Len Ainsworth’s gambling philanthropy draws criticism from donors
The Ainsworth surname adorns art galleries, universities and hospitals across Sydney.
There is an Ainsworth Wing at Sydney Children’s Hospital. An Ainsworth Family Gallery in Sydney Modern, the new branch of the Art Gallery of NSW, where the Ainsworths have funded, part funded or donated almost 100 works including works by famous artists such as Russell Drysdale, John Black, Simryn Gill and David Hockney.
There is an Ainsworth Building at UNSW and another at Western Sydney University. Meanwhile, Sydney University has the Ainsworth Interactive Collection of Medical Pathology, which includes 1,600 surviving medical specimens, including an 1895 heart, a lung infected by the 1918 Spanish flu, and an 1888 bottle of broth used by Louis Pasteur was made and sealed. Sydney University also has an Ainsworth Chair in Technology and Innovation established at the request of the Cerebral Palsy Alliance and funded by the Ainsworths.
Near the Prince of Wales’s hospital precinct is a Margarete Ainsworth building after family money helped build the independent Neuroscience Research Australia centre.
The Ainsworths are one of Australia’s 20 richest families with an estimated net worth of around US$5.7 billion The Australian Financial Report rich list.
Their patriarch Len Ainsworth turns 100 in July. He, his now ex-second wife Margarete, and some of his seven sons have an impressive record of generosity across the city, having donated at least $60 million. In turn, her name has been tacked to prominent institutions as an enduring symbol of achievement where future generations will remember the family’s philanthropic legacy.
The origins of Ainsworth money, which came from making poker machines, may be forgotten over time. But not if some critics can do something about it. They question the policies and ethics of educational, health and arts institutions and whether they should even accept family philanthropy.
“The problem here is that Mr Ainsworth’s fortune came from gambling, and precisely from manufacturing slot machines, which are clearly and unequivocally the most harmful form of gambling in this country,” said Charles Livingstone, head of Gambling and Social Determinants Unit of Monash University. “Whether it comes directly from Mr Ainsworth or his children is irrelevant. The money came from the proceeds of harming a significant number of people, including some of the most vulnerable in the country.”
Not surprisingly, this view is shared by Tim Costello, one of the staunchest advocates for gambling reform, who also chairs the Community Council for Australia, a spearheading body for the charity sector. He says such organizations should not take money that comes from an industry that has caused social harm and misery. “There are ethical issues. Neither of these institutions would accept it if the money came from the manufacture of tobacco or weapons.”
“Most charities are grateful for the support when they meet me to achieve their wonderful, altruistic goals.”
Len Ainsworth, Founder of Aristocrat and Ainsworth Gaming Technologies
Len Ainsworth is the father of the poker machine industry in Australia. The industry has generated billions of dollars in revenue and, some argue, spawned hundreds of thousands of gambling addicts.
A study published last month in the Behavioral Addiction Journalout of 71,103 gambling cases in Australia, concluded that poker machines are responsible for 51-57 percent of gambling addiction in the country, which has led to societal problems such as debt, crime, drug use, family breakdown, domestic violence, homelessness and suicides.
The authors of the study wrote: “Electronic slot machines (poker machines) are responsible for the majority of gambling problems in the country. Regardless, calls to reduce availability, limit their addictive structural features, or implement other features that could break excessive spending all seem to have been ignored. Electronic slots regulation should be the first priority to reduce the harm from gambling in Australia.”
Gambling addiction to poker machines has also become a campaign issue in the upcoming NSW general election, with Premier Dominic Perrottet pledged to introduce a cashless playing card for all poker machines in the state by 2028. The opposition has committed to a trial.
The NSW Crime Commission last year called for reform, including a cashless playing card, after claiming that $95 billion in cash flows through poker machines in pubs and clubs in NSW each year, making NSW the gambling capital of Australia. Those cash flows also included laundered money from criminal gangs.
Len Ainsworth founded two poker machine manufacturers, Aristocrat and Ainsworth Gaming Technologies, which were very successful here and around the world. They’ve created almost unimaginable wealth, making Ainsworth one of five Australians who have joined the Bill Gates-inspired Giving Pledge to give away half his fortune. When asked how most of that wealth will be donated after his death, Ainsworth said The Sydney Morning herald: “Ask me when I’m 105.”
Still, Ainsworth says his goal was to make “a positive and lasting contribution to medical research and education.” He says the institutions he and his family gave took “a very different educated and considered perspective” from his critics. “Most charities are grateful for the support when they meet me to achieve their wonderful, altruistic goals.”
Sydney University, which has received millions from Ainsworth, has a Gambling Research and Treatment Clinic that has helped more than 550 problem gamblers through its Brain and Thought Center. The university says it has strict guidelines for its gift policies and procedures.
UNSW offers a gambling and recovery support course and has conducted research into problem gambling. It received a $10 million donation from Len Ainsworth to support the construction of a new building in its engineering and manufacturing department, now known as the Ainsworth Building. UNSW says it accepts philanthropic gifts in good faith, with the intention that the donation will have a positive impact.
Western Sydney University received a $10 million donation from Ainsworth for its construction work. Last month, the university’s think tank, the Center for Western Sydney, published an issue paper declaring that gambling is Western Sydney’s silent epidemic. It found that there was one poker machine for every 105 residents in western Sydney, compared to 1 for every 113 residents in the rest of Sydney.
Western Sydney University said in a statement that Len Ainsworth’s gift is consistent with its giving and fundraising policies, as well as its mission, goals and policies.
St. Vincent’s Private Hospital Sydney, also citing its strict philanthropic policies, received a $5 million donation from Ainsworth to contribute to its construction. The public branch of St. Vincent’s runs a nationwide, government-funded gambling treatment program.
“If you are a charity or organization that works with problem gamblers and is trying to help people who are struggling with gambling addiction or just need social assistance, take money from the source of the problem, or part of the source of the problem, is counterproductive,” says John McLeod, senior research consultant at JBWere Philanthropic Services and Family Advisory.
Len Ainsworth’s eldest son, Geoff, has a foundation called Oranges & Sardines and says it is transparent to its recipients about its original source of income. Geoff, who declined to be interviewed, has not had an interest in or held shares in Aristocrat since the mid-’90s.
It’s up to institutions to accept or reject donations from philanthropists and conduct due diligence, McLeod says. He offers this advice to his customers. “As a matter of principle, when advising special purpose organizations on accepting donations, we ask them to think twice before accepting that money. How does acceptance affect you, and does it make or break your cause?”
Simon Longstaff, executive director of the ethics center, says there is an ethical issue with accepting money that comes from the gambling industry. However, he says it’s not easy, especially when the person, like Len Ainsworth, has had a long association with certain charities and hasn’t just decided to gloss over their fortunes with a do-gooder façade.
“It’s possible that Mr Ainsworth has been doing this quietly for years and years and years and there’s a whole web of relationships based on personal interaction and that he’s developed a really genuine affinity with the causes he supports,” he says Longstick. “So it’s not about washing away criticism.”
Still, Len Ainsworth and his family now find themselves in a world where criticism is growing that such philanthropy can never match what the poker machines have reaped.
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