By his own admission, Terry Snow was not particularly academically inclined when he went to Canberra Grammar School in the late 1950s and early ’60s. He preferred to run marathons.
Running has always been a Grammar sport. The hills of southern Canberra, the cool air and views of the distant Brindabella mountains are a good backdrop for those who prefer doing their after-school sport solo.
Talking toAFR Weekend, Snow’s comments about the school are dotted with references to “shy students” and “finding somewhere to peacefully study”, which reinforce the image of a student who didn’t quite fit the mould but took a lot from the experience anyway.
Nearly 60 years on, Snow says it is up to philanthropists like himself to lift private schools to the next level of academic and non-academic achievement, given that parents are struggling with escalating fees and governments are “inclined to reduce their commitment” to the sector.
The billionaire businessman, benefactor and owner of Canberra Airport says private schools need to keep improving to attract students but as traditional sources of income get tighter, they will rely on people who have the “financial opportunity” to help them out.
The Australian Financial Reviewthis week reported fee increases at non-government schools are running at nearlytwice the rate of inflationand have outpaced wage growth every year for a decade.
And Snow’sgift of $20 millionto Canberra Grammar for a music centre and 15 indigenous scholarships on Monday highlighted the fact private schools are the poor relative of universities when it comes to donations.
There have been some high-profile examples. In the early 1990s, pastoralist Jack Morrow left $10 million to his old school, Melbourne Grammar. In 2013 Snow made his first gift to Canberra Grammar of $8 million for an Asian New Century centre, and in 2015 businessman Simon Fenwick gave $1.34 million to Brisbane Grammar, his old school.
Compare that with the University of Sydney, which boasted earlier this year that it had raised $1 billion from wealthy patrons in less than 10 years.
JBWerePhilanthropic Services research shows individual donors’ gifts to universities are considerably larger than gifts to schools. In 2017, donations received by the top five universities totalled $326 million whereas the top five school groups received $55 million across multiple campuses.
Co-founder John McLeod says universities are the clear choice for benefactors.
In a ranking of donors’ preferences, arts and culture organisations take second place to universities, followed by health and medical research, and there is a growing interest in environmental donations. Schools do not even rank in the top five for philanthropists.
“People want to be involved in research, innovation, scholarships and change. It’s not about the university, it’s about what the university is doing,” McLeod says.
“Schools are different. Donors to primary and secondary education generally have an allegiance to a particular school. They may have a family history there and they usually see a specific need, perhaps related to science, arts or sport.”
Terry Snow fits the model. He’s a Canberra Grammar old boy, was “not overly academic” but developed an affinity for the school because of what he learned, which was not always in the classroom.
“I was a marathon runner at school,” he says.
“It’s true there is no pain without gain. Sometimes you have to hurt more than the other bloke. It was because of hard work, dedication and enthusiasm that I managed to have the modicum of success I have today”.
That’s an understatement. He’s ranked 43rd onThe Australian Financial Review Rich Listwith a net worth of $1.86 billion in 2019.
“Universities pull in so much money,” says Snow. “If you put money into medical research you hope your contribution will go to some big solution. It’s not like that with schools. Universities and think tanks all get the money.”
But there is another reason why universities do well from donors and schools do not. Universities automatically qualify for deductible gift recipient status under federal tax law. Schools don’t.
It is possible for a school to receive specific donations for scholarships, building funds or a library, but they have to set up separate financial entities to manage the gift.
The chief executive of Philanthropy Australia, Sarah Davies, says the complications of separate entities with their accountants, lawyers and auditors rule out almost all public schools and even some private ones from attracting donations.
“Universities have huge alumni and development teams. Private schools have development teams but not on the scale of universities. Public schools would have a tough case to make to appoint a development team.
“In the US, alumni giving to schools is far greater. The emotional connection is developed from day one. The expectation that you will give back to your school is instilled in students from day one.
In the US alumni giving to schools is far greater. The emotional connection is developed from day one.
— Sarah Davies, CEO, Philanthropy Australia
“Universities have started doing it, but I don’t think schools do,” she adds. “There is a cultural factor at work: people think the state will provide school education. Schools have not been able to break that link.”
Davies says very poor state schools can receive private donors’ money thanks to an innovation by businessman David Gonski. He persuaded the federal government to allow charitable trusts to channel funds to low socioeconomic status schools.
The result was Schools Plus which aggregates tax deductible donations and allocates them according to need. Since it was set up, 800 schools have applied for funds to provide specialised teachers, relief teachers and technology.
Schools Plus says 4600 primary or secondary schools qualify for low socioeconomic status and in the past four years it has distributed $14 million in charitable donations.
Does Snow have any misgivings about donating to a private school when there are so many public schools in need of teachers and tech equipment?
“I’m in a position I can do this, and it’s a good thing I can,” he says.
“Some people might say it’s elitist. But so is Oxford, Cambridge or the Sorbonne. Are we suggesting we should break them up and split them into lots of small universities?
“You do need a beacon, a light house. This shows the way to other private schools.
“How do you promote growth in private schools? Fees can’t go up much higher and government contributions are not going to go up. So we make a small contribution and we create scholarships for those who can’t afford it.”
Robert Boltonis the AFR’s education editor. He covers primary and secondary education, universities and training. He was a Washington Correspondent for ABC radio and later Chief European Correspondent. He presented “The Media Report” on Radio National. At The AFR Robert has worked as markets editor, Perspective editor and was editor of the Friday Review section for ten years.Connect with Robert onTwitter.Email Robert at[email protected]