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Jeff Wicks, ACME Foundation

Interview on COVID-19 and the Black Summer bushfires.

Tagged in: Biodiversity, Sustainable agriculture and food systems, Sustainable economy, Advocacy, Capacity building, National

AEGN members Jeff and Julie Wicks are principal donors to the ACME Foundation, a Private Ancillary Fund that primarily supports organisations working to protect nature and restore a safe climate. The couple became AEGN members about seven years ago when they relocated to Australia after a working life spent abroad. Here, Jeff reflects on how COVID-19 and Australia’s Black Summer have affected the foundation’s grant-making strategy.

How have you responded to COVID-19 and the bushfires? Has it changed the level of funding you contribute or how you contribute?

We made a decision some months ago to increase our grant making from the minimum of 5 per cent of corpus towards 10 per cent, with a view to be largely divested before the decade is out. That decision was unrelated to bushfires or COVID-19, rather the seriousness and urgency of the climate emergency we are in.

The result is that we have mostly not increased our level of funding to individual organisations but rather increased the number of organisations we support. We did increase our level of donation to one local organisation, OzHarvest, because of the issue of food security during COVID-19. For some others, we shifted the timing of grants to fit their need.

None of our grantees were directly impacted by the bushfires, although climate change is at the front of that discussion. We have made a significant private investment in United States company Atira, which has developed a fire retardant that is not toxic, unlike the retardant in current use. There are reports that around 2,000 platypi survived the bushfires but died from retardant contamination in creeks and rivers. There are plans for a trial of the newretardant in Australia, although COVID-19 has delayed things.

What types of funding are you doing?

We’ve focused on what we regard as a climate emergency and across a broad spectrum, from the Climate Council with its publicity and education program, to The Australia Institute, which has a political dimension, to more grassroots organisations working on advocacy. More recently we’ve focused on community organisations in a couple of key areas in north Queensland and western Sydney.

Although the climate change issue is critical and pressing, there are other existential risks for humanity and the natural environment is part of that, so protecting nature is also an area of focus.

What are you hearing from your environmental grantees about the impact of COVID-19 and the fires?

An example that comes to mind is The Nature Conservancy — a large international organisation with a substantial budget. We were surprised to learn their Brisbane office has cut staffing levels significantly, including their chief scientist. They’ve probably been more affected internationally than in Australia but are likely tightening budgets worldwide.

The pandemic has impacted how we live, work and interact with each other. What’s one thing you hope we’ll do differently on the other side of COVID-19?

The lockdown associated with the virus has taught us that the natural world needs to be part of the economy. There’s a concept gaining credence around “natural capital” — valuing the natural world as part of our economy in a really serious way. The book I’m reading at the moment, Six Capitals, or can accountants save the planet?, talks about how we need to count the things that are important, not just things that have a dollar value. My concern is the “virus effect” may allow the government to do things that run totally against that. They’re talking about cutting “green tape” — the very thing that’s trying to protect the natural world and which, in this country, is weak at the best of times.

Regarding the AEGN, for us the best thing that’s happened as a result of COVID-19 is the organisation’s move to video conferencing. It really has opened up the group to me. We live on the Gold Coast so it’s not straight forward for us to connect. We used to look forward to the conference once a year; now we can have regular contact. This has been a real growth opportunity for the AEGN and allowed us (and similarly remote members) to have more meaningful contact with the organisation and other organisation members.