Neil Balnaves AO
Founder of The Balnaves Foundation
Neil, has worked for over 45 years in the media industry starting his career in 1960 as the Advertising Manager for Rigby Publishers in Adelaide. He moved to Sydney in 1968 into a similar role at the Hamlyn Group and by the age of 34 was appointed Managing Director of Hanna Barbera Studios. In 1979 Neil became the Managing Director of the Hamlyn Group, which was then the publishing and leisure division of James Hardie Industries. After a management buy-out of the company in 1988 it was renamed Southern Star. Neil consolidated and steered Southern Star from its beginnings as an animation studio to a multi-faceted entertainment company. In September 1996 he successfully floated the company on the Australian Stock Exchange. Southern Star is now Australia's largest independent television production and distribution group involved in film, television and video production; sales and distribution; and licensing and merchandising.
In the 1990s, Southern Star created numerous hit dramas including Police Rescue, Blue Heelers and Water Rats, as well as acclaimed miniseries such as Blue Murder, Joh’s Jury and On the Beach. Neil became a passionate advocate for Big Brother and in 2000 formed the Endemol Southern Star joint venture, which produces Big Brother, Deal or No Deal, Ready Steady Cook and many other game and reality programs. In 2004 Southern Star Group was acquired by Southern Cross Broadcasting, then one of Australia's leading media companies with interests in television broadcasting and capital city radio stations. In September 2005 Neil retired as Executive Chairman but continued as a Director of Southern Cross Broadcasting until its sale to Fairfax Media in 2007. Southern Star was then sold to the Endemol Group in 2009.
Neil is the Chairman of Ardent Leisure Group, one of Australia's most successful owners and operators of premium leisure assets including Dreamworld, WhiteWater World, d'Albora Marinas, AMF and Kingpin Bowling, Goodlife Health Clubs, as well as a growing portfolio of family entertainment assets in the US through Main Event. Neil is a Trustee Member of Bond University, Australia's only privately funded independent university, and in 2009 received an Honorary Doctorate of the University. He is a member of the Advisory Council and Dean’s Circle of the University of NSW Faculty of Medicine and in 2010 received an Honorary Doctorate of the University. Neil is a Director of Technicolor Australia Limited, serves on numerous advisory and community organisations and is a Foundation Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.
Neil’s passion for the arts and medicine led to philanthropic support through his private foundation, The Balnaves Foundation. Established in 2006, The Foundation is a charitable trust which invests more than $2.5 million annually in supporting eligible organisations that aim to create a better Australia through education, medicine, and the arts with a focus on young people, the disadvantaged and Indigenous communities.
Neil’s particular interest in sculpture and a desire to develop the art form led The Foundation to become early, and continuing, Exhibition Patrons of Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi. This subsequently led to an ongoing partnership with the Art Gallery of New South Wales and a series of biannual exhibitions surveying outstanding Australia’s artists in the fields of sculpture, painting and digital media. Since 2007 the Foundation has been the Major Partner for the Australian exhibition at the Venice Biennale.
The Foundation helps to broaden community access to the arts by supporting a free youth program at the Museum of Contemporary Art called generationext which aims to connect teenagers with current events in contemporary art and culture through a series of social events themed around the exhibitions.
The Balnaves Foundation is a Major Partner of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art to support and nurture young artists through ACCA's annual NEW exhibition. In partnership with the Elisabeth Murdoch Sculpture Foundation, The Foundation supports one of the most important biennial outdoor sculpture exhibitions in Australia, the McClelland Sculpture Survey at McClelland Gallery+Sculpture Park in Melbourne. Assistance to the arts is also provided to the Art Gallery of South Australia, through a program called START for young children and their families, Kaldor Public Art Projects which brings ground breaking contemporary international artists to Australia to create unique and often site-specific works and also as a Major Partner of the Biennale of Sydney, Australia’s largest international art exhibition.
Bond University was the recipient of a substantial grant to build an award winning state-of-the-art Multimedia Learning Centre for its students which opened in 2008. Neil completed a six year term as a Councilor of the University and continues to serve as a Trustee Member. In 2009 two Robert Klippel Sculptures were donated to the University and are displayed on the campus.
Support for medicine consists of grants to St Vincent’s Hospital and a major grant of $900,000 to finance research into childhood cancer by young scientists at Children's Cancer Institute Australia. The Foundation has committed $450,000 to establish the Balnaves Curative Cerebral Palsy Research Program, which aims to identify cerebral palsy early, via new early diagnostic clinics established nationally, and also provides assistance to Polio Australia to inform and educate polio survivors their families, carers and the community about the late effects of polio.
The Inspire Foundation, which helps young people struggling with mental health issues, receives funding to develop and improve their innovative online programs that have been used by millions of young Australians. The Foundation has also committed $500,000 over 10 years to the Surf Life Saving Foundation to support this vital community service in making Australia’s beaches safer.
Since 2010 The Foundation has provided funding towards the Youth and Road Trauma Forum, which is run by trauma nurses at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital. The Forum focuses on driver education and awareness in order to reduce the rate of crashes and deaths on our roads; particularly by those who are most at risk – young people.
The Balnaves Foundation has committed $1.4 million to fund nine Indigenous medical student scholarships for six years through the Faculty of Medicine at the University of New South Wales. The funding also contributes to an award fund for research in Indigenous health and a prize for the best performing student in the area of Indigenous Health. The Foundation also supports Indigenous arts through funding the Indigenous theatre program at Company B Belvoir to present significant Indigenous works in the Belvoir St Upstairs Theatre as well as providing opportunities for the next generation of Indigenous theatre-makers to stage their work in the Downstairs Theatre.
Neil and his wife Diane have three children Alexandra, Hamish and Victoria who all serve as Trustees of the Foundation. In 2010 Neil was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for his services to business and philanthropy.
Jul 17, 2015
Two of Australia's leading private arts donors have accused the Minister for te Arts, Senator George Brandis, of neglecting the arts community and politicising the funding of the sector.
May 9, 2013
Philanthropists have traditionally kept their giving quiet and behind the scenes, but Neil Balnaves argues that this is missing the point.
Nov 4, 2012
Neil Balnaves AO radio interview on 702 ABC Sydney with Simon Marnie.
Sep 1, 2010
We are no longer the selfish city - Sydney has overtaken Melbourne as the country's most generous capital. But before we give ourselves a pat on the back, theres more work that needs to be done.
Jul 26, 2010
My guest this week has a rather delightful problem, one you might wish you shared - how do you give away your millions? Neil Balnaves was the man behind Southern Star, a company responsible for Australia's most popular television programs, from Blue Heelers to Water Rats, The Secret Life Of Us, even Big Brother. But at the height of his career, Neil's life changed in a moment.
Jun 18, 2010
Neil Balnaves AO will be the guest speaker for this year’s Mosman Address, an annual dinner function presented by the Mosman Public Art Trust. The purpose of the Address is to raise funds for the Mosman Public Art Trust which promotes the visual arts and crafts, particularly public art within Mosman.
The Mosman Address is an annual event that has been running since 1999 and has seen many varied and interesting guest speakers over the years.
Mar 6, 2010
Neil Balnaves knows what he likes. Fortunately that includes supporting the arts in a big way.
Mar 11, 2009
Neil Balnaves discusses philanthropy in Australia, and what lead him to become a Philanthropist.