Philanthropy Leader of the Year, Audette Exel, can disarm anyone and defuse any situation with laughter. As with the best kind of laughter, hers is raucous and spontaneous and utterly infectious.

So, when I asked Audette during a phone conversation, if she’d care to share her wisdom as Philanthropy Leader of the Year, my question was met—in characteristically unassuming fashion—with rollicking peals of laughter.

Undeterred, I pressed on, and being the good sport that she is, she agreed to make it up as she went along.

Here then, are Audette Exel’s spontaneous, but exceedingly insightful, musings in her own words, on what it takes to give well.


AE: You know, one of the things that always strikes me is the difference in what ‘innovation’ means to someone in the developing world and what it means to someone in the developed world.

I was in a remote Nepal village recently that had been devastated by the earthquake: 85 villagers had died, 100 per cent of all the buildings had been destroyed — including 9 schools and all the medical clinics. Anyway, I was sitting there having these really indepth conversations with the villagers who were telling me about how you can use old cut-up tyres in the foundations of your house that will help protect your home if there’s another earthquake and the thing that struck me was that, in the developing world, innovation is a survival tool but in the developed world it’s incredibly easy to be complacent and not innovate.

Now, there’s a huge sea change upon us and businesses are realising that if they don’t innovate, they’re no longer going to exist as businesses. And the same applies to philanthropy.

With the Philanthropy Leader of the Year award—which is an award for Adara (not just me!)— how fantastic is it that Philanthropy Australia is cheering on a whole new generation of philanthropists like Adara, at the same time as respecting the fantastic work that’s been done by traditional philanthropists? And the truth is we need both.

Innovation is profoundly shaping the philanthropic sector and within a decade philanthropy will be almost unrecognisable compared to the traditional philanthropy we’ve seen in the past. We should not fear that and we should not demean or degrade traditional philanthropy which has been a cornerstone of society, but we should celebrate the innovation that’s coming into the sector. Celebrate and embrace the innovation from a whole new breed of people who want to embed giving in their lives.

I truly say ‘Good on you’ to Philanthropy Australia for recognising and cheering on this whole new breed of philanthropists.


Another thing I’d say is take your giving incredibly seriously.

I guess the key message for me is that it’s very, very easy to feel good when you’re giving, and it’s very, very easy to be seen as doing good when you’re giving, but actually it’s very, very hard to do good.

Giving is generally about intervening in some way in the life of a vulnerable client and it’s a hugely serious business.

It’s enormously important and enormously uplifting but you cannot treat it like a hobby. Somebody explained it to me once as being like playing with a loaded gun. There’s such a responsibility to take it seriously. Do the due diligence, understand the work, think and think again.

Some people think it’s as simple as writing a cheque and feeling good, but it’s not. It’s so much more than that. When I say this, it’s not to scare people away from giving, but at the same time I think people should understand the responsibility around it.


Start with your passion. Go where your passion is because giving well requires a lot of work and a lot of thinking, so for it to be meaningful you need to be driven and you need to love what you’re doing.

For me, doing it for 18 years, I’m absolutely passionate about social justice and I’m absolutely passionate about mothers and children in extreme poverty, so for 18 years there’s never been a day that I haven’t wanted to get out of bed to do this work. Passion-led giving sits at the centre of great giving. It changes the whole tenor of giving.


You don’t have to be a wealthy, end-of-your-career type person to be a giver.

When you say the word ‘philanthropist’ that’s what people think.

One of the things I’m most proud of is that I really wanted to have a crack at disrupting that presumption. And actually, I wanted in a small way to disrupt it to show that philanthropists could be anybody, even right at the beginning of their adult life, who wanted to find a way to make their life have a deeper meaning and purpose.

The beautiful thing, of course, is that we’re seeing so many Milennials and Gen Ys who get that. It’s visceral for them now. In their businesses, their careers, their lives—they’re embedding giving right at the start. For them, philanthropy is sitting at the very centre of their lives and that gives me so much hope for the world!


One of the other lessons I’ve learned is that we need to bring humility not arrogance.

In the lucky countries, or if you’re a person who’s had a lucky life, we have a whole lot of unconscious arrogance. We believe we know better. And if there’s one thing I hope I’ve learned in 18 years, I hope it’s some level of humility.

If you don’t approach giving with huge respect for the people you’re standing quietly beside to support, in the end the chance of you doing damage rather than doing good is massively heightened.


Adara’s tag line is ‘Bridging worlds’. I believe we have to stop standing on opposite sides and throwing stones at each other.

We have to bridge divides to change the world and our skills from all the different areas we come from – private sector, public sector, nonprofit sector and media – we all have skills that are pieces of the puzzle of solving the world’s greatest problems.

To me, the most effective way to create positive social change is to reach across the divide. Get down from your moral soap box and your high horse. Get down from the platform that tells you that you alone have the answers to the world’s problems and reach across those divides.

What is a life if it isn’t about giving?

The most uplifting thing in the world is to give—in any way you do it. That might be money, your time, your business thinking, your skills, however you do it. It’s about compassion and caring and community. So it all fits together.


This one is reflective of my personal philosophy because I don’t think being prescriptive is useful.

I don’t actually like the word ‘should’. The minute you become didactic, the minute you wave your finger at someone, the minute you get on your soapbox and use the word ‘should’, the conversation is over and you’re into monologue.

Whether you’re part of traditional philanthropy or the next wave of philanthropy, we’re all part of a mosaic. We’re all working to put a whole lot of new little jewels into the mosaic.

So if we’re celebrating people who are prepared to talk about their giving — absolutely, that’s fantastic. But lecturing people on what they should or shouldn’t be doing in terms of their giving, from my perspective – that’s never useful.

I can respect the humility in giving. I respect everybody who gives in their different ways. I think we should celebrate giving and respect the privacy of people who choose to give without acknowledgement.

Good on anybody who gives, whether they do it privately or in a way to inspire others. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all good.


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