Leading Philanthropist 2021

Mon, 15 Nov 2021

The humble figure behind a generation of giving

There is no getting away from it – when Tim Fairfax reflects on his life in philanthropy, he cannot go past the breakfast discussions with his parents that made the idea of giving so powerful and so natural.

Tim cheerfully admits that philanthropy is in his “DNA’’. His parents, Sir Vincent Fairfax and Lady Nancy Fairfax, were philanthropists in an era when the activity was still an emerging practice in Australia. It was, Tim admits, probably groundbreaking in its way. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that there is a family foundation commemorating Sir Vincent (VFFF), while Tim has his own family foundation – the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation (TFFF) that charts its own philanthropic journey. (Tim was chair of VFFF from November 2009 to 2017.) What links them, of course, is the shared history of giving.

“It just fell into place,’’ Tim says of the family philanthropy. “It was part of the everyday conversation. It was part of the DNA within the family…It was a given.’’

That’s not the only element of the philanthropic impulse that has passed seamlessly from father to son. Listening to Tim talk about Sir Vincent’s understated approach to philanthropy provides an echo of Tim’s own well-known reticence about promoting what he does. It’s a comparison Tim doesn’t shy away from.

“He was a bit like myself,’’ Tim says of his father. “He just did things and didn’t shout it from the rooftop. He just did it quietly and unobtrusively and that was the way he worked as a philanthropist.’’

Talk to anyone in philanthropy and they’ll speak with a special kind of affection for Tim Fairfax – not just for the sustained commitment from his family foundation to rural and regional Australia, the arts and education – but the gracious and humble mindset that characterizes his approach.

Such humility hasn’t stopped him being given plaudits – the Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Leadership Award a decade ago, named a Queensland Great in 2013, a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2014, and Queensland’s Senior Australian of The Year in 2016, among them. In 2018, he and his wife Gina were Creative Partnerships Australia Award winners for philanthropy leadership.

At 75, Tim might be one of the nation’s most seasoned philanthropists, but he’s the first to admit that a lifetime in doing philanthropy has also been a lifetime of learning about philanthropy.

“I’ve learned along the way,’’ he says. “I think it’s just evolved, and it’s evolved from meeting people, by being with organisations, and being inside organisations and getting a better understanding of the contribution one individual can make and possibly the difference one can make.’’

But one of the frustrations that he’s had to learn to cope with has been the realisation that there are many people who beat a path to his door, asking for his assistance, and the knowledge he cannot help them all.

“It’s a frustration that I have that you can’t be all things to all people, there are so many needs out there, [so] where do you draw the line? That’s something that concerns me a lot,’’ Tim says.

“It’s sometimes overwhelming and sometimes you just feel that you want to run in to a hollow log and run away from it all.’’

“You can only do so much. You have to be focused and unfortunately you have to say “No’’ because you just can’t cover everything.’’

For many Australians, Tim and his foundation have said “yes’’ often enough to make a difference. The Foundation set up with Tim’s wife Gina and their four daughters has a vision and mission that enables them to fund a range of activities and causes.

Its primary focus is to support rural, regional, and remote communities in Queensland and the Northern Territory and help them address the particular challenges they face due to their geographic location. The means of doing that is by building communities’ capacity “…to improve their vibrancy, connectedness, resilience and sustainability.’’ The practical outcome of that approach has seen thousands of Australians benefit, directly and indirectly, ranging from drought-affected farmers to artists exhibiting in the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair.

But Tim’s commitments come in many forms – he is a huge supporter of the importance and contribution of volunteers – and he has, over the years, taken on a number of important roles in education and the arts, for which he has a life-long passion. He was Chancellor of the Queensland University of Technology, founding benefactor and former Chair of the National Portrait Gallery, president of the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art Foundation, and former deputy chairman of the council of the National Gallery of Australia (he remains on the Foundation’s board). He is also a director of Australian Philanthropic Services, Patron of these organisations: AMAQ Foundation, the University of the Sunshine Coast Foundation, the Flying Arts Alliance Incorporated, the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation, and the Actors’ & Entertainers’ Benevolent Fund (QLD) Inc. He is also chairman of the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal, which provides him with constant insights into the circumstances of thousands of Australians who live outside our cities.

Tim believes that one of the few upsides of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it’s led to many Australians moving from the city to the regions.

“I think they suddenly realised you can enjoy a really good life in a regional or rural area. The only problem is that the infrastructure is lacking in some of those regional towns to cater for an influx of population,’’ Tim says. “We certainly saw in the past two years, a growth in regional areas.’’

One of the important approaches that the TFFF has adopted to help many regional and rural communities has been capacity building, that has, over time, helped transform how sustainable those communities have become.

“When we first started doing capacity building there weren’t many others doing it: it wasn’t sexy,’’ Tim says, “but it certainly makes a difference to an organisation…. Sometimes it’s a make or break for them, to just have the resources to do what they should be doing.’’

The impetus behind supporting capacity building was simple enough: “I wanted to jump off the bandwagon and do something different…to be proactive to help organisations in a worthwhile way and this seems to sort of fall in place,’’ Tim says.

The TFFF will discuss its new strategic plan this week, but Tim doesn’t believe there will be a shift in the Foundation’s priorities. In fact, he is optimistic about the immediate future.

“It’s great to see so many more people, so many more companies and there’s so much more enthusiasm and interest in philanthropy,’’ Tim says. “It’s not only my vintage but it’s the younger generation who is becoming more aware of philanthropy, in whatever way: it doesn’t necessarily have to be giving money. It’s certainly getting more ingrained in our culture that we should be giving more.’’

“It certainly doesn’t happen overnight. We see community foundations cropping up now in rural and regional towns, and that’s a start,’’ Tim says. “Ten years ago, there wasn’t such a thing as community foundation and that’s [now] getting communities involved in philanthropy.’’

There is though, no doubt, that for the immediate future Tim Fairfax still has plans and goals for the Foundation. The fundamental principle remains simple and powerful.

“Making a difference to an individual is something that touches me,’’ he says.

“It has been a rewarding experience during my philanthropic journey that continues today,’’ Tim says during the Australian Philanthropy Awards 2021.