Previous generations of New Zealanders didn’t rely on government, the church or aristocrats to build their society – they dug deep and solved their own problems. So what makes one person decide they have enough, that they don’t need to buy a yacht?

Opinion: Two women. Two contrasting stories showing how some people feel about their community.

One was about a woman who apparently saw an opportunity when the British Government needed PPE gear. Another woman gave away millions.

Led by Donkeys, a political group that exposes politicians’ mistruths, recently produced a short film with a voice-over by an National Health Service doctor who worked in the hospital front line while six months pregnant. She describes being desperate for decent PPE gear to keep the medics safe.

The film goes on to tell the story of Baroness Michelle Mone (Baroness Mone of Mayfair – seriously it’s her peerage title, it sounds like a Judith Krantz heroine) who was made a peer by David Cameron. She apparently helped a company access the ‘fast track,’ a British Government queue to get PPE gear into England without the usual processes. The Guardian explains in greater detail.

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The long and short of it is that a company connected to Mone got a contract for several hundred million pounds, but some of the PPE gear was considered unsuitable by the NHS. The company was paid, an HSBC employee shared confidential documents showing a lot of money being moved around the Isle of Man, and there are suggestions Mone and her children have secretly benefited by £29 million (NZ$55m). Last month she stood down from the House of Lords as an investigation began.

Mone is obviously a very successful person but I was really curious about the motivation to make a buck rather than use that knowledge to make a difference. Imagine if the story was Mone sourced safe PPE gear and gave it to the NHS at cost – we’d think she was a saint.

Now let’s look at the other woman. Novelist MacKenzie Scott might not be a well-known name outside literary circles, but that her ex-husband is Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. They separated in 2019 and she got US$38 billion (NZ$60b). Mackenzie promised to give away half her fortune and signed the “Giving Pledge.’

What’s that, you ask? In 2020 Warren Buffett, Melinda and Bill Gates created a vehicle where 40 of America’s richest people committed to give the majority of their wealth to address some of society’s most pressing problems. Its goal of setting a new standard of generosity among the ultra rich is slowly working – it’s up to 235 givers, including several Australians.

So let’s go back to MacKenzie Scott. The same week I read about Mone of Mayfair, Scott’s website Yield Giving revealed her donations have been more than $14 billion to about 1600 non-profits since 2019.

It lists an extraordinary long list of charities, and huge donations like $463 million to Habitat for Humanity International, $281 million to Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and $275 to Planned Parenthood Federation of America. In the last seven months Scott has given nearly 2 billion to 343 organisations “supporting the voices and opportunities of people from underserved communities.”

Until recently Scott and her team did this all without the charities knowing that she was interested in them. She gathered intel, asked questions and talked to others. Now she is planning an “open-call process” for non-profits to send information.

What makes one person decide they have enough, that they don’t need to buy a yacht?

A few years back while we talked about raising money for a project, Dame Jenny Gibbs, well known philanthropist and arts supporter asked me why my generation didn’t seem to be in the habit of giving? 

She compared what she and her husband Alan were doing at a similar age. There is no shortage of wealthy 45 to 65 year olds in New Zealand but as someone who scans the lists of givers in health, education and arts there are only few new names added each year. Why?

Dame Jenny wondered if it was because we have inherited a British attitude to philanthropy – we expect the Government and our taxes or the very rich to do most of the giving – especially in education and arts.

In America it’s the reverse – people give their money if they want a university or art gallery. People pay to sit on the board of the orchestra or dance company.

And it’s not just the rich who give. Giving is engrained in young people to support their schools, universities and interests. America has more of a self-help model to enrich its society which grew out of new settlers attitudes. Many American universities have very strong and generous alumni links as a result.

One of the characteristics of our early colonial society was that it didn’t rely on government, the church or aristocrats to build their society. People solved their public needs themselves, through volunteer efforts, or ‘voluntary organisations.’

Philanthropy was grass roots. People with not a lot of money took it upon themselves to help to build tennis courts, country schools and even pay for a teacher. Many country communities had bands, choirs and orchestras which developed community and brought people together.

Dame Jenny shared the story of her wonderful friend and philanthropist who told her how silly it was to leave a bequest to create a contemporary art gallery. She said, ‘do it now Jenny, so you can enjoy it’.

Years later, Jenny says, “she was so right. I am so glad we did buy the old telephone exchange and create the New Gallery.”

I am impressed that some of the world’s richest are not leaving the bulk of their riches to their children but looking to share and improve the world they live in.

Maybe this year we could all think about what matters to us and what change we most want to see in our community.

Whatever the project we choose to give to, there is the joy of knowing we have made a contribution to our society and enabled an activity that may not have happened, or we’ve simply made ourselves and the world a happier place.

Winston Churchill said we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give. So true.

A director of Waka Kotahi, Auckland Eye and Ngati Awa Group Holdings, Victoria Carter is an entrepreneur who founded and sold car-sharing company Cityhop. She was an Auckland city councillor, the first...

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