Sydney's Picasso moment driven by an optimism bias

21 June 2011

On Wednesday morning Christie's will auction a Picasso donated to the University of Sydney.

Moments before Sydney's mystery donor came into my office and handed over Picasso's 1935 Jeune Fille Endormie, there was a pause followed by a prediction. "This is going to change the lives of many people," the donor said, while looking down at the small masterpiece. "And it feels so good to be doing this."

As development director at the University of Sydney, I am in the privileged position of hearing deeply personal stories which strike at the heart of philanthropic altruism. The business of development has changed dramatically in the past five years. Institutional loyalty is slowly being trumped by the potency and promise of impact as increasingly big gifts are coming from individuals with non-traditional ties to an institution. Donors want to invest where it is going to make the biggest difference. And that was certainly the case with Sydney's donated Picasso.

At fundraising conferences, I am often asked to delve into the psychology of transformational gifts. A lot has been written on what separates the wealthy who give away their riches from the majority for whom philanthropy is an afterthought. Big donors are often confounded by the parsimonious habits of their non-giving friends, and the non-charitable wealthy seem equally mystified when one of their own takes to heart Andrew Carnegie's mantra that to "die rich is to die disgraced."

The philosophical divide between these two camps is profound — and especially evident here in Australia.

'Jeune Fille Endormie', by Picasso.
'Jeune Fille Endormie', by Picasso.

The sociological questions are interesting, but in the high stakes world of university fundraising, far greater time is spent engaging the converted rather than proselytising the frugal. Successful deans learn quickly that the best donors are almost always our current donors. Understanding philanthropic motivation is important and it is a subject all too often ignored.

In her recent book, The Optimism Bias, Professor Tali Sharot, a fellow at University College London's Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, explores the science of optimistic framing. She argues that most people underestimate negative events, like the chance of losing a job, getting a divorce, or being diagnosed with a fatal disease, while simultaneously overestimating the likelihood of good news being just around the corner.

Though her work doesn't explicitly examine the business of philanthropy, much of her research provides insight into the psychology of the very successful. The belief that the future will be much better than the past is known as the 'optimism bias' and Sharot's research suggests that some people -- those with markedly optimistic assumptions, as compared to the rest of us who are only mildly hopeful -- propel society forward by helping to imagine alternate realities. They see the world as it could be where we see the world as it is.

This is at the heart of those who make the largest gifts. I once sat across from a woman whose multi-million gift to build an observatory stemmed from not being able to afford a telescope as a girl. Providing students a window to distant galaxies was a dream she needed to realise. Numerous scholarships donated to the University of Sydney are made possible by individuals who see a similar promise waiting to be fulfilled. Witnessing this raw and real faith is the best part of my job, and when a donor sees a student succeed based on their gift, it often moves them to tears. And the students' lives are never the same either.

In the early hours of Wednesday morning at the Christie's auction in London, Sydney's gifted Picasso could fetch the highest total of any donation ever made to the Australian tertiary sector. Whether or not it actually breaks the record, I am reminded of something the donor said while we were sharing a lunch together in Newtown.

"When you own a valuable painting like this, it sort of owns you back. For the first time in a long, long while," the donor added while reaching across the table for the cheque, "I finally feel free."

Tim Dolan is director of development for the University of Sydney.

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