Stories in philanthropy

Across the generations: James N. Kirby Foundation

Nicole Richards, June 2019 

In 1967 Australian industrialist Sir James N. Kirby surprised even those closest to him when he announced his intention to start a charitable foundation with an initial donation of $2 million, an extraordinary sum at the time.

At the foundation’s launch Sir James told reporters: “I’ve been thinking of this for the past 10 years, but only told my wife last night. I doubt whether some of my closest friends knew I had that much money, and maybe she didn’t either…I’ve come up the hard way and I suppose it was because of that I feel I should plough something back.”

Sir James had made his wealth in manufacturing and over the years had made several visits to the US where the visible culture of philanthropy left a lasting impression upon him. James N. Kirby Foundation Chair and third-generation family member, James Kirby

“He’d made a lot of visits to companies in the US and saw all the philanthropic efforts being made through foundations there,” explains James N. Kirby Foundation Chair and third-generation family member, James Kirby.

“I was only 14 or 15 when my grandfather set up the Foundation, but I remember him as a larger than life character, always very humble with no ego. All his grandkids called him ‘Jim.’

“Jim wanted the very best people in the land to be on his board, to get the best ideas and input to the needs of the non-profit sector and charities they’d be supporting. This was very early on in the days of philanthropy here in Australia – they had to go to Treasury to get permission to set up a foundation and the requirement was that there be a majority of non-family members on the board, which was established with my grandfather,  my father Raymond, my uncle Kevin and four external directors.”

Despite having transitioned the Foundation to a PAF a decade ago, the Foundation has deliberately maintained four external directors.

“We think it keeps us very broad and gets us a lot of input from people with great academic and commercial experience and respect,” James says. “We’re now up to the third generation of Kirby family members on the board and it’s been quite a corner stone of the Foundation.” 
 

The ripple effect

Over the last 52 years, the James N. Kirby Foundation has donated more than $22 million across health, education and technology, the environment, social welfare and the arts – no doubt a legacy of which Sir James would be proud.

“The key value underpinning the Foundation, in our grandfather’s own words, was ‘to allow all Australians to reach their full potential’,” James explains.

“Because he came from a very working-class family but had the ability to get ahead and get to the top, he wanted to make sure other people had the opportunity. That still underpins the work of the Foundation today and I think we’ve been able to be a contemporary foundation while still respecting those values.”

Another of the Foundation’s core tenets has been its commitment to helping smaller non-profits achieve big impact.

“While it’s true that every charity deserves support there are now many more large foundations,” James says.

“We feel that we’re better off supporting smaller charities and let the larger foundations such as the bank foundations look after the bigger charities,” James says.

“We think we can be a more significant giver by supporting a smaller charity with an innovative project because they find it harder to raise big amounts.

“We talk a lot about creating a ripple pond effect that will create a positive outcome that’s much bigger than the grant we give.”

James says the Foundation generally makes 60-70 grants each year, with about 50 being smaller grants and 10 larger ones.

One of the Foundation’s most recent ‘ripples’ was supporting Taronga Zoo’s immersive Rainforest Classroom.

“The environment and education are two things close to my heart,” says James, who is also a member of the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network and a keen supporter of The Funding Network.

“We’d supported the Sydney Institute of Marine Science for many years and through one of their former staff members I learned about the Taronga Institute of Science and Learning.

“We went and had a look and learnt about the project and we worked out a specific area, the Rainforest Classroom, that would help the zoo but is also very strong on the environment.

“There are thousands of kids coming through and there’s actually animals in the trees, there are vines and rocks and the kids get a chance to be really hands-on and learn about the ecology of tropical rainforests,” James says.

“The impact we hope to see is that the next generation of kids will have a deeper understanding of the environment.”

With a fourth generation of Kirbys soon to become involved in extending the legacy of their great grandfather, James says the Foundation’s family ties are stronger than ever.

“Obviously you have Christmas and birthdays and all the rest but the Foundation is something beyond all that which brings the family together.”

“We’ve all learnt a lot along the way. I think the most important lesson in philanthropy is to listen to the charities you’re supporting and not just come in with a quick wave of the wand trying to change things.”


Nicole Richards is a freelance writer, story coach and former Chief Storyteller at Philanthropy Australia.

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