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John and Pauline Gandell. (Picture: Peter Haskin)

Pauline and John Gandel - Giving Ambassadors

Private but passionate philanthropists John and Pauline Gandel , part owners and developers of Melbourne’s Chadstone Shopping Centre, were moved to donate one million dollars to the Victorian bushfire victims in the wake of Australia’s worst bushfire tragedy. Inspired by tales of devastation and their own personal tragedy 20 years ago, they talk to Deborah Blashki-Marks about why they give and how giving is intrinsic to the way they live.

John Gandel – When we heard about the bushfires we looked at each other and knew we had to do something immediate and substantial. We felt if we came forward it might enthuse other families and corporations. We didn’t want publicity but we wanted others to join us in supporting these victims.

We announced our intentions to the Premier on the Monday morning. I said to the CEO of the Gandel Foundation that day, have we given that million dollars yet? I said go immediately and pay it on the spot. I knew the matter was urgent.

At first we had trouble determining who to give the money to. It was the Wednesday afternoon after Black Saturday when we finally delivered the cheque to the Red Cross Emergency Appeal, which was a joint initiative between the government and the Red Cross. The need was so great, and I understand they have raised $360 million dollars in total for the bushfire victims.

We wanted our money to go where it was needed and we left it to the experts to determine where that should be. You have people here who need clothes, shelter, food and how you assess who needs what and how the money is best spent depends on need.

Pauline Gandel – When we made the decision we were very emotionally affected. 20 years ago we had our own trauma when an electrical fault caused our home to burn down. We related to the devastation the victims of Black Saturday experienced. We related to the trauma of losing memorabilia, artwork, clothes, some photos and other personal items, it is very heart wrenching.

John – Pauline was in America when I watched as our house burnt down. She came home the next day and it was devastating. It was very emotional. The year following was agony as we tried to salvage what we could. We paid large dry-cleaning bills to try and save some clothes but they were all ruined and smelt of fire. It was a bad time overall.

We relate to the pain and loss of the victims of Black Saturday. In our case the fire brigade were marvellous and put anything they could under a tarpaulin to protect it from fire and water. We’d never experienced fire before. I couldn’t believe how quickly it destroys. We know how extraordinary the CFA were in doing what they could in the bushfires.

Pauline – In this sort of tragedy I think everybody needs to be assessed according to age, dependents, and ability to work and find a home. We really thought about it all the time. We kept saying what we can we do? Then we also heard about the million or so animals in trouble, so we offered to give hay for feed from our property in Point Leo if that helped too.

I have a Tea School of Japan group of women that meet regularly. We are part of the Uransanke Chado Tea School , one of the largest tea drinking groups in the world, and I hold tea parties to celebrate and honour tea. When I asked the Japanese women to make a donation to the bushfires, they didn’t hesitate. No matter what their individual circumstances, they gave generously and I matched them dollar for dollar. It’s all about doing what you can do.

John – We don’t keep a million dollars in reserve for an emergency. We’ve exceeded our donations budget with this donation. Nearly all community organisations are now faced with reduced or eroded resources as a result of the recession. Many have lost a lot but we’ve only lost a little. While many organisations may need to reduce their donations, we’ve chosen that we will use a bit of capital to top up the Gandel Foundation if needed. So we’re not reducing our distributions at this stage. There’s a greater need for charity now more than ever.

The biggest issues are poverty and unemployment. We are directing funds towards services like The Smith Family and the Royal Women’s Hospital among others.

We have a family philosophy that is partly derived from our Jewish heritage, which by law recommends that everyone should give 10 % of what they earn to charity. We are traditional and not religious but we give as we see fit.

We’ve been successful, but I always say you need timing and good luck to stay stable and increase your net worth. We’ve been very fortunate and we want to give back. We’ve always made giving a priority and we are increasing our allocations where possible.

Education is an area we feel strongly about and which we greatly support. We’ve committed $250,000 to the government’s “computer for every child” scheme, and have agreed to a million dollar injection once the project is successfully rolled out nationally. We’ve also supported the pilot program to test the project.

I am actually chairman of an Israeli organisation that’s given away 30,000 computers. It’s a $50 million dollar project. The Israeli government contributed only $12 million as the rest is being raised privately. Data from that project reflects the fact that there is a great social divide between kids who have computers and those that don’t – many without, feel like second-class citizens. The lifetime productivity of a child that gets a computer at age 5 is much greater than one who starts to use a computer at a later age.

Pauline – I feel good when I’m giving to someone. I believe that our children have also learned the joy of giving.

John – For me, giving is an obligation. It’s part of our philosophy, our way of life.

I’m optimistic that the government’s stimulus packages will help our community. I don’t think there’s much choice. I don’t think anybody knows how long the journey to recovery will be. I think we’ve been fortunate and hope to help those we can.

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