American billionaire Steve Jobs lamented the lack of a solid measurement system for philanthropy. “You give somebody some money to do something,” he said, “and most of the time you can really never measure whether you failed or succeeded in your judgment of that person or his ideas or their implementation.”
And that is precisely the point for the prominent Sydney lawyer Shane Simpson and his wife, Danielle, have just announced their intention to bequeath a substantial part of their estate to UNSW Art and Design.
Their money will come without strings, without expectation, without measure for a benefactor who gives because “it is a joy”.
“You can’t just fund for success,” Simpson says emphatically. “You have to fund for creativity, for focused attempt, and for challenge. Trial and error is important. Not every challenge works: not every record is a hit; not every picture is successful and not every play works. The creative industry is a high-risk business and you hope that at the end of the day there’s a result - and it may be indirect - which enriches people and our community and makes it a better place to live.”
Simpson’s bequest sets only two conditions: the fund will be available for students or staff to progress study or research in New Zealand or France. That’s it. Why? He was born in New Zealand, Danielle was born in France, the couple care deeply about these places although they have spent their adult lives in Australia. “For us, an intellectual, cultural, creative engagement with our home countries is a productive thing and, we believe, can be a valuable thing.”
UNSW’s Art and Design Advisory Board will approve applications. “We’ve got to trust the people who are using our money to find the best use for it,” he says.
This hand-off approach to a donation worth “seven figures” should not be mistaken for disinterest. Attention to detail is Simpson’s natural inclination. The legal/financial minutiae of many cultural organisations have been his focus through a distinguished working life that includes leading contributions to the Australian National Maritime Museum; the Bundanon Trust and the Peggy Glanville-Hicks Composers' House Trust; the Australian National Academy of Music and the Luca and Anita Belgiorno Nettis Foundation.
Simpson was founder (and first director) of the Arts Law Centre of Australia, and is a Member of the Order of Australia, for service to the law and to the arts. As a long-time legal practitioner (at Simpson’s Solicitors and at the bar) he has worked in the background to develop expertise (and several authoritative texts) in intellectual and cultural property law. He was recently appointed by the Commonwealth government to head a Review of the protection of movable cultural property in Australia.
Simpson’s backstage efforts have helped to connect people and organisations across borders, geographies, cultures and sectors to build powerful networks and coalitions that effect real change. Potent friendships have been formed too, such as with David Gonski, Chancellor of UNSW, who shares a passion for philanthropy.
“I told David that people cross the road when they see me coming these days,” Simpson laughs. “David said: ‘Shall we work in concert Shane? You walk on one side of the road and I’ll walk on the other and we’ll catch them in between us as they cross over.”
In the busy, often seemingly two dimensional life that we live – getting up in the morning, going to work, having dinner, going to bed to get up again in the morning - it’s easy to forget the richness of a life. But, for Simpson, life is not just about acquisition and survival: a richly fulfilling and creative life ensures a well-rounded life.
Creativity is the enrichment that distinguishes mankind from less sentient beings. “I have a beautiful cat which I love dearly but it hasn’t got a creative bone in its body,” Simpson reflects. The cat slinks past his chair and flicks its tail as if agreeing to the idea that spending money fosters a more civilised society.
“The better off you are, the more responsibility you have for helping others,” Simpson continues. “Just as I think it's important to run companies well, with a close eye to the bottom line, you can use your entrepreneurial experience to make philanthropy effective.” “It’s financially easy for high-net-worth individuals to give $500,000 to good effect,” Simpson says. “It’s often harder to leave your CEO ego at the door, realise that you’re not there to run the organisation but to assist it.”
Philanthropy doesn’t only mean making a financial donation; committing time and skill is just as important as the money. “It drives me crazy that people know someone who can help but don’t think to say: ‘Let me make a call tomorrow and I’ll get back to you’. To me, that’s more generous than writing a cheque, or putting a name on a building. Too often we don’t open our phone book because we all feel a bit awkward. We’ve just got to get over it. I never mind being asked. Nor do others. And if someone says ‘no’ that’s alright – it’s your cause and it’s their money.”
Simpson says that even giving a small percent of what’s in the will can make an awfully big difference to those still alive. For some, like American billionaire Warren Buffett, it’s better than giving it all to the family. Give the kids enough to do anything, he said, but not so much that they felt like doing nothing.
Simpson hopes his contribution will foster a society that values the creative contribution of the arts guided by values of excellence, integrity, empowerment and accessibility. He believes the cultural richness of our lives enables us to be happier, more creative in the way we approach every day problems, our relationships and our world.
“Ultimately,” he says, “if it feels pretty good, it probably is pretty good.” His cat, curled on a nearby cushion, is purring loudly.