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A Gentleman of Melbourne Proposes a Judicious Scheme

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In 1858, the Australian colony of Victoria was young and rich. Neighboring not-so-rich colonies had been launching expeditions of discovery into the "barren void" of the interior for years and the leaders of Victoria wanted in on that action. The Exploration Committee of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria (later the Royal Society of Victoria) began making plans for an expedition in the name of progress and science. If there’s glory to be had, so much the better.

An anonymous donor (later revealed to be Ambrose Kyte) issued a £1,000 challenge grant to support the enterprise on the condition that £2,000 in matching funds be raised from the public within 12 months. A fundraising committee was established forthwith.

At first the public did not seem to have much interest in the project. In fact, only four of the seven members of the fundraising committee donated a total of £25 to the cause. Neither the Chairman nor the secretary made a contribution. No wonder things got off to a slow start. (They really should have followed Ben Franklin’s advice.) After 11 months had passed, only £900 had been raised.

Committee member David Wilkie wrote in a progress report that the difficulties arose not “from any general unwillingness to support the object, but chiefly from the commercial depression, which has extended its influence through all classes of the community.”

Even back then fundraisers were blaming the economy.

The committee refocused their efforts and employed several strategies to meet their goal:

  • Fundraising letters were sent to “squatters, merchants, and country gentlemen.”
  • Special event fundraising through benefit performances at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne.
  • Members of the committee were charged with securing at least £25 each.
  • Solicitors canvassed the city of Melbourne and collected £120 in contributions.
  • A grant request for £5,000 to acquire “twenty or thirty camels” was submitted to the Government of the Colony of Victoria.1

By September 1859, the committee had raised £2,199 thus securing the challenge grant and in 1860, the request to the government was increased to £6,000. The committee sent a letter to Mr. Kyte informing him of their success:

“We confidently believe that the valuable assistance which you have rendered to the cause of science and Australian progress will, at no distant period, be rewarded by a wide extension of our geographical knowledge of those vast central regions of Australia which have been hitherto cut off from the civilised world, and still remain untrodden by the foot of civilised man. And we feel assured that it will ever be to you a source of unmingled satisfaction, that you have so successfully initiated in Victoria a movement in favour of exploration, which we are fully justified in believing will be attended with the happiest and most successful results.”

Alas.

The cause funded by this campaign was the infamously doomed Burke and Wills Expedition.2 Happiness and success were to be, shall we say, elusive. But the fundraisers did their job. (I'd just hate to be the one who had to write the final report.)

 


 

1. Interestingly, the Chairman of the fundraising committee, the President of the Philosophical Institute, and the Premier of Victoria were all the same person - Sir William Stawell. With connections like that, how can you lose? The media reported the situation as “nothing short of burlesque."

2. Bill Bryson writes in his marvelous book, In a Sunburned Country, that "they chose as leader an Irish police officer named Robert O’Hara Burke, who had never seen real outback, was famous for his ability to get lost even in inhabited areas, and knew nothing of exploration or science. The surveyor was a young English doctor named William John Wills, whose principal qualifications seem to have been a respectable background and a willingness to go. On the plus side, however, they both had outstanding beards."

 

 

For me, fundraising and communications go together like peanut butter and jelly – delicious & filling!

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