Simon McKeon admits that when he—as the Victorian finalist—met in Canberra with the 31 other state and territory finalists for the four 2011 “Australian of the Year” awards, he was overawed by the cross-section of Australian society those people represented.
“Every now and then, I still feel quite awkward,” he reflects. “I feel just a touch of guilt, because I’ve spent [only] a bit of time with the not-for-profit sector, but I know there are people who have given their whole lives. Why I’ve been picked out rather than tens of thousands of others, I’ll never know. But I do know that if all I simply dwelt on was that, I would go mad, and I have to speak on behalf of all of them who do the most amazing work in the not-for-profit sector.”
Nonetheless, McKeon recognises the profile and platform that the award offers him from which to speak, both literally—he estimates that he will have given more than 700 speeches before the year is out—and metaphorically.
“I know that by the end of the year, I am going to be talked out,” he says, “but it’s a wonderful privilege to have so many opportunities to address groups and through the media, and to talk about things that I think are important."
“I haven’t been particularly clever or a giant in any field,” he explains, “and my message is almost embarrassingly simple: if you’ve got choices in your life in how you spend your money or time, add to those choices a serious involvement in the not-for-profit sector. Even considering it selfishly, it’s just one of the most wonderful things you can do.”
A slow starter
McKeon says he never imagined being Australian of the Year and indeed knew little about the award before being nominated. He also describes himself as a “slow starter,” admitting that he didn’t know what he wanted to do when he finished university. He had graduated with degrees in law and commerce, and he did the obvious thing in working as a lawyer for a few years.
“But I knew as a young lawyer that I wasn’t going to do this all my life,” he recalls. Moving back from Sydney to Melbourne, he took an opportunity at Macquarie Bank.
“Again, it was not my life-long desire to be in an investment bank and certain aspects of investment banking don’t rest well with me at all—it’s very cutthroat, it certainly attracts awesome commercial talent but it’s hard to get into; the hours are long, the work is hard, all that sort of stuff."
“But the reason I’ve stayed in it now for more than 25 years is that it gives one a privileged position in the world of business. An investment banker has connections and dealings with a wide cross-section of Australian corporate life and that’s enabled me to develop this other side of my existence, which I really enjoy. I have had a privileged working life, but I have also had the opportunity to do a lot of other stuff.”
World sporting record
As helmsman for a specialised yachting syndicate, McKeon has yet another claim to fame—a world record for speed sailing. In 2009, he steered the yacht that was the only sailing vessel in history to have sustained a speed in excess of 50 knots (more than 90 kilometres per hour).
“I’ve been privileged to be part of the team for many years,” he says. “This world-record setting team sums up much of what I do. I fill a quite high -profile kind of role but the heavy lifting is done by others.”
McKeon admits that the project is about “99 per cent science and 1 per cent sport”—“and they don’t come to me for the science, that’s for sure,” he adds. He credits Tim Daddo—crewman and “the driving force behind the project”—and chief designer Lindsay Cunningham with their success.
The “other stuff”
McKeon traces his interest in community involvement and charity to his experience of growing up in the working-class Melbourne suburb of Dandenong. “It was a fabulous place to grow up,” he says. “But I also noticed—and you couldn’t avoid it—that there was real need around that suburb and even my own parents (my father was a small business man, a pharmacist) took their opportunities to be involved in local community organisations, lending a hand in doing what needed to be done."
“At a very young age, I realised that even a well-off country like Australia didn’t have a government that could look after every person’s need. There was a need for a voluntary contribution and a community response as well. In my business career, I didn’t want to lose that.”
In the early 1990s, McKeon became a member of the board of World Vision Australia and he credits this as the turning point in his life and work.
“This was a serious board for a big organisation, so I started to carve time out of my working week. I was still working full-time, but for the first time I was sending out a strong message to my colleagues and clients—‘Sorry, we can’t make that meeting. I’ll be at a World Vision board’—and I found it remarkably easy to say. Then just a few years later, I was ready to go more part-time and take on a bunch of other community sector responsibilities.”
On the whole, McKeon describes his fellow Australians as generous in how they give, particularly to support specific appeals or in response to disasters. “But, when it comes to the very wealthy, the overall numbers are disappointing,” he says. “It seems to be primarily because the wealthy don’t give like they do in other countries.”
McKeon would like to see greater philanthropy, such as happens among the ultra-wealthy in the United States. “They are giving not just 10 per cent of their income but in some cases as much as 50 per cent of their net wealth,” he says. “There will still be bread on their table, they’ll still have houses to live in and cars to drive—but they will feel it."
“Someone with material resources ought to be giving some of it away. It’s just so obvious. But I would go much further, because I don’t think ‘giving’ really happens until the giver notices it. But that’s a kind of negative statement. The positive statement is that as soon as you start to notice it, all sorts of other things begin to happen, which are often amazing and profound.”
Citing renowned business academic Professor Michael Porter, McKeon points out that this will also be good for corporate givers. “The most successful businesses in the future will be those doing their share of the heavy lifting on community issues,” he explains.
“They will be connected with their community, not operating out of an ivory tower. And they will be better businesses for it because they will actually understand what the community is needing and asking for. Whether you’re just a rich person or senior person running a big corporation, it is important to be thinking about giving one’s time as well as material resources. Not to do that means you end up being an unnecessarily narrow and unsuccessful person.”
McKeon also supports the goal of raising international aid to 0.5 per cent of our national income (GDP).
“Both sides of politics need to maintain this aspiration—we’re on our way but we’re not there yet,” he says. “We’re an incredibly prosperous nation and with that prosperity we ought to be leading the world on all the tough issues—doing our fair share with the developing world, and showing leadership in settling hotspots of trouble around the world.”
Beneficial for all of us
But McKeon’s focus is not just on the High Street. There are few of us who won’t be positively affected by adopting an outward approach to our lives, he urges.
“There’s just nothing like giving,” he says. “I was having a conversation with someone who has had some real challenges through her life. But we quickly got onto a topic we both agreed on, which was notwithstanding her challenges, she is strengthened by giving of herself."
"Compared to a billionaire, it may not seem to be much, but, she says, ‘I’m empowered by the experience of leaving my own little troubles alone for a while and focusing on someone else.’”
McKeon also says we should invest a little time to work out how we can best give. “When you think about the range of causes that are around,” he explains, “and the extent of need in our community, whether here or overseas, it’s so wide-ranging that there’s got to be a cause for all of us. If the way is not clear at the moment, take a little time to work out what really does gel with our own hearts. We all have different skills, so we should play to our strengths. But I’d be pretty surprised if, after a bit of thinking, there wasn’t an area for everybody.”
He’s quick to add that he hasn’t yet found his own perfect cause or organisation to contribute to.
“I really do despair at people who say they don’t feel like giving because they can never be sure that the money is going to get perfectly to the right place,” he says. “I assure them that it won’t; the world is an imperfect place, but I don’t accept people simply using generalisations to excuse them from donating"
“It really doesn’t matter who we are, if we’ve got an ounce of capacity to give, then we should be thinking about giving, because it not only does wonders for the recipient but also for the giver themselves.”