The Thomas Foundation Story
Getting started in environmental philanthropy
“I’m 73 years old and the three most important things in my life have been my family, my work and the environment. I don’t think of the environment only in scientific terms, but also as bush-walking, fly-fishing, surfing and sailing. What the environment has given me and my family, and what it gives us all, is fresh air, clean water, and recreation.
When I sold my company, Cellarmasters, in 1997 I had more money than I needed and I wanted to put that money to work effectively in the community. I’d had a life-long interest in the wilderness, the sea and the environment, so that is where I invested most of money.”
The Thomas Foundation was set up in 1998 and is now a PAF. When we started we were engaged in not just nature conservation, but also education and the arts, about which my wife Barbara and I are also passionate. But I learned fairly quickly that if you want to change things then you need to focus, and when you focus you go down a pathway of supporting fewer projects but donating more to each one.
From biodiversity to marine conservation
We make it clear on our website that we choose the projects we want to pursue ourselves and don’t accept applications for funding. Our environment focus was initially was on large scale terrestrial conservation. Our overall objective has been to reduce the loss of biodiversity in Australia and we worked in that area for 14 years. We’ve had the pleasure of watching our partner NGSs grow from quite small to substantial organisations over that time. They don’t need us now in the way they did early on, and so we’ve moved on to a new focus – marine conservation.
I’ve always loved the sea. The oceans and the world’s fisheries need our help – it’s death by a thousand cuts. There are so many opportunities in marine conservation. For us it’s not just a move into a new area, but we’re also getting involved in advocacy, which we never did before. There’s always a lot to learn in philanthropy!
Advice to new donors
There’s a quote I really like from the Rockefeller Foundation: ‘pursue your passions with dispassionate analyses’. My advice to new donors is to understand your passions, do your research, and don’t do too much too soon. Start by investing in a small way and build your confidence in the organisations you are funding. Join the AEGN which helps donors make informed choices through advice and published resources. And they can introduce you to other donors.
The reason people often start from scratch in philanthropy is that they‘ve been working for 12 hours a day in their business! You quickly realize that normal business planning skills are essential to effective philanthropy. If you are looking to invest in the stock market and so on, then you often have a financial advisor. If you are looking for good investment opportunities in the environment, especially for the first time, then contact the AEGN.
We’ve found that if we are going to make a significant investment in a small organization, then in addition to supporting their environmental work, we will usually make a capacity-building investment in strengthening that organization too. For example, we funded a program where the CEO of Bush Heritage participated in a regular monthly forum where he met with a dozen other CEOs, all of them from outside the environmental sphere. That experience made him a better CEO, it strengthened the organisation and it also helped to protect our investments.
The Thomas Foundation
Our foundation is different to many in that it is a Sunset Foundation. It is designed to first dispose of all its capital by 2018, which is my and (my wife) Barbara’s 80th birthdays. We started a sunset foundation because we wanted to use all the money we had available in our lifetime, as effectively as we could, during our lifetime. Then, when Barbara and I die, pretty much all our personal assets will go into the foundation. This way its work will continue for perhaps another decade. If you chose to do this too, then it is important to write a letter to your foundation directors making clear your wishes. You can’t extend your hand beyond the grave, but it helps them to know where and how they might invest that money.
A different approach to conservation
In the 80’s and 90’s before we started our foundation, the conservation movement was mostly a political advocacy model – the Greens, blocking roads, hugging trees. I was fly-fishing in the United States when I discovered that there was a different way. I came into contact with The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Lots of the fly fishermen I met supported it, and to my surprise, they were overwhelmingly Republicans. They had business backgrounds and yet they were funding the environment! I thought this might work in Australia.
I met with Rob McLean, who at the time was the head of McKinseys in Australia, and together we brought the Nature Conservancy here. TNC employs a business management model, based on scientific research and large-scale land acquisition. Until recently they haven’t run projects themselves, rather they have sought out and supported Australian organisations. They have acted like an investment banker to us and other donors, and we have helped them to build their capacity here. This decade-long relationship has been our greatest achievement and our most satisfying one.
In 2006 we tried something new. We decided to commit $10M over 5 years as challenge grants, administered through TNC. This was enormously successful. The total amount raised was over $28 million. And it didn’t just raise a lot of money; it also brought new philanthropists in, and gave existing philanthropists the confidence to lift their contributions. The main beneficiaries were Bush Heritage and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, and the money was used to buy and manage hundreds of thousands of hectares of land in biodiversity hotspots.
Advocacy work to save the Reef
Marine conservation is different from terrestrial conservation – you can’t go and buy up the ocean. The achievements in marine conservation are largely driven by governments’ legislation, so to be effective you need to get involved in advocacy.
Our main current focus is the health of the Great Barrier Reef. It faces many threats, the most imminent of which is the uncontrolled and unplanned port development associated with coal mining all along the Queensland coast. I’m not against mining, but the Reef is too valuable in every way – environmental, social and economic – to be sacrificed for short-term economic gain. So we’re working with WWF and Australian Marine Conservation Society to try and stop new ports being built.
Our campaign, called Fight for the Reef, was triggered by UNESCO and the World Heritage Committee visiting and reviewing the Reef, and urging our federal government to take specific steps to protect it. We’re making some progress though its hard going and a high risk venture. I believe there was no chance of bringing all parties – the mining industry and the federal and Queenlsand governments and environmental groups – together in agreement; ultimately the question will come down to better planning and strategic solutions. These will be driven by governments themselves, and based on the research and evidence we and others have produced in support of these solutions.
I’m a university drop-out so I don’t have a distinguished academic career. It took me a couple of goes to get it right in business, but I did get it right. I always thought that that would be my greatest legacy. But that’s not true: what Barbara and I have done with our philanthropy is far more important and more satisfying.