and objects in the collection, but from the wider stories and associations which permeate them.

Cochrane writes:

… the true purpose [of a national library] is to take us on a perpetual round trip, from the collections ever growing, ever deepening, to the collective wisdom, ever contending, ever changing. And back again.

The Myer lecture honours a man who helped imagine the National Library of Australia, who supported its conventions, who encouraged that perpetual round trip. Who made wisdom possible for every student — including me — who walks through its doors.


It’s 1960.

We’re here in Melbourne — in the Myer bedding department.

The phone rings, and Kenneth Myer answers.

On the other end is the store telephone operator, who informs Ken the Prime Minister is on the line. The call connects, and Sir Robert Menzies launches into his pitch.

It’s a call to service.

The Prime Minister wants Ken to join the National Library Council — a newly-established body charged with planning and building a dedicated National Library in Canberra.

This new library and its Council, says the Prime Minister, needs energy …

​… ability, zeal …

​… and a head for business.

That’s why Ken is the man for the job. “[It will be] good for the soul,” the Prime Minister concludes.

There isn’t much Ken can say.

Except ‘yes’.

And so began a remarkable association.

Suddenly Ken Myer found himself spending a lot of time up in Canberra.

He stayed at University House and, alongside fellow Council members, became absorbed in planning our future Library.

He worked through the often contentious design phase, and then the construction.

Gradually, the building rose by the lake’s edge, eventually opening its doors in 1968.

Ken stayed on, serving as Council Chair until 1982. He anticipated and ushered the Library into the digital age — preserving, contending, leading change.

In total, Ken gave an extraordinary 21 years of service to the NLA.

Long after he officially retired, his biographer Sue Ebury tells us, Ken’s ‘tall, slim figure was often seen walking quickly through the building, inspecting the exhibitions, chatting to staff, or reading material in a quiet corner.’

Ken Myer donated not just care and leadership to the NLA, but philanthropy too. He personally endowed a trust fund for projects which could not be covered by the operating budget.

Ken Myer led by example, encouraging others also to support the library.  

So tonight, I hope to explore this dimension of the Myer legacy — the power and possibility of philanthropy.


We often celebrate donations for the arts or medical research from the many Australians who support our cultural and educational life.

Less visible, but of long interest to the entire Myer family, is the role philanthropy can play in social policy — in particular, in addressing inequality.

This is not a simple topic.

In social policy, philanthropy can find itself at odds with government and with public opinion. There are important tensions when using private money to achieve public ends.

Yet there are also exciting possibilities when philanthropy interacts with public policy through partnership.

Government and philanthropy working together can find new ways to break cycles of disadvantage and address some of Australia’s most intractable challenges.


The story of philanthropy at scale starts not in Australia, but across the Pacific — in the United States during its Gilded Age of the late 19th Century.  

A time of booming industry, technological advances, big fortunes — and few taxes.

The resulting inequality in wealth was staggering — not matched again until the mining and tech billionaires of our time.

Some immensely wealthy people began to worry about the consequences of the stark inequality all around them.

They fretted about what such disparity might mean for social cohesion, for a fair society, and perhaps for political stability.

Perhaps, they pondered, some of that wealth should be returned to public benefit.

You might remember that character from the Simpsons, Russ Cargill, said: “I want to give something back. Not the money, obviously, but something…”

Andrew Carnegie was one person alarmed about where inequality might lead.

He’d arrived in America a poor immigrant from Scotland, and began work as a bobbin boy in a Pennsylvania cotton mill.

But by the age of just 30, Carnegie controlled vast business interests spanning steel, oil, iron works and steamers on the Great Lakes.

In 1901, he sold his steel company for $480 million — a lot of money now, an unimaginable amount then.

Carnegie became increasingly disturbed by his extreme wealth — and the often ruthless tactics which secured his fortune. He worried about dying, in the words of Sir Walter Scott, ‘unwept, unhonoured, and unsung’.

So Andrew Carnegie had a cunning idea.

He knew about companies — so why not use the corporation model to create a philanthropic foundation? It would manage funds and invest the returns each year in social projects.

Carnegie saw the foundation as a means for the ‘problem of rich and poor to be solved.’ He became evangelical about philanthropy, even naming his book on the subject ‘The Gospel of Wealth’.

In its most famous passage, this Gospel carried a blunt message for the wealthy who fail to give back:

‘The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.’

An extraordinary thought.

The Carnegie Trust and the Carnegie Corporation of New York would fund libraries across America and beyond — even as far as the suburbs of Australia — so families, immigrants in particular, could have access to opportunities to learn and grow.

It’s local lore that the Melbourne suburb of Carnegie was given its name as a way of attracting the Foundation’s attention – the locals hoped a library might soon materialise. The gamble didn’t pay off, but you can’t blame them for trying.

Carnegie also endowed cultural institutions — think Carnegie Hall in New York — and expanded into an ever wider sweep of initiatives.

It was Carnegie money which supported the discovery of insulin, funded efforts at nuclear disarmament and helped launch Sesame Street.

Despite these contributions, Carnegie remained a divisive figure.

Many argued the style of philanthropy Carnegie pioneered was, at best, undemocratic and, at worst, a cynical distraction from dismantling the rules which allowed such unequal wealth to accumulate in the first place.

His foundation, and those which followed, were described as just a way to avoid paying inheritance tax.

Other billionaires keen to follow the Carnegie model found similar opposition.

When John D. Rockefeller asked Congress to legislate a foundation to distribute his fortune, President Taft and most legislators objected.

Politicians feared a large perpetual trust would become a menace to the welfare of society and a threat to democracy. 

Of course, Rockefeller went ahead anyway, relying on New York statute rather than federal law.

Suspicion about the motivation for foundations remains.

Following the birth of their daughter eight years ago, Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan announced they would establish a philanthropic foundation and give away 99 per cent of their Facebook shares. 

Their mission, they wrote in a letter to their baby daughter — of course published on Facebook — is ‘to advance human potential and promote equality.’

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative website commits the organisation to solving ‘some of society’s toughest challenges — from eradicating disease to improving education and addressing the needs of our local communities.’

Many at the time argued, and still do, that Facebook was a significant contributor to the social problems its founder now proposed to address.

Some quoted the memorable aside often attributed to Clement Attlee: ‘charity is a cold grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim’.

Difficult questions arise when unaccountable private actors seek a role in areas traditionally the preserve of elected government — whether delivering services or influencing the direction of policy.

There are important questions of power and accountability, a strain between the evident good work of many foundations, and the legal and social conditions which make their wealth possible.

Yet it is hard to argue with the contribution of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative – much helped by the work of Sir Gus Nossal from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute here in Melbourne.

Over more than three decades the Gates Initiative has vaccinated nearly 3 billion children — it’s reduced the worldwide incidence of polio by 99 per cent.

You could say the same about the Rockefeller Foundation’s $1 billion dollar investment in bringing electrified light, via solar panels, to millions of households in the developing world.

Or to the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation which has funded nurse training to improve the quality and safety of care for patients in California’s hospitals.

The Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health has improved access to health services for children with special needs.

The Pew Charitable Trusts has invested over many years in prison reform, persuading legislatures to think about alternatives to locking up citizens.

The United States is now home to more than 120,000 foundations, with combined assets estimated at $US 1.2 trillion. Together these foundations donate more than $US 100 billion every year to individuals and not for profit organisations.

That is a lot of money under private control. It is also a lot of money to pursue innovative, ambitious and perhaps society-changing work.


Australia — until recently — has never hosted a philanthropic culture of the scale seen in the US.

Australians are very generous, but giving has not been organised around the same big organisations. Therefore we have not debated the role of large foundations with the same gusto. 

Yet the number and scale of Australian foundations is growing steadily. Cumulatively, they now invest hundreds of millions of dollars each year into the community.

Recent entrants include the founders of Canva and Atlassian. They join established players such as The Ian Potter Foundation, the Minderoo Foundation, the Snow Family Foundation and my former home, the Paul Ramsay Foundation — alongside, of course, the Myer family, who have been amongst Australia’s most long-serving and active philanthropic players.

The Myer story, as the family tells it, began in earnest in 1899.

That was when Ken Myer’s father, Simcha, later Sidney, fled pogroms and a life of poverty in Belarus to join his elder brother in distant Melbourne. 

He was 21 years old, and spent all his meagre savings on the voyage.

It is said he handed over his last threepence for a glass of beer — though accounts vary; it may have been a tomato.

But while Sidney was short of cash, he lacked nothing when it came to ‘charm, good looks, robust physical health, energy, intelligence and a determination to be his own boss.’

On arrival in Australia, the Victorian goldfields beckoned.

Sidney was soon atop a horse-drawn cart, hawking goods throughout the region.

He did so with skill. In 1900 Sidney Myer opened his first store in Bendigo. In 1911 — just 12 years after setting foot in the country — Sidney opened the first Myer store in Melbourne. 

The grander, more ambitious Myer Emporium followed.

In the National Library’s collection you can find an advertisement from The Argus dated June 1914. It declared the Myer store ‘stocked to repletion’ and ‘never before so ready, so prepared to serve Melbourne’s Buying Public.’

The store survived the wartime slump and by 1920 had grown to 200 departments, a huge enterprise.

Myer wasn’t a religious man. But, according to his family, he shared the Jewish tradition of social responsibility. He wanted to give back in a very substantial way.

Sidney Myer’s entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography describes managers receiving paid holiday leave — unknown in Australia in the 1920s — and a sickness fund and medical care — not to mention the option of buying affordable company shares.

During the Great Depression, Sidney Myer famously ensured no jobs would be lost in his enterprise.

Somehow, Myer also found time to be a passionate amateur musician, and organised free open-air concerts to entertain and uplift Melbourne. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra still performs these concerts at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl today – to the joy of the neighbours!

Much is made of Myer’s famed Christmas Dinner of 1930, when up to 12,000 hungry Melburnians were treated to a meal in the Royal Exhibition Building. 

But behind these very public gifts were Sidney’s substantial private donations to welfare agencies.

It was a generous life — and one cut short at just 56 years old. Myer Emporium workers were said to have ‘wept unrestrainedly’ when they heard the news.

For the family, there wasn’t just grief. There was a responsibility to build on the legacy. 

The result was an Australian foundation drawing on the Carnegie model.

Sidney wished for a significant proportion of his family’s wealth to be put towards the community.

What started as the Sidney Myer Fund was joined by the Myer Foundation, established by Ken and his brother Baillieu in 1959.

Here was a new model for philanthropy in Australia: a family trust designed to operate over many generations, and inculcate future Myer children into a culture of giving.

Today, the Myers call philanthropy ‘the family glue’.

The Foundation is a commitment to a careful, thoughtful path to investment in community.

To give back, but not ignore ‘the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary’, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr.

To fund service delivery where it is missing, but also to pursue work which challenges social and economic fault lines. 

To question wealth and privilege when opportunity is not shared.


The Myer example proved influential in shaping some recent Australian foundations.

I encountered this world when I finished at the University of Melbourne and was asked, unexpectedly, to help establish the Paul Ramsay Foundation.

Paul Ramsay made his fortune through his global healthcare and media businesses. When he died in 2014, he bequeathed to philanthropy the then-largest amount in Australian history, estimated by some as approaching $4 billion.

This was an extraordinary decision, made more remarkable by the absence of detailed instructions about how the money should be spent.

Paul Ramsay trusted those who would run his Foundation to define the mission and create an organisation which could distribute up to $200 million a year to those in need.

Such a responsibility raises an intriguing moral question — what is the social licence for spending such amounts, and how can it be done in an ethical way? 

When I joined the Foundation in early 2019, we grappled with the obvious question: what did we know about Paul Ramsay?

We knew he loved people and wanted to help when others were down on their luck. We collected countless examples of Paul Ramsay’s quiet support for those in need.

But how to improve lives at scale? By addressing intergenerational inequality, and targeting the constraints which hold people back from living a life they value.

So we agreed Paul Ramsay Foundation funding would go to those Australians who had the least. The Foundation would partner with communities and like-minded organisations to break the cycle of disadvantage, with a particular focus on young people.

To this goal, the Paul Ramsay Foundation has now donated more than $800 million, with investments spread across the social policy spectrum.

Helping children thrive in the early years.

Getting adults into meaningful and sustainable employment.

Keeping young people out of the justice system. 

And helping distressed communities, including those here in Victoria, grow more resilient in the face of challenges such as fire, flood and climate change.

These investments are guided by the metaphor of an ‘off ramp’ — when offered opportunities in education and work, particularly early in life, people can find their path out of disadvantage.

If you can provide an off ramp — care, support, education, opportunity — you give people the chance to make change for themselves.

You can see the convergence with social policy, and the work of government.

Like the Myer Foundation and many others, the Paul Ramsay Foundation pursues ‘systems change’. In social policy terms these are activist foundations, seeking change not charity, guided by research, investing in data to target the causes of disadvantage.


This work is much needed. Because disadvantage in Australia is persistent.

The poverty rate in this “lucky country” is higher than the OECD average, which is not how we like to think of ourselves.

The most recent data tells us that 13 per cent of Australians — around 3.3 million people — live in poverty.

For these Australians, social mobility is hard to achieve. A recent Treasury study found that children born in the bottom fifth of households, measured by income, have just a 12.3 percent chance of reaching the top fifth of income during their lifetime.

So, despite our self-image as the land of the fair go, a place of social mobility, Australia is home to an entrenched divide between those who live prosperous lives and an invisible but large cohort who live with disadvantage.

Like any inheritance this disadvantage passes from parents to children.

Here is the challenge — but also the opportunity for philanthropy to lead.

For foundations can take on issues not easily addressed by government. Foundations can push policy discussions forward, take risks, live with controversy.

They can do this through public advocacy in a way that is difficult for political leaders.

Sometimes this philanthropic investment does not pay off.

Many of Australia’s largest foundations pledged significant support and funding to the Yes campaign in the Voice referendum, only to see that policy agenda firmly defeated.

The Myer Foundation was more successful in backing the marriage equality campaign.

The Myer Foundation also funds the Human Rights Law Centre, which builds arguments around Indigenous rights, protesters’ rights, and rights to abortion.

Ken Myer’s son Martyn, who has spent his entire life engaged with the family Foundation, calls such funding ‘the fearlessness of the philanthropic dollar’.

As the number of Australian foundations grows, the power of philanthropy to champion policy causes will grow with them.

Depending on your perspective, this is either a good thing for deliberative democracy, or dangerously undemocratic. We may, as in America, see philanthropy engage in, and encourage, partisan divides as well as policy ideas.

For better or worse foundations can support projects which are controversial — and, therefore, difficult for governments.

Take the work of the Melbourne-based Penington Institute. For many years the Institute has funded needle and syringe safety programs for people who inject drugs, thereby minimising their risk of contracting hepatitis or HIV.

Safe injecting facilities are inevitably controversial, and governments often retreat in face of community opposition. The Penington Institute has found a practical way to address harm.

Again, you can praise the outcome or worry about the democratic implications.

Foundations can trial innovative programs because they’re willing to fail.

Ken Myer had a name for this: risk philanthropy. 

He described it as a ‘rare privilege’ when ‘one saw something worthwhile, you could back your own judgement and ideas with your own money’.

Here, foundations can apply a risk approach, using the same logic and agility as venture capitalists when funding start-ups.

Foundations’ programs often begin small to test what works. If the evidence is strong, programs move to long-term funding.

Following this logic, foundations can fund trials and then promote the benefits to government and others.

It’s far more difficult for politicians to risk taxpayer money in this way.

So, for example, five years ago the Australian Chamber Orchestra partnered with education experts at Sydney University and educators at St Mary’s North Public School in Western Sydney.

This is one of the most disadvantaged areas of Sydney, with the vast majority of students drawn from the bottom quartile of socio-educational advantage.

The researchers wished to test a simple proposition: put a violin or a cello in the hands of every Year One student and demonstrate the positive impact of daily playing and regular lessons.

Now with five years of data, the program demonstrates that with access to an instrument and instruction, the musical ability of students from families experiencing disadvantage improves. Perhaps as you’d expect …

But that’s not what they were testing.

What also improves is physical development, emotional and behavioural measures, communication, attitude, motivation, and school attendance. 

Multi-year support from the Crown Resorts and Packer Family Foundations persuaded the NSW Government to invest in the trial — and, hopefully, to expand the program.

Foundations established a clear public benefit and contributed to data about what can improve outcomes for schools in low socio-economic communities.

This model of targeted interventions in turn influenced experiments during COVID, when the Origin Foundation gave researchers $100,000 to study the impact of remote schooling on students from low-income families.

The very positive results provided proof of concept. Governments subsequently ramped up their investments with Victoria alone allocating an overall $1.2 billion and employing more than 5,400 tutors to support small-group classes for students who are struggling.

When governments fund investments which fail, they face a political cost.

Foundations are less restrained.

They can lean into the risk, make small investments quickly, and then present governments with proven results.

At that point government can make a decision with confidence.


A less discussed benefit of foundations is their ability to support organisations which build on the tautology, ‘lived experience’.

Here is a direct connection to community and to those keen to support social change.

Let’s talk, for example, about the Brave Foundation, Australia’s first national not-for-profit dedicated to helping expecting young parents.

The Brave Foundation was founded in Tasmania by former Tasmanian Australian of the Year Bernadette Black. It began as a simple service directory which expanded with the help of a generous bequest.

Tasmania has per capita one of the highest teenage birth-rates in the country — which matters because teenage mothers, and their children, are among those most likely to live in poverty for the rest of their life.

Bernadette Black saw the stigma of teenage parenthood take its toll, consigning young mothers and their families to a life of disadvantage.

She saw the challenges for people such as Hobart mother Ebony Curtis, who fell pregnant at 15. It required incredible determination for Ebony to have her baby and then return to finish school.

Many teenage mothers cannot finish their education, and live with the disadvantage which follows. Ebony broke the mould. She went to university, studied law, and now sits on the foundation’s board.

The Brave Foundation provides an off-ramp so young parents can follow Ebony’s example and return to school, get qualifications and eventual employment. The Foundation provides advice, support and encouragement.

Early investment by foundations encouraged a federally-funded national trial. When this demonstrated the effectiveness of the Brave Foundation model, substantial support followed from the Commonwealth.

Here is partnership at work — leadership from the community, funding from foundations, a program built around the experience of those who have lived the cycle, and eventual adoption by government for national application.


For lived experience begins in a specific place.

We now have lots of data.

The most recent DroppingOffthe Edge Report makes clear,disadvantage in Australia has a powerful geographical bent. 

The report from the Jesuit Social Services found the 10 most disadvantaged suburbs and towns across Victoria in 2021 had similarly been among the most disadvantaged six years before. 

In New South Wales, nine of the 10 most disadvantaged places also remained unchanged.

As the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Young People observes:

… families find it harder to get the supports they need when their community is also suffering. Intergenerational disadvantage deepens and compounds, becoming multi-faceted and commonplace.

Poverty is concentrated, and reinforced, by location.

For many years, advocates of place-based initiatives have argued that programs designed with and for communities deliver better results than large programs delivered by government agencies.

This approach has become a mainstay of foundation funding, a chance to pursue impact by addressing individual needs in a social context through partnership.

Place-based programs emphasise collaboration.  

A partnership approach in which many actors — large and small philanthropic foundations, charities, schools, community groups, universities, governments — join together for shared program, each bringing their expertise and resources to the task.

Take the Our Place initiative. 

The Our Place program started life in 2012 at Doveton College, here in Melbourne, generously supported by the Colman Education Foundation.

Our Place aspired to turn a primary school into a community hub and provide a whole range of essential family and social services. So parents feel as welcome as their children.

With Our Place, the primary school is transformed into a hub the whole family can go — school for the kids, classes for parents to learn English, health and social services to access, connections to make across the community.

Our Place pays particular attention to adult education for the families, following the same thinking as the Brave Foundation’s work with teen parents: getting mums and dads into education and then work brings broader benefits for their children.

A pilot evaluation at Doveton found the program led to a significant increase in parent employment and reduction in the number of children identified as developmentally vulnerable, from 55 to 37 per cent.

Our Place has now expanded to 10 communities across Victoria with the support of both the Victorian Government and philanthropic partners.

The one I know best is in Carlton.

Here, Our Place is a partnership between Carlton Primary School, the City of Melbourne, and the Carlton housing estate: a pocket of disadvantage within an otherwise affluent inner-city suburb.

85 per cent of students at Carlton Primary school are from non-English speaking families, and the nearby housing estate is home to numerous migrants and refugees.

So it’s a great place for community-based programs.

Our Place at Carlton is the spine organisation which coordinates and promotes links for local families.

Partners include the Victorian Government, which provided funding for new classrooms, community spaces, health consulting rooms, an early learning service, and a mother and child health service.

Not-for-profit Gowrie Victoria operates the early learning centre. 

And the YMCA offers after school activities, not just for students but much of the community in the housing estate.


This kind of collaborative place-based initiative is a far cry from the centrally-designed approach to programs and services typically provided by government.

Because it starts with a specific community and builds around local needs.

Government funding and services are part of the mix, but sit alongside philanthropic partners, schools, local councils, non-government organisations and service providers.

Such partnership approaches take time, patience, and a high tolerance for early disappointment before anything is achieved.

But over time, in communities from Carlton in Victoria to Logan in South-east Queensland and Mt Druitt in Sydney, placed-based partnerships are now making a measurable difference.

Little-by-little, community-by-community, these partnerships create social capital, and shape how policy is made and services are delivered. 

Philanthropy has been a crucial part of the mix. It would not have happened without the funding and initiative of philanthropy.

Place-based initiatives rely on foundations to take early risks, live with failure and — above all — commit to the many years of funding such projects usually require.

These projects require skilled leadership, community support to convene players, and expert externals parties to provide evaluation.

Place-based projects also require a very different model of public service engagement.

As former Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner said when describing new ways of working with Indigenous communities:

… history shows us when a decision is made in Darwin — and a wrong one can be made — it’s hard to fix. And when a wrong decision is made in Canberra, it’s even harder to fix. Local decisions are the best decisions.

Or, in the words of the Indigenous-led Empowered Communities movement, service delivery works best when governments ‘give us a say in the design of our futures’.

A voice even.

The long track record of disappointment in Closing the Gap outcomes is the most compelling argument for finding a better way to partner with First Nations Communities.

And here is the challenge for government.

The collective impact model rests on genuine pooling of resources, with community deciding how to allocate effort and money.

This runs hard against our traditional model of government, in which public services are organised around separate departments, rules to ensure consistent treatment of citizens, and annual monitoring of results.

This is asking governments to share control of services with a local community. Asking elected representatives to forego their right to make decisions and announce big spending grants is hard. It questions so many existing ways of operating, from ministerial responsibility for outcomes to the way we audit public expenditure.

But there are interesting signs of change — government is interested in exploring the possibilities.

In its most recent Budget, the Commonwealth committed to invest in place-based partnerships as part of its broader effort to tackle disadvantage, through community-led programs such as Stronger Places, Stronger People.

The Commonwealth also engaged a consortium of partners to explore a National Centre for Place-Based Collaboration.

The Centre is envisaged as an independent non-government entity, to support partnerships between communities, governments, non-government organisations and businesses.

It would provide a connection point, and encourage more effective ways of working together.

These initiatives hope to tap into the vast potential for giving in Australia.

The Commonwealth Government, inspired by Philanthropy Australia, has made a commitment to double philanthropic giving by 2030.

Australia’s biggest-ever intergenerational transfer of wealth is just over the horizon — according to the Productivity Commission, $3.5 trillion in assets will transfer from us to younger Australians by 2050.

Some of this money, we might hope, will find its way through philanthropy into partnerships, into local communities, into service delivery which is better because it is shared, targeted and informed by experience. That is, service markedly different from our existing models.

To quote the Myer Foundation, a partnership between community, philanthropy and government could mean more people benefit from ‘a just, creative, enlightened, caring and sustainable Australia’.


When Kenneth Myer died in 1992, the Canberra Times obituary ran a simple headline: ‘Arts patron, lovely bloke.’

Ken had just a few months before finished the long process of recording his oral history at the National Library. 

In those interviews Ken expressed his strong attachment to the place.

He valued the commitment and expertise of the library staff, people he’d come to know and deeply respect.

In return, Ken was celebrated as a person of great kindness and good humour, of remarkable energy and meticulousness — someone who, as one library colleague put it, was always ‘talking, questioning [and] using every minute’.

The National Library of Australia encouraged Ken Myer to bring together two great passions — learning and philanthropy.

His generosity proved a harbinger of a wider trend in Australia: the emergence of large foundations with the financial heft to make a difference.

Foundations, which like the Myer legacy, can drive policy debate forward…

… can work closely with people and communities…

… can take chances in ways government will always find challenging.

As American experience shows, the rise of large foundations is not an unalloyed good.

When private money attempts to influence policy choice, it requires scrutiny, argument and, sometimes, push back.

Foundations cannot just assume a social licence for their work. They must establish the case for tax laws which allow them to direct money which might otherwise be collected and distributed by government.

Yet there are grounds for cautious optimism.

When trust in institutions is under such challenge, government can partner with foundations and communities around a new approach.

We have many examples already of successful cooperation, and much still to learn from place-based approaches about more effective social programs across Australia.

We can think again about the role of the Commonwealth in addressing disadvantage among our own.

We have the data to track intergenerational poverty, and can look to foundations to test alternative approaches, and to build new models.

Since returning to Canberra, I’ve been consistently impressed by the openness of colleagues to contention and change. I see a genuine interest in innovation.

Partnership can join these many able minds with community and philanthropy around shared goals.

Foundations provide a new factor in this equation, bring resources which can anticipate, amplify and challenge the assumptions of government. Here are new ideas and new people to expand thinking, experiment and fail, experiment, and succeed.

It is a long journey from Andrew Carnegie landing in America. From young Sidney Myer arriving in Australia from Belarus. Even from Ken Myer signing on to a wonderful new project called the National Library of Australia.

Each understood that poverty robs people of a life they value, and society of so much potential. Each determined to tackle that deficit, and in doing so shaped their world, and ours.

In this generation, we have the means — smart people, democratic communities, the instruments of government, the resources held by foundations for social good. Do we have the imagination to draw all these threads into partnership?

In his will, Sidney Myer committed to leave much of his wealth in trust for the charitable, philanthropic and educational needs of a nation he described as ‘the community in which I made my fortune’.

We might all say the same — and then, like him, ask how we will repay that good fortune.

Professor Glyn Davis AC was appointed as the Secretary to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in June 2022. Prior to that, he served as Chief Executive Officer of the Paul Ramsay Foundation, one of Australia’s largest charitable foundations with a mission to break the cycle of disadvantage. In his academic life, Professor Davis has served as Vice-Chancellor at the University of Melbourne and Griffith University and, until recently, as Distinguished Professor of Political Science in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University. He remains a Visiting Professor at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, and a Visiting Fellow at Exeter College. He also holds visiting professorial appointments at King’s College London, Manchester University and the Faculty of Arts, University of Melbourne.

The Kenneth Myer Lecture is generously supported by The Myer Foundation. This lecture is kindly republished with the permission of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.