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Philanthropy ‘as distinctive as it was generous’

February 04th, 2022

Baillieu ‘Bails’ Myer AC 1926-2022 – a personal reflection on the recent passing of one of Australian philanthropy’s best-loved, generous and inspiring figures.

By Dr Michael Liffman AM, former CEO of the Myer Foundation and Sidney Myer Fund

Of the continuing stream of tributes to Baillieu Myer, none have touched me more - and, on reflection, surprised me less - than two: one from the small general store in Merricks, on the Mornington Peninsula near his and his wife Sarah’s beloved Elgee Park winery, and one from the staff at Elgee Park. The former spoke of the ‘magic, humanity, humour and heart’ of the store’s ‘wonderful’ customer; the latter recalled the ‘the inspiring and endearing limitless interests, energy, humour and open mind’ of ‘The Boss, Bails, Captain, and Mr Myer’. 

That so many cultural and charitable bodies, large and small, high profile and modest, urban, rural, and indigenous, have mourned the passing, at 96, of Bails, of course reflects the extraordinary generosity and goodwill of a man who, with his brother Ken and sisters Neilma and Marigold, embodied, extended and took to a new generation the philanthropic legacy of his parents Sidney and Merlyn. 

In the two local tributes from people who encountered Bails on an almost daily basis, however, can be found the qualities that made him so much more than than the patriarch of a remarkable and privileged family (after the tragic death of his older brother Ken and his wife Yasuko in a plane crash in 1992), and made his philanthropy as distinctive as it was generous. 

I, too, had the good fortune to see Bails close at hand through my many years as CEO of the Sidney Myer Fund and the Myer Foundation, so it is that experience, rather than the well-documented accounts of the Myer family’s giving, that shape this reflection. 

It is often said, although perhaps not often enough, that giving away money is not easy, especially if a wider family is involved in making the choices. Choosing for what cause, and to whom, to give is a classic heart/head exercise, where personal priorities, and effectiveness, can be hard to assess and at odds with each other. 

The Myer Foundation deserves eternal credit for being the first in Australia to professionalize philanthropy by employing, in 1956, the estimable Meriel Wilmot (who I am delighted to record remains fit and well and recently celebrated her 100th birthday in England) to advise and guide its giving. In so doing, Ken and Bails must have recognized that, while this relieved them of some responsibility and would greatly promote effective grant-making, it might also clash with their own preferences and judgements. 

This is where Bails’ approach was, in my experience, so exceptional. He truly respected and took the advice of his staff where not infrequently I suspected his personal priorities or professional judgment left him unconvinced. He had his own values, information, enthusiasms and experiences to draw on, and while he would sometimes make them known, he would do so to promote discussion, not impose them. Well-practiced in working with others in business, I imagine he, well in advance of many of his counterparts, understood the parallels between business investment and social investment and that to regard philanthropy as no more than indulging personal preferences was to limit its impact. 

Only occasionally would Bails allow himself to express a little doubt, wryly drawing on the old advertising adage, that ‘of the money donated, probably half was effective, but which half?’ I regarded this acknowledgement of complexity as a welcome recognition that doubt and certainty are necessary but uneasy companions. 

Of course, this modest approach was also shaped by Bails’ total commitment to his, and the wider, family, and his respect for the diversity of views and enthusiasms of what became an ever-larger group as the family grew to encompass further generations, all of whom were encouraged to join the Myer Foundation, contribute to it, and participate fully in it. Consistent with this he challenged old habits by inviting his sister Marigold to become president of the Foundation rather than taking the role himself after Ken’s death. 

Wisely, too, he allowed himself and his immediate family to find another path for less constrained personal giving through his PPF, The Yugilbar Foundation, an example followed by others in the family who also augmented the philanthropy of the Sidney Myer Fund and the Myer Foundation through setting up their own Funds. 

There is so much more that should and will be said, but one singular fact should not pass unnoticed.

Ken, Bails, Neilma and Marigold were, of course, the children of Sidney and Merlyn Myer, who will forever be iconic figures in the pantheon of Australian business and community leaders. As is well known, Sidney Myer (then Baevski) fled the pogroms of Tsarist Russia arriving in Australia as a 21-year-old in 1899. Are there any other examples in this country of dynasties whose members are just one generation away from what to many is ancient history, and who so exemplify immigrant success and contribution? Even with Bails’ passing, the link is still an immediate one with the redoubtable Marigold (Lady Southey) actively involved in community life and, as Bails did, inspiring the further generations of the family who are keeping the tradition of giving truly alive. 

Vale Sidney Baillieu Myer 

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