Barry Lambert, the founder of Count Financial and currently chair of both Countplus and Class Super, made headlines last year when his family agreed to donate $33.7 million to the University of Sydney to fund research into the medical use of cannabis.

The Lambert Initiative, as it is now known, was prompted by health issues faced by his young granddaughter, but philanthropy has long been part of Lambert’s view of the world.

“I don’t think we can rely on governments to do everything for everybody, and in fact governments spend a lot of taxpayer’s money and I’m not sure how efficient they are and I’m not sure how well directed it is, in many cases,” he says.

“Certainly, governments need to provide the basic core support for society but there’s a lot of things that are missed. There’s no doubt that individuals with a lot of money have their own personal preferences about where society needs more help. Governments have a big role, a core role, a basic role, and individuals, if they feel so inclined can help out in certain directions. There’s always going to be a need for individuals to cough up.”

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Service to humanity

Lambert (pictured) says his interest in serving the greater good dates back to his involvement in the Junior Chamber (Jaycees) organisation. “It was a business group, and part of their creed was that ‘service to humanity is the best work of life’,” he says. “I believed in it then; I still believe in it today. Rather than have your name on a building, or whatever else, what you do for society, for people, is what you’re going to be remembered for, if you want to be remembered.

“I’ve always believed that you should give back. And obviously I’ve been in a position whereby I can give back, whereas perhaps others can but don’t, but that’s not for me to comment on.”

In 2004 the Lambert family set up the Count Charitable Foundation, and donated $1 million a year. Count itself puts in $250,000 a year, and that has continued since the acquisition of Count by the Commonwealth Bank.

“It was a very significant part of our income at that time, back in 2004 – we got a tax deduction on it, of course – but it made our people feel good and we got support from them to put money in. That fund today has got $16 million in it. We put in $9 million over nine years. We don’t put in any more money to it now, because it’s self-fulfilling, and we pay out 5 per cent [of the foundation’s capital] a year.

“We’re paying out $800,000 a year. We have a committee of Count members, and myself and [lawyer] Noel Davis – he’s the chairman of Count Foundation – we OK it, but by and large the membership decides who the support should go to.”

Lambert says people are “probably more familiar with the latest thing” he’s thrown his support behind.

His granddaughter has a severe form of epilepsy called Dravet syndrome, caused by a gene mutation, and while there is no known cure for the condition it is believed that certain compounds present in the cannabis plant can relieve its symptoms.

Potential treatments

Lambert is funding research to isolate and then test the 100 or more compounds in the plant to identify which may be most effective in treating Dravet syndrome, and other conditions. These compounds are quite separate from tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the ingredient that gives marijuana users the high. Lambert’s son, Michael, researched potential treatments for his daughter and came across information on the medical use of cannabis, and the work the University of Sydney had been doing in this area.

“They have these people who have been looking at this – they obviously do other things too, because they haven’t had the money to [only] do this – but in the last 10 years they’ve worked pretty hard at it,” Lambert says. “They came to us and said … we’d love to do a lot more research on all this and we need money; Michael said you might want to assist us.

“They started off talking about $6 million for the program. Anyhow, they went back and prepared a plan and costed it over a 10-year period and it turned out it was $33.7 million.

“We don’t fly first class and live the [first-class] lifestyle; we get more satisfaction out of giving it away than drinking champagne. We said, well, we believe in it, how can you not [fund it]? It wasn’t a question of whether we should do this. Of course we should.”

Lambert says a condition of the funding is that the research cannot only be into the use of cannabis to treat childhood epilepsy, but must explore its use in treating a wider range of conditions.

“We didn’t want anyone to say you’ve only given this money for your granddaughter. That [alone] wouldn’t be a bad reason for doing it, but we didn’t want to be seen to be doing it only for that. But she was the catalyst who got us aware of this.”

Simon Hoyle is head of market insight for CoreData Research.
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