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Impact of our donors

An investment in the things that matter

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As one of the early graduates of the UNSW School of Law, John Bagnall was in a position to apply his formidable critical thinking skills to the question of where he could make the biggest impact as a donor. His investigation led him to a Gift in Will that would improve the job prospects of UNSW undergraduates, forge new thinking in the energy sector, and foster the culture of campus sport.

John Bagnall was one of ‘The Originals’, that trailblazing generation of students from the early 1970s that took up residence in a series of old army huts on the Kensington campus as part of the University’s newly minted School of Law. Unlike some of his peers, John was not an obvious candidate for the law. Having studied maths, science and physics at high school, he had half-heartedly considered studying Engineering or Medicine before the Law School (combined with Commerce / Accounting), and its progressive way of doing things, caught his attention.

“I liked the concept,” he remembers. “It was going back to a system of small, interactive classes, rather than a lecture system. That gave me confidence to make the decision to do it – though I think I scared the hell out of my parents when I said, ‘Oh, I think I can do law at UNSW’!”

Like many of his peers, John went on to enjoy a successful career, working first as a legal counsel in the resources sector, and later in key executive roles including project assignments and Company Secretary of public listed companies. It was a trajectory launched by a quality education and driven by hard work.  Today, John feels graduates may find life far more challenging to achieve a diversity of job opportunities, particularly after COVID.

“In today’s world, it seems a lot harder to get your first job,” he says. “Life is not getting any easier, I think, for young people.”  This is also reflected in buying a house / unit.

It was this that motivated John to make the UNSW Founders program one of the key beneficiaries of his Gift in Will to the University. Established in 2018, the Founders program aims to embed an entrepreneurial mindset in UNSW students and staff, and provide them with support at every point of the entrepreneurial journey, from pitch to start-up. Since then, it has created more than 175 jobs and generated more than $250 million in value among the businesses that it has helped launch.  This program provides UNSW students the opportunity to mix with post grad students to deal with the “real world” and allows them to become more aware of what an employer will require once they seek employment.

“In my early jobs, whether luckily or unluckily, I worked for some chairmen who were real entrepreneurs, who demanded performance and expected you to get things done,” says John. “I was thrust into situations I’d never been in before. Some of those roles were outside my legal role and, as a result of that experience, I found I could walk into any situation and think ‘Hey, it can’t be any worse than any of those other situations I’ve been in!’. I saw myself as a problem-solver with a commercial appreciation of what was required to be achieved.”

The entrepreneurial skills, the exposure to commercial realities, and the hands-on problem-solving challenges of the Founders program are all experiences John believes will make undergraduates stand out to prospective employers once they enter the job market.

Similarly valuable, he says, is a record of involvement in sport (both participation as well as administration).

“Sport is one of those elements that people look at outside of your degree,” he says, “along with volunteer work to assist the community and even, roles like girl guides and scouts!”

Sport has always been an integral part of John’s relationship with the University. As a student, he played with the UNSW Rugby Club. After graduation, he continued to take to the field for several years before moving on to refereeing duties at a state level, and then serving at various times as the Club’s treasurer and first-grade and Australian Universities team manager. He was also a long-serving treasurer of the University Sports Association, supporting the activity of more than 43 diverse sporting clubs. He is a Life Member of both the Ruby Club and the Sports Association.

“Sport has always been my underlying reason for contact and association with the University,” he says.

Over many decades, John has continued to contribute to sport at the University through regular donations to the Rugby Club as well as his ongoing support of the Ben Lexcen Sports Scholarship. Now, he has also included a gift to the Rugby Club as part of his bequest.

“I’ve seen that there is not as much funding for sport these days, and I’m going to be trying to speak with people who were active in various clubs when I was active to encourage them to fund their clubs, too, because they need that funding to exist. These clubs, if they need to hire fields or they have capital investments they have to make, like rowing boats, then they’re going to need the former graduates of those clubs to help keep them alive.”

John’s generous bequest will include an investment into hydrogen and nuclear energy research at the University, reflecting his own interest and professional background in the resources sector.

“The University has recently developed a program to research Hydrogen, and, very recently, announced that the School of Engineering will have an arm that develops people’s skills in nuclear power,” he says

“I’m helping my University with this bequest and hope other graduates join me to improve the experience of university life at the end of the day.”

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