September 1, 2020

Shamal Dass: Making an everyday contribution

This article is part of For the love of giving - a storytelling series featuring just some of the people who give to, work and volunteer in the Australian for-purpose sector.

Written by CSI's Rhonda Yanitsas, the article has been republished here with permission.

Shamal Dass is one of the most energetic people I’ve ever interviewed and I learnt a lot about him and what he stands for in just one short hour.

He believes that “life decides your options but you have to be ready when they present themselves”, and while Shamal’s career has had some fortuitous twists and turns it definitely didn’t turn out as he initially planned.

He is currently Head of Family Advisory and Philanthropic Services at JBWere, Chair of The Constellation Project Governance Group and serves as a board director for the Two Good Foundation and Earthwatch Institute Australia.

I hope you enjoy learning about Shamal’s career journey and his approach to life.


Everyday contributions

For Shamal Dass, every day is a day to make a contribution no matter how big or small that contribution is. It’s something he grew up living out and continues with his own children.

“I talk about social issues with my kids regularly. I engage them around it day-to-day and I stress to them that the issues are not just in another country but that we have them here in Australia too – literally, just down the road,” says Shamal.

“It’s important to look around and be open as we all exist in a context and it’s important to show gratefulness for what we have.”

Born and raised in Fiji, Shamal moved to Australia when he was just 8 years old, at a time when the country’s internal conflict meant his family had to flee to safety.

“I didn’t think about it at the time but I now know it was fundamentally unfair. My parents had three kids under 11 and we had to leave and make do,” says Shamal.

“We didn’t realise we were just getting by and my parents did what they could for my family, and anyone else in need. My dad at one time also worked for a charity so I was involved from a young age.”

Shamal believes he was lucky to have that exposure: “We just helped because we could – it was part of our everyday. There were always people who needed help.”

Entering a world of wealth

From his happy but modest childhood, Shamal entered a very different world soon after graduating with a Bachelor of Economics at the University of Sydney – a world of wealth.

“I first went to Perpetual to work in investments and financial advice and I was very focused on designing personal investment strategies for wealthy individuals,” says Shamal.

“I started out in the operations team, which was good for me. It’s important to know how things work from the ground up.”

Soon after, Shamal was tasked with reviewing a number of philanthropic trusts which turned out to be a critical turning point.

“This was the late 1990s and 2000s and to be honest, I was surprised that people were interested in giving their money away. The role exposed me to these trusts and it piqued my interest, particularly in the beneficiaries of these donations,” explains Shamal.

He soon got to a point at Perpetual where his initial career goals and interests were superseded with the help of a perfect twist of fate; Perpetual’s trusts and foundations team needed someone to fill a leadership gap.

Shamal talks of the experience as a sliding doors moment:

“I was young but someone took a chance on me and it was completely transformational. I had the raw potential and they could see that and trusted me.”

Fast forward through five roles and a lot of learning and development over 11 years, and it was time for Shamal to move on to a new challenge.

He soon found himself at JBWere as the Director of Philanthropic Services where the team were advising not-for-profit organisations and individuals and families with an interest in philanthropy.

“I got a tap on the shoulder by someone who had already worked with me to come and join JBWere. And when they left, I was tasked with heading up the Philanthropic Services team,” says Shamal.

His role was focused on rebuilding the team and the services it offered, which he chose to do by focusing on where he could have the most influence and impact - an approach he has carried through his career.

“I worked hard to build the team up, to create different layers of expertise and experience in order to produce best practice governance and strategy for everyone interested in social impact.”

Eight years on, his expanded and experienced team provide tailored and strategic governance and capacity building advice to 'for-purpose' clients - be they not-for-profit organisations, individuals, foundations, families, government institutions, schools or businesses.

The mission of the JBWere Philanthropic Services is 'to inspire, educate and support clients in delivering sustainable impact'.

“My highly skilled team across Australia, and now New Zealand, assist our clients not only to achieve their investment goals, but to also significantly increase their capacity to deliver on mission,” explains Shamal.

“I believe we have contributed to changing wealth management in Australia and set a benchmark for the sector.”

Impact through education

Shamal’s work also extends to educating others through his role at JBWere; creating and delivering educational opportunities for leaders and producing unique research and discussion papers for the social impact sector.

In addition to evolving JBWere’s own Social Leadership Program (delivered in partnership with Harvard Business School’s Social Enterprise Initiative), Shamal also co-developed and facilitates the Governance for Social Impact course with the Centre for Social Impact at UNSW.

“The governance course for executives was established because of the need we saw. We are targeting board directors of for-purpose organisations to govern and lead for social impact,” says Shamal.

“I absolutely love seeing people’s faces when I am challenging them and they ‘get it’ - that’s powerful.”

Shamal also recently became an Adjunct Associate Professor with the Centre for Social Impact - an honour he is very proud of.

“It was truly unexpected but is a sign that I’m on the right path…but I have the capacity and platform to do more.”

What’s your purpose?

What initially started out as a career in advising wealthy individuals and families, has turned into a life-long ambition of ultimately helping to make an impact with the world’s wealth.

“Your balance sheet and P&L doesn’t show your impact so working out the ambition of your capital and wealth has always stayed constant when I have provided advice. It goes back to my training and it animates me,” says Shamal.

“From my early career days, the focus has always been about finding out what the purpose of my client’s money is – whether that be an individual, foundation or organisation. I like to ask: ‘What’s the purpose of the capital?’

“My personal purpose is to create the change of which I am capable. All of my roles have been and will be chosen to fulfil this purpose.”

Shamal believes this path of purpose, which he has forged in his life and career, can be put down to hard work, commitment and a bit of luck too.

“Your calling card is not your CV. It’s the quality of your work - that’s your tool for developing your career. If you’re known for your work and integrity, your commitment is recognised,” says Shamal.

“Plus I’m always asking myself, ‘Would my parents be proud?’”

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