Stories in philanthropy

The fundamental things still apply after 40 years of giving

Across the broad canvas of Eva and Marc Besen’s philanthropy, three themes emerge: a desire to redress disadvantage, a deep commitment to the Jewish community and, the role that arts and culture can play in nurturing creativity and connecting and inspiring communities.

Now, in celebration of 40 years of the Besen Family Foundation, the three themes are brought together in a special grants program that not only looks back to Eva and Marc’s early years but celebrates the on-going engagement of three generations of the Besen family.

The Foundation awards grants in visual arts, theatre, dance and community cultural development as well as supporting organisations that provide vital services and support to those in need in both Australia and Israel.

One of the Anniversary Grants has its origins deep in the Besens’ experiences in Israel, dating back to 1958 when former Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, shared his vision with Marc and Eva about settling the Negev desert. The Negev covers more than half of the Israeli land mass and includes such rich historical, geographical and cultural features as Masada, Be’er Sheva and the Dead Sea.

This September the first high school in the area – funded by the Besen Family Foundation – was opened catering for students aged 14-18 from across the region. Until the new school opened, education for those teenagers was up to three hours travel away. The School development also features a High-tech Hub staffed by local experts, apprenticeship programs and other after school activities. “Ben-Gurion talked about his dream to settle the Negev and I made a promise to him,’ Marc has said. “It’s a great privilege to take part in his vision and dream.’’

Central to the Foundation’s activities is the involvement of three generations of the family in the Foundation’s priorities and strategy. Besen Family Foundation Chair, Debbie Dadon AM – Marc and Eva’s daughter and the Foundation’s inaugural CEO – said the Foundation has evolved significantly during its 40 years. “The family worked together to identify projects for the 40th Anniversary which reflect the history of the Foundation’s traditional areas of interest in education, arts, health and welfare and the Jewish community while also looking to the future and the challenges we face with the environment,” she said.

In line with that focus on the environment and conservation the Besen Family Foundation has partnered with the Nature Conservancy and some other philanthropic foundations to buy the 33,765ha Juanbung and Boyong stations in NSW, along with the properties’ water rights. The purchase will protect the land for conservation and enable the Traditional Owners, the Nari Nari people, to become co-owners. The project will protect the Great Cumbung Swamp from conversion to irrigated cropping and help preserve an area that is home to 131 bird species and more than 200 plant species.

The 40th Anniversary grants also include support for the Alzheimer’s Research Clinicians’ Program at Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI); the redevelopment of the Gallery of the Permanent Museum Display at the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Melbourne; introducing Australia’s mental health initiative RUOK Day to Israel with a local project partner ENOSH; support for the new early childhood learning centre at Bialik College in Hawthorn; and the redevelopment of Polyglot Theatre’s new headquarters at the Abbotsford Convent.

For Besen Family Foundation CEO and Philanthropy Australia board member, Tabitha Lovett, the anniversary is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the Foundation’s significant contribution to arts and culture, health and welfare and Jewish interests.

“The family agreed they would prefer to celebrate the anniversary by supporting organisations which are providing vital and visionary work in the community rather than hold an event or produce a commemorative publication,’ she says. “It’s going to be wonderful to see the outcomes of the projects supported as they achieve their objectives and vision in the coming years and beyond.’’

For Marc Besen, philanthropy is not about telling people how to spend their wealth or good fortune. But philanthropy can be about leading by example and trying to generate interest in the satisfaction and rewards of giving.

 “You can’t really reduce the act of giving to words,’’ Marc says. “It’s not like a business which you explain through logic and reason. Philanthropy comes from the heart and it has to come from within.’’ 

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