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Philanthropy has always been more prominent in Melbourne than in any other Australian city, although the way in which it has been understood has changed significantly over time. In the 19th century the term was used interchangeably with 'charity' to describe activities that were simultaneously central to the relief of poverty, the performance of class and the affirmation of respectability in the new colony. Imported from Great Britain, it was a product of a class-divided society and was justified by religious injunctions to care for the less fortunate. 'Such acts of benevolence', the administrator of the colony, Major General Macarthur, told a public meeting in 1856, 'do greater honour to the colony than even our gold mines, and raise it higher in the opinion of the people of England'.

Melbourne's first philanthropic society, established by the Jewish community in November 1848, was followed by a range of hospitals, orphanages, female rescue homes, aged care institutions, ladies' benevolent societies and services for people with disabilities, which together formed the basis for the colony's voluntarist approach to social provision. So all-encompassing was this pattern of charitable activity that the government was left to provide only for prisoners, psychiatric patients and some categories of neglected children. Although most of the public charities received some contributions from government towards building and maintenance costs, the government had no say in how they were managed and only limited influence on the types of services that they chose to provide. Neither the government nor the philanthropic individuals on which it was dependent were prepared to admit that any citizen had a right to relief.

The subscription lists of the major charities document the extent of local philanthropy. Anglican and Presbyterian city-based merchants and professional men dominated the early lists. Later they were joined by Methodists, many of whom had made their fortunes in trade, signalling their affluence and desire for social mobility by replicating the giving patterns of the ranks that they were seeking to join. Catholics, concentrated in the lower strata of the population and struggling to establish their own schools and community organisations, were rarely represented on such lists, although the bishop and senior clergy did make contributions on their behalf and were sometimes elected to the governing committees. While there is some evidence, among Protestants, of the traditional Christian practice of tithing, there were few subscribers who followed the gospel injunction to keep their generosity secret. The annual meetings of charitable organisations were widely reported, and donations to special building and Christmas appeals were acknowledged in the press. Elections to major committees were hotly contested, with subscribers earning the right to stand and to vote as well as to recommend suitable candidates for charitable relief. Prominent citizens who subscribed to a range of such organisations were thus equipped with a series of 'tickets', which they could give to individuals who approached them seeking private relief, allowing them to meet the obligations of elite citizenship in a controlled and highly visible way.

Colonial philanthropy was highly gendered, with male-controlled charities - those involved with preparing, repairing or sheltering potential, present or past workers - being generously supported and hence able to function with executive boards, salaried employees, and substantial buildings and plant. Male philanthropists had little direct contact with those who benefited from their gifts. Free from domestic and child-care responsibilities, older middle-class women offered their time and labour to charities for women and children, making a contribution equal to their husbands' contribution in cash. Because they attracted much smaller donations, such charities were heavily dependent on women's volunteer labour. Although this involvement offered such women rare access to power outside the domestic sphere, it also challenged the gentility that charity work was meant to reinforce. While Lady Janet Clarke (1851-1909) earned acclaim as a public philanthropist through her membership of fourteen charitable organisations and her generous financial contributions to many more, these organisations were maintained by the labour of women prepared to work directly with prostitutes, single mothers, widows, deserted wives and their children. Glimpses of a common sisterhood, despite the rigid distinctions of class, prompted some women to use philanthropy as a platform for social reform, but far more adopted a judgmental attitude, seeking to reconstruct the poor in their own image and harshly rejecting those who failed to 'reform'.

To the affluent, philanthropy served as a form of voluntary taxation, far preferable to the compulsory property-based rating system then current in England. Increasing concern about the inability of donations to meet the need tended to be redirected into attacks on those 'selfish' citizens who did not contribute even though they could afford to do so. Attempts to centralise or co-ordinate charity were vigorously resisted. The continuing tendency to locate the causes of poverty in immorality and sinfulness, and the concomitant belief that wealth was the reward of hard work and thrift, deflected attention from underlying economic inequality and validated the judgmental nature of much philanthropic activity. Indeed, the ability of philanthropists to distinguish between the 'deserving' and the 'undeserving', and to use their influence to equip the poor to become self-supporting, was often put forward as proof of the superiority of the voluntary system.

Only with the onset of the 1890s depression did such attitudes come under attack, and by then it was charity, as typified in the harsh attitudes of the Charity Organisation Society, that provided a focus for hostility. Beginning in the 1880s, philanthropy had developed a newer, more specific, meaning, describing large gifts or bequests identified with single individuals or families. No longer restricted to relief of the poor, such donations could be used for the benefit of a much wider range of educational, artistic, cultural and religious organisations. Philanthropists could now earn social prestige through giving for the benefit of their own class as well as for the relief of the less fortunate.

The earliest such large donations were the proceeds of gold-rush fortunes, justified in terms of returning to the new country part of the good fortune that it had brought to the donor. Both Francis Ormond (1827-89), whose philanthropy was directed towards RMIT, the University of Melbourne and a range of Anglican and Presbyterian causes, and Elizabeth Austin, founder of the Austin Hospital, made extensive gifts during their lifetimes, with the express purpose of encouraging others to follow their example. Newspaper editor Edward Wilson (1813-78) and Flinders Lane merchant Alfred Felton (1831-1904), both single men with no immediate descendants, left substantial bequests with detailed instructions as to the causes among which they should be distributed after their deaths.

This notion of philanthropy was considerably strengthened in the 1920s, when several city businessmen, inspired by the American philanthropic tradition, sought to reconcile commercial practice with notions of corporate citizenship and the teachings of Christianity through the establishment of family trusts. The largest of these was established by Sir Sidney Myer (1878-1934), founder of the Myer Emporium, who having been a prominent private donor to civic and cultural causes throughout his life, provided on his death for 10% of his wealth to be placed in a trust to be used in Melbourne, the community in which he had made his fortune.

The Sidney Myer Fund, distributing $2.5 million annually, is the fourth largest of Australia's family-based philanthropic foundations, one of the six in the top eight that are Melbourne-based. Many of the others owe their origins to Jewish immigration, with families who found safety in Melbourne both before and after the Holocaust being particularly prominent in carrying on the philanthropic tradition of returning to the community a part of the wealth that they have acquired since their arrival. The Smorgon and Pratt families have followed the Myer practice, augmenting regular donations to a range of causes with substantial gifts to mark significant points in their family histories. Among the older Melbourne families, the Murdochs have been most prominent in continuing the older patterns; family matriarch, Dame Elisabeth, served on a range of committees throughout her life and all members of the family have made large donations to specific causes. Although taxation structures in Australia are not as encouraging as those in the USA, many of the national and multinational corporations with headquarters in Melbourne also make substantial commitments to philanthropy. However, only the government-controlled Community Support Fund, financed by the proceeds of betting and gambling, is a more significant contributor to local causes than the large family trusts.

Contemporary philanthropy invests far more widely than its 19th-century equivalent, underwriting social and medical research, independent schools and tertiary institutions, the National Gallery of Victoria, theatre and ballet companies, and a range of smaller cultural and community organisations as well as the more traditional charitable and religious bodies. Nor is it any longer identified solely with conservative causes, with the Myer, Reichstein and Stegley foundations and the Victorian Women's Trust seeking to use philanthropy to encourage community participation among the disempowered and disenfranchised, and to challenge social and economic inequality.

Melburnians share with other Australians a faith in government provision, which contrasts sharply with the suspicion of the State that motivated many US philanthropists. Per-capita contributions, while large in national terms, are minute in comparison with North American standards. Recent calls for philanthropy to take over many of the responsibilities left unattended through the contraction of government services have, however, met with the criticism that the delivery of services that citizens should expect from government as a matter of right should not again become dependent on the generosity of individuals. The city's strong voluntary sector, which developed and survives within the context of the philanthropic and statutory funding mix, would share this concern.

Shurlee Swain