Woman Cham, Elizabeth

Philanthropic Administrator

Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Elizabeth Cham was born in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany in 1948, the daughter of Polish prisoners of war, Josef and Aniela Cham. She migrated to Australia with her parents in 1950, settling in Ballarat, Victoria, where Elizabeth was educated at Loreto College. Having trained as a secretary she was working temporarily at the University of Melbourne where she was encouraged to undertake a degree. After her graduation she worked first for prime minister Gough Whitlam, and later for the historian Manning Clark, but it was her decision to undertake postgraduate studies in the late 1980s that introduced her to the world of philanthropy, when she found part time work with two major philanthropic foundations.

In 1996 Cham was appointed national director of Philanthropy Australia, an umbrella organisation which she transformed from a poorly resourced secretariat to a major national body. In this position, one journalist argued, Cham changed philanthropy, 'from something left in the will to something practised while still alive' (Sunday Age, 18 June 2006). She was a very effective advocate for the social importance of philanthropy, and was instrumental in bringing about changes in the tax laws which had functioned as a deterrent to philanthropy, and participating in consultations which led to John Howard's creation of the Prime Minister's Business Community Partnership designed to dramatically increase the amount of philanthropic giving. She was also instrumental in the establishment of the National Roundtable of Non-Profit Organisations, an umbrella group for umbrella groups co-ordinating different areas of the non-government sector.

Credited with being an 'exceptional networker', Cham proved able to establish relationships with the Melbourne establishment, while never compromising her commitment to 'the importance of the principles of equity within society and fairness' (Sunday Age, 18 June 2006). She likened philanthropy to entrepreneurship in its encouragement of a sense of vision and moral obligation. However, she was not an uncritical advocate, arguing that philanthropy needed to be more transparent, functioning as 'venture capital' for the non-government sector, prepared to take risks over the long term, freeing innovative programs from the strictures of government (Second Hour).

Cham retired from Philanthropy Australia in 2005 but continues to comment on issues related to philanthropy.

Published Resources

Journal Articles

  • Cham, Elizabeth, 'Who will pay', Social Alternatives, vol. 22, no. 4, 2003, pp. 27-31. Details

Newspaper Articles

Online Resources