Ramp It Up wrap up
By Nicole Richards, April 2019
What happens when you bring 100 environmental philanthropists together in a single room? You get a heady mix of purpose, passion and persistence. And a pronounced sense of urgency.
Held in Melbourne on 2 April, the AEGN’s 2019 conference — Ramp It Up: Super-charged Giving for a Better Environment — was a showcase of like-minded collaboration, collective effort and powerful networks. AEGN CEO Amanda Martin opened the event with a powerful call to action: “Together we are more than the sum of our parts. We can change history.”
The conference was brimming with energy and enthusiasm — mandatory traits for funders in a cause area with the scope and urgency of the environment. This year’s event was the biggest ever for the AEGN and CEO Amanda Martin wasted no time in issuing a call to action in her opening remarks.
“The world has an opportunity to change history,” she said, referencing the latest climate science predictions. “Philanthropy can provide the fuel behind this change.”
However, Martin explained that the environment as a cause area ranks 20th out of 26 charity types for total revenue in Australia. Environmental activities constitute just 2.3% of total giving, with trusts, foundations and Private Ancillary Funds key contributors of that funding.
In response, the AEGN is urging members to ramp up their giving to the environment. To date, AEGN members have pledged $21 million to stop land clearing, restore soil health, stop climate change, protect wildlife and the Great Barrier Reef, and more.
“Having a better world is the legacy”
A funder-only event, the AEGN conference uses Chatham House rules, meaning delegates are free to relay the contents of the discussion beyond the event, provided they do not identify the speaker. While many of the participants are happy to be named, one of the leading guest speakers is a philanthropist who prefers to stay under the radar.
Said philanthropist, who began his formal giving in 2009 after a liquidity event, encouraged others to contemplate ‘how much is enough?’
“Where is that line?” he asked.
“If you talk about how much you give, it’s not a very helpful discussion because you might give $1,000 or $10,000 or $1 million — the point is how much is enough for you to live on and how much can you give?
“It’s a really helpful discussion to have in your family to really test yourself on that. In Australia and especially in this room, we all pretty much have more than enough. I have enough, that’s plenty. Anything else I can do great stuff with.”
The philanthropist explained that his spend-down foundation focused on helping solve the issues of this generation.
“It’s about solving problems now, today,” he said. “Certainly, in the case of the environment, now is the time. It’s almost a once-in-a-generation opportunity — we shouldn’t be leaving this to our kids to solve.”
On the topic of his preference for anonymity, the philanthropist explained that for himself and his partner “it’s about the outcomes and the work, it’s not about us”.
“In our view, putting our names on things doesn’t advance the cause, it just distracts and gets in the way. We just want to get on with things quietly. That’s a personal choice and for us, the outcomes are the legacy.”
“Having a better world is the legacy.”
Leaving the audience with his advice for giving, the philanthropist implored others to focus their efforts.
“Don’t try to do everything. Think about what’s most in your heart and skill set you can contribute. Focus on fewer things and do them really well and in a deeper way.”
Ramping it up
Four environmental funders joined AEGN Board Member Jon Myer on a panel to talk about their decisions to escalate their environmental giving.
Hayley Morris from the Morris Family Foundation explained that the foundation has committed an extra $3.25 million to the environment over five years. With a family business located on the Great Barrier Reef, Morris has seen the effects of pollution and climate change first hand.
“We’re increasing our funding because the issue is increasingly urgent,” she said.
“The impacts of climate change are being felt, seen and experienced. All funding priorities are important to us, but if we don’t sort out the environment, what’s the point? We don’t have the luxury of time.”
Morris also noted that the work of the family business to set up the Reef Keepers Fund for reef protection, water quality and reducing plastic pollution had also resulted in greater engagement from staff.
“We hear it all the time when we’re doing interviews that people want to work for a business that has values,” she said.
Craig Connelly from The Ian Potter Foundation, which became one of Australia’s leading environmental funders in 2018 when it announced a $10 million funding increase over three years, explained that some of the foundation’s major granting will address the effective management of Australia’s fresh water resources and protecting the Great Barrier Reef.
The Ian Potter Foundation partnered with The Myer Foundation and Sidney Myer Fund to initiate an Australian freshwater mapping study using a $500,000 up-front investment to determine where philanthropic funding can make the biggest impact.
While the foundation is still considering recommendations from the study, Connelly said he hoped the project would ultimately lead to exploring the establishment of a ClimateWorks equivalent for water.
Connelly also told the audience that The Ian Potter Foundation is committed to playing a convening role within the sector.
“Our research is not proprietary in any sense,” he said. “We are happy to share our knowledge, share our due diligence. If we can assist with your own grant-making, we’d like to help.”
Making an impact doesn’t necessarily require multi-million-dollar giving. Eytan Lenko from the Lenko Family Foundation, a small, nimble foundation that devotes most of its giving to addressing climate change, explained that he is committed to spending down the foundation’s corpus over the next five years.
“We’re a small foundation,” Lenko said. “Giving 5% of our corpus didn’t feel very effectual given how big the climate crisis is.”
“If you said an asteroid was going to hit earth in 10 years’ time, people would be asking ‘what can we do to stop this?’ and that’s effectively what we’re facing with the environment.”
Meta Goodman from The Goodman Foundation and The Moreton Bay Foundation urged collaboration within and beyond the sector.
“We decided to increase our funding about two years ago when we realised there was a lot of research being done about Moreton Bay but not much action coming out of it and nothing much was getting through to the general public or government,” Goodman explained.
The Goodman Foundation allocated $750,000 and helped set up the Moreton Bay Foundation to “protect the Bay and give it a voice.”
“One of the problems we’ve found is that people don’t talk to each other: universities, government departments and more. We’d like to break down these barriers so that they can use their resources better.”
“Our Moreton Bay will just be a big green pond if we don’t look after the water quality and the catchments.”
“Kids are the absolute warriors”
One of the liveliest presentations of the day came from Craig Reucassel, host of the ABC’s War on Waste and member of satirical comedy group The Chaser.
Reucassel explained that significant work went into developing the appropriate tone for the series, which went on to exceed all expectations.
“It wasn’t about making people feel too guilty,” Reucassel said. “We found that people are interested, they just don’t know what to do.”
“We wanted to give people things to do themselves and that made a massive difference. If people had something they could do themselves it helped them keep up the pressure on business and government.”
That pressure was widely credited as being the catalyst for the major supermarket chains’ decision to finally eliminate single-use plastic bags.
Though Reucassel wasn’t beyond “chasing pollies with a giant plastic bag roll” for the cameras, he believes a powerful source of change resides with the next generation.
“The biggest impact came from the series being shown in schools,” Reucassel said. “Kids are the absolute warriors. That’s the secret, arm the children and get them to hassle up.”
Communicating more effectively about environmental issues was the topic of a panel featuring philanthropist Rebecca Gorman, Malinda Wink (Shark Island Institute), Piers Verstegen (Conservation Council of WA) and Jenny Gray (Zoos Victoria).
Malinda Wink explained that the influence and reach of documentary films is growing.
“Documentaries are becoming increasingly persuasive,” she said. “Trust in the documentary form is increasing while distrust of news media is growing. That trust is important and allows you access to decision makers.”
“The disaster narrative around climate change had been heard and was switching people off,” she explained. “From a messaging perspective it was like asking people to join the party on the Titanic. We focused instead on reframing hope, seeing opportunity in the reality of what exists today.”
“We don’t need another peak body that provides services for our people,” Yorta woman and Original Power director Karrina Nolan told the audience. “What we actually need is an organisation that organises and builds the capacity of our people.”
Brendan Sydes explained how Environmental Justice Australia’s legal advocacy helps create necessary disruption to counter the prevailing “we’ve got this” view about existing environmental regulation.
“The work that we’re doing is critical in demonstrating the gap between the rhetoric and the reality on the ground.”
A distinctive feature of AEGN conferences is the member project showcase during which AEGN members introduce an organisation or program they’re supporting in the hope of drumming up additional funding support. Delegates can then join a designated table to hear from the non-profit directly.
The introductions by funders featured animated displays of passion, theatricality, cajoling and even a giant tray of scones as enticements. The eight projects/organisations showcased were:
- Totally Renewable Yackandandah
- One EDO
- State Wide Integrated Flora and Fauna Teams and Visualising Victoria’s Biodiversity
- Environs Kimberley – ban fracking Canning Basin
- Farmers for Climate Action
- Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility
- Victorian National Parks Association
Post-afternoon tea, Catherine Brown, CEO of Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation shared the organisation’s work to catalyse change through collaborations and networks and philanthropy’s role as both supporter and participant.
“Collaboration is a continuum,” Brown stressed. “One size doesn’t fit all.”
The final conference session was the Impact, scale and reach – NGO collaborations and networks fair, which brought the voices of 10 non-profits into the conversation across five tables.
Closing out the day, Amanda Martin urged delegates to review the notes they’d taken throughout the day and add another three things to the three actions they’ve already resolved to do post-conference.
“Think about what you’d like to work on with other AEGN members to ramp it up,” she said. “Is there anything you can do as a group?”
And with that, the talk once again turned to action, with delegates enjoying a post-conference dinner and plenty more animated conversation.