He was the self-made man who made it to the top of the corporate tree. It is his work as a philanthropist, however, that has won him respect and an Australian of the Year award.
KAREN HARDING speaks to The Man Who Gave It All Away.
Above: Former US Vice President
and environmental campaigner
Al Gore met with Philip and Trix
Wollen during his Australian
By the time he was 40, Philip Wollen had the corporate world at his feet.
A merchant banker, he was Vice-President of Citibank at
34 and a general manager at Citicorp. He was named one
of the top 40 headhunted executives in Australia by
Australian Business Magazine. He had the material
trappings of a successful executive and his favourite meal
was filet mignon and lobster.
It seemed his story was complete. From a youngster in
Bangalore, to the diligent student who travelled to
Australia alone and naive at age 18 to further his
education, to the top of the heap. He had worked hard to
make something of himself, and he had succeeded.
But deep within him, something was stirring.
“I think I discovered early on that a man doesn’t find his
character on Wall Street. It lives on the road to
One day a client took him to one of his businesses, an
abattoir. What he witnessed that day shocked him to the
core and changed his path forever.
The man he had striven so hard to be had come face to
face with the man he would become. The story was not
concluded at all. A new chapter was beginning.
Fast forward some years and Wollen stands astride the
world again. But this time it is through the footprints of
the Winsome Constance Kindness Trust.
The trust, named after his mother and grandmother, is
dedicated to supporting groups that actively work in
areas that are in alignment with the Trust’s Five Fingers –
Children, Animals, The Ill, The Environment and
The breadth, scale and diversity of the Trust are
impressive. It currently supports 400 projects in 40
different countries, with its goal 100 countries by 2020.
Unlike other philanthropic organisations, it supports both
human and non-human causes. For Wollen,
anthropocentrism - the idea that man is of central
importance in his own universe - is abhorrent.
“I honestly believe it is the ultimate sin. If Moses could
have spelled it, he would have put it in the top ten. He just
couldn’t spell it.”
What is central in Wollen’s world is the concept of
“ahimsa”, an ancient Sanskrit term meaning ‘non-violence
to any living being’. Adhering to this means accepting
that man is at one with those living beings with which
he shares the planet, and shouldering responsibility for
One of the core beliefs of the trust is that
“in their capacity to feel pain and fear,
a pig is a dog is a bear is a boy.”
Accordingly, Wollen’s Trust divides its benevolence
between programs designed to aid humans, animals and
those that recognise their mutual relationship.
Amongst its many projects throughout the world, it has
constructed schools and orphanages, rescued bears, dogs
and gibbons, built lion parks and a sanctuary for
unwanted farm animals, instituted vaccination programs
and supported programs in the arts, science and sporting
areas. And in doing so it has endeavoured not just to fix
things for now but to educate for the future.
A major innovation of the Trust is Kindness House, a
multi-million dollar project in inner city Fitzroy in
Melbourne. Home to 21 groups at any one time, and with
a current waiting list of 16, the massive building offers upto-
the minute technology and office facilities to its tenants
at a highly subsidised rent.
“We basically take small non-Government organisations
(NGOs) and turn them into big ones. That’s our plan. We
tell everyone who comes in, we want you to grow and
become big and successful and do good things.”
Residents past and present of the Kindness campus
include Wildlife Victoria, The Brotherhood of St Laurence
STEP program, Greenpeace, The Torch Program
(outreach to the aboriginal community through theatre),
Triathlon Victoria, Rescued With Love (adoption program
for small dogs), Artists for Kids Culture, Social Firms
Australia (creating employment options for those with
psychiatric disability), Edgar’s Mission and Environment
Only kindness MATTERS
When Wollen first founded the Trust, he was able to
perform his philanthropic giving behind its name, without
accolade or public scrutiny.
“We were seeking nothing for ourselves. All we wanted
This he had - until his work started getting attention.
In 2005 he received the Medal of the Order of Australia
(OAM). The following year Altruism Australia bestowed
upon him their Australian Humanitarian Award (Charity
Category). And in 2007 he was awarded Australian of the
Year Victoria by the National Australia Day Council.
Essentially a private man, Wollen had to think long and
hard before accepting. Being thrust into the limelight
was a two-edged sword. On one side it directed attention
to the many worthy causes he supported and to his ideals;
on the other, it brought him up against some powerful
He sought counsel in the way he always does.
“Whenever I face a moral dilemma, I close my eyes and
look into the cage where there is a tortured bear and I can
see the tragedy and the sadness in those eyes and I ask
them...what would you have me do? And the answer is
always the same. Whatever it takes, just get me out of
here, get them to stop.
“If it means making myself a bigger target for these cruel,
boorish people who say it’s only an animal, then so be it.”
Wollen’s strong and outspoken stance against
livestock–for-food industries, both for their cruelty to
animals and their impact on the environment and climate
change, has brought him everything from contempt to
death threats. But he is unmoved. He sees them as the
greatest foe to the sustainability of the planet and its
The second greatest is time.
He believes Governments and corporations can work
together to effect necessary change but that the main
thrust will come from the man and woman in the street.
“The day we say we want it, it’ll happen....I believe that
day will come but I don’t know whether it will come in
time. If we had an infinite amount of time ahead of us as a
species, I would say yes, it will have to. But we don’t have
that length of time.
The oceans are dying in our time. In 20, 40 years time all
our fisheries will be dead and they are lungs and arteries
of the planet. The livestock industry grows food for
animals, the most inefficient energy transfer system you
could possibly imagine. It takes up to 50,000 litres of
water to produce 1 kilogram of beef compared to only
2500 litres of water to produce 1 kg of white rice, and
even less for most fruit and vegetables.”
Much in demand for speaking engagements, Wollen
continually hammers the point home that saving the
planet is in the hands of those who live on it, as well as
those who govern it.
“In all my speeches I have a standard line. Everyone in
this audience wants to change the world as long as they
don’t have to change themselves, and life doesn’t work
that way. First we change, and the world follows.”
For all his apparent strength, there are times when Wollen
himself needs support. Days when he says he has to, in
the words of Shakespeare, “stiffen up the sinews and
summon up the blood” just to get through. Nights when
he wakes screaming, haunted by the terrible images he
He copes, he thinks, because of his wife Trix. “I don’t
think I would have done what I did (without her). I’ve
always been comforted knowing that I have a very soft
place to fall, and I fall a lot.”
Trix Wollen, for her part, acknowledges that she is strong
when her husband has his bad days, says she falls in a
heap when he’s good, but loves what they do, despite its
challenges. Team Wollen is both formidable and
compassionate, and an inspiration to many.
Asked who inspires him, he initially says he doesn’t
believe in heroes, just ordinary people who do
extraordinary things, such as the man who went to rescue
a cow being brutally attacked in Zimbabwe and was also
killed by the mob. Or the man who went into a Muslim
slaughterhouse to rail against the brutality and was
stabbed for his trouble. The Wollens paid for his
He then nominates Paul Watson from Sea Shepherd
before adding that “at the risk of sounding corny, the
people I’ve most found inspiring are always low-key and
in my experience have been women. I think my mother,
my grandmother, Trix, Maneka (Gandhi), Jill (Robinson,
of Animals Asia).....”
Wollen’s personal transformation since those terrible
moments in the abattoir has undergone many phases,
each connected to or an extension of each other. He began
by immediately giving up eating meat then extended that
to becoming vegan (and has never felt better.) He started
‘tithing’ – giving away 10% of his income. Then one year
he decided to give away 90% and see if he could survive.
And indeed he could. From there it seemed but a short
step to larger scale philanthropy.
“I decided to give away everything I had with warm hands
and die broke, and so far I’m right on budget.”
The businessman in him has not disappeared, however,
far from it. He lends his skills, experience and acumen to
the organisations and groups he fosters and takes
pleasure in their growth.
“I am still fairly ambitious; it’s just that the goal posts
He prefers not to see himself as giving his money away
but, rather, as re-investing it. One of his favourite quotes
is that of Gertrude Stein: “The money stays the same; it’s
only the pockets that change.”
Wollen is a mix of apparent contrasts. He is a private man
with a public profile. He lives a simple life yet tackles
complex issues. He sees the small details but focuses on
the big picture.
To the captains and kings of society he gives speeches
which champion the disadvantaged, the marginalised and
the mistreated. He is strong when he has to be and soft
when he can be. He has worked with some of the biggest
companies in the world yet now seeks to nurture grass
He draws on some of the great thinkers of human history
yet is modern and strategic in his own thoughts. He has
been called radical but considers himself conservative.
“What is more radical than killing?”
He says he has an apocalyptic view of the future yet his
actions radiate hope.
In a world where strength is measured by brutality, debate
is centred on the winner of the latest reality TV show and
role models are determined by celebrity, Philip Wollen is a
He may not believe in heroes but to every child, adult or
animal that has felt his ministering hand, he is indeed theirs.
He intends to leave nothing behind but he will. His example.
The Winsome Constance Kindness Trust is a
philanthropic organisation and as such does not accept
donations. For causes fully recommended by the Wollens or
for more information on their projects and Kindness House
go to www.kindnesstrust.com
Phil is not just a person who puts his money where
his mouth is; he puts his energy and his very life force,
where his heart is, and he does it so strategically....I
suspect his particular breed of Phil-anthropy is
unrivalled in its long term effect.”
Nichola Donovan, Lawyers For Animals
Philip Wollen not only saves lives, he changes them.
I know. I am one he changed. He truly does as Gandhi
said, “Be the change you want to see”.
Kae Norman, Rescued With Love
He makes us believe that one person can change the
world if he has the goodness and courage to do it.
Thousands owe their lives and well being to him.
Maneka Gandhi, MP, New Delhi
I am honoured, inspired and proud to call him friend.
Pam Ahern, Edgar’s Mission Farm Sanctuary
Phil is a guiding light; he illuminates the darkness to
remind us all of the better side of human nature.
Phil is the Gandhi of Fitzroy!
Alex Marr, The Wilderness Society
Probably the most remarkable individual I have had the
pleasure to know, judging by the change he has made
in so many lives.
S. Chinny Krishna, Blue Cross of India
There’s something that just emanates with love, this
generosity. He’s just amazing, a beautiful man.
Beverley Waters, South Australian Children’s Ballet
His work ethic, his dedication and his vision certainly
do rub off on everyone with whom he comes in
contact. Phil has been amazing for us.
Mark Doneddu, Vegetarian Network
He could have made heaps and heaps by pursuing a
business career but instead he chose to put all his time
into bringing about peace between the kingdoms of
nature, and opted for continuous use of an old and
well-worn coat.Christine Townend, Help in Suffering, Jaipur India