Passion, vision and good sense

Philanthropy pioneer Darvell Hutchinson AM

One of Australian philanthropy’s most passionate advocates, Darvell Hutchinson AM, passed away in Melbourne earlier this month after a lifetime of supporting and promoting the power of giving.

Although Darvell’s longest association was his remarkable 50 years' Chair of the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust in Melbourne, he was also a founding Chair of The John Villiers Trust in Queensland. Darvell was a former president of the Australian Association of Philanthropy Association (the forerunner of Philanthropy Australia) and was honoured with Philanthropy Australia life membership in 2014. 

A long list of tributes followed Darvell’s passing, each of them recognising his deep commitment to philanthropy and his dedication to making a difference. One of the distinguishing features of his philanthropy was his willingness to take risks, to trust his intuition and to successfully invest for corpus growth.

Darvell started his career as a chartered accountant in 1947. He held a range of public company directorships, from the Bank of Melbourne, RESI-Statewide Building Society and JC Williamson Ltd across the years, but it was his association with the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust that underpins his philanthropic career.

He was only 33 when he was appointed trustee of what was then the Helen M. Schutt Trust. For the next 50 years, Darvell would apply his dedication and vision to make the legacy of Helen M. Schutt (nee Smith) an enduring feature of the Australian philanthropic landscape.

Today, the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust has contributed $135 million to Victorian charitable causes and has total assets of more than $140 million.

Darvell never met the woman behind the Trust – Helen died in France, in 1951. He was, at the time, a partner with a firm of chartered accountants whose professional predecessors had acted for Helen’s family.

But it was perhaps not until 1987 that Darvell came to see how much more could be done with philanthropy in Australia.

Along with several others who were engaged with philanthropy in Melbourne – Jill Reichstein, Michael Liffman and Winsome McCaughey – Darvell went to Canada to attend the first world congress on philanthropy.

He returned to Melbourne inspired. “I could see what scope and growth could be achieved by strategic philanthropy if one is given a span of years,” he recalled later.

One of Darvell’s ideas was to make the HMS Trust an independent entity with its own office, and for it to become – as he described it – ‘her own boss’. In 1987, he retired from the accounting firm and devoted his considerable energy to establishing the Trust’s first autonomous public office, making the Trust an independent entity and helping establish its profile as a benefactor. On the Trust’s 50th anniversary in 2001, Darvell announced a name change, to the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust to reflect the source of benefaction in Helen’s own name.

On Darvell’s retirement in 2014, fellow-philanthropist Sir Andrew Grimwade had no doubt about the impact Darvell had on the Trust, taking it “…by the scruff of the neck full time, moulding it into a formidable organisation, boasting a small group of exceptional trustees and staff”.

The overall impact was to not only expand philanthropy in Australia but also to grow its professionalism. It was, by any measure, a far-sighted contribution. And it was an approach that Darvell applied to a range of causes and organisations.

When then Chairman of Philanthropy Australia, Alan Schwartz, conferred Darvell’s Life Membership, he said: “Darvell’s leadership and reach in the philanthropic sector have been wide and significant over the years through his many chairmanships, and his trustee and director roles at numerous trusts, foundations and businesses.” In turn, Darvell was a vocal and generous supporter of the peak body over many years.

Darvell had been Trustee and Treasurer of the National Gallery of Victoria, Vice-President of the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Fund, Director of the Macpherson Smith Rural Foundation Ltd (now Youthrive Victoria) and the National Institute of Circus Arts, and a member of the Patrons’ Council of Royal District Nursing Service. He was also a trustee of the L.E.W. Carty Charitable Fund and most recently a Founding Director of the Brian M Davis Charitable Foundation.

In 2014, in recognition of Darvell’s contribution, the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust established the Hutchinson Indigenous Fellowship, a perpetual gift supporting 12-month residences for Victorian Indigenous artists at the University of Melbourne.

Darvell was trustee of the John Villiers Trust in Queensland for 17 years, retiring in 2019 after working assiduously to realise the lasting legacy of his former client John Villiers. In keeping with Darvell’s rare mix of business nouse, endless curiosity and a deep empathy, the Trust’s assets grew from $6.75 million in 2002 to more than $24 million by 2019, with more than $9 million distributed in grants. One of Darvell’s most significant achievements was to help the Trust become a Public Ancillary Fund that enabled it to help others leverage their generosity for the benefit of rural, regional and remote Queensland.

There was always a refreshing – and often inspiring – candour about Darvell’s approach to philanthropy. He wanted to see risk-taking in philanthropy, for the boundaries to be challenged, rather than opting for safe choices. And he saw great opportunities for grant giving, especially with more collaboration.

 “I think we have come to a level in philanthropy where there just has to be far more collaboration and partnership, because our individual purses will never be able to aspire to achieve the significant social impacts that can be leveraged out of working together,’’ he said some years ago.

He was honoured for his service to the community as a Member of the Order of Australia in 1994. And Monash University conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa for his contribution to the Victorian community and “to Melbourne’s role as the major centre of philanthropy in Australia.” Central Queensland University Council bestowed an honorary degree of Doctor of the University in 2016, for “contributions to the philanthropic sector and various organisations including the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust, Philanthropy Australia and The John Villiers Trust”.

Darvell had modest expectations of how he wished to be remembered. “I’d like to feel that I have made a small footprint on Australia’s emerging philanthropic sector, by having been involved across many philanthropic entities and by having an active involvement as a trustee on the other side of the table, for numerous service charities and public authorities such as the National Gallery of Victoria, the Asthma Foundation of Victoria and the Fairfield Hospital,’’ he said.

Others were more fulsome and saw behind the achievements, the application of that most rare of virtues – commitment and common sense. As one of the nation’s finest historians Geoffrey Blainey AC noted: “All honour to Darvell Hutchinson. I can think of no other Australian who has given so many years to guiding a philanthropic trust and guiding it so effectively. He possesses a special quality, sheer good sense. How you will miss him!”

Darvell is survived by his wife Barbara, his three children and extended family.

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