Colin: Our foundation is very much a family affair. My father had an investment company, and when he died my step-mother took over and my sister and I became share-holders in the company. I used to pick her [my step-mother] up on a Friday afternoon and we’d travel to North Head, and she’d say “Isn’t it marvelous, these people who had the foresight to put this land aside for future generations to enjoy”. She particularly loved the birdlife.
It was my step-mother who suggested we put some of the company money into a perpetual foundation. So in 2002 we set up a PAF, Diversicon Environment Foundation, dedicated to supporting the environment. The PAF has worked well for us, but it does have some limitations in that if you find someone with a good idea, but they are a small organisation without DGR then we can’t fund them. Sometimes we give them a donation from our private money if we can’t give through the PAF.
I know that’s unusual, as probably only 7% of the philanthropic dollar goes to the environment, but we feel that considering the urgency of environmental problems it should be a bigger slice than that.
Pam: We’ve always lead an outdoors life. Colin’s dad had a peach orchard, I grew up in Canberra when it was a just little village, so we both spent a lot of our childhoods wandering in the bush. As adults we’ve travelled a lot, spent many holidays camping and bushwalking, and done lots of long-distance sailing, so we’ve chosen to spend a lot of our time close to nature.
This has clearly influenced our interests and priorities, and how we practice our philanthropy. Our children now all work in the environmental field, in renewables, waste management and sustainable housing.
Colin: There’s no doubt that experiencing the environment first hand is a pivotal feature of environmental philanthropy, so site visits are especially important. We visited Arnhem Land a few years ago on an AEGN field trip, it was a revelatory experience, meeting Indigenous people on their land, staying in the community, talking and listening, and having time to get a better feel for their fundamental issues and specific problems.
When we first started our Foundation it was with the simple idea of doing something worthwhile, but looking at it retrospectively it has created many more opportunities for growth and giving than we realised at the time. You learn such a lot from other donors with whom you collaborate, the scientific experts you meet along the way, and from the recipients doing the work on the ground. The more you visit and talk to them, the more involved you get in the whole ecological process, which is a very rich experience. That’s true whether you are a beginning or experienced philanthropist.
Pam: In fact our funding approach has changed over the years as a result. We do our own research into our grants, following our interests, so they have evolved as we’ve learned about various projects. We were involved with Bush Heritage and Australian Wildlife Conservancy in land purchase early on in the life of our Foundation. I was a nice entrée into the environmental area and gets you to travel to various parts of the country to look at the properties, and so you meet people and begin to develop a feel for what works and what doesn’t.
Colin: Ethabuka, a Bush Heritage property in the Simpson Desert, is a great example. We re-visited it last year, spending 10 days walking around the property with a caravan of camels. When we first helped with the purchase of Ethabuka 8 or 9 years ago it had about as much vegetation as there is on this table top! But after a few years of good rain even the cattle yards had thousands of young coolabah trees in them – several metres high – so the place had transformed.
Pam: Over the last five years, having been involved with the AEGN has made a real difference to our philanthropy: there are educational offerings, field trips, guest speakers, and we learn so much from the other members we meet, and from our co-funding experiences. So we’ve expanded beyond land purchase now.
Colin: Last year we went to the Hepburn Wind farm and got to understand how a community wind farm operates. I’ve subsequently learned a lot more about them, and we are coming to believe that the grass-roots issues such as community-owned renewable energy will ultimately be the most politically important. As they attract community enthusiasm and a public profile, that will influence government thinking.
Pam: We have also been involved in the formation of the South West Marine Protection in the south west of Western Australia, along with PEW and the Nature Conservancy. We happened to be able to give at a critical time when funding was running a bit short, and we were able to tide them over and maintain momentum in the campaign. But that wouldn’t have come about if we hadn’t heard about it from the AEGN.
Colin: From a biological survival point of view the sea is more important than the land, but as land dwellers the sea is over there and out of sight. We might go and bathe in its edges from time to time but we don’t have much appreciation of its complexity, and so we need to look after the sea. Helping with those things is really, really significant.
Pam: As medical physicians we are biologists, to some extent. Colin has a science background, he’s a researcher, whereas I’m more of a clinician. Some of the first projects we got involved with were research projects helping to identify the changes in the environment that led to species population distribution changes, or the effect of fire on specific plants. Our funding enabled research projects which then provided a basis for a more rational conservation approach.
Colin: I spent a lot of my research years measuring outcomes. Now outcomes are important, but they are often a long way in the distance and we don’t have the luxury of waiting for unequivocal proof before we act. As time’s gone on I’ve come to believe that if you are trying to build a robust ecological system, then mother nature – who is pretty good at this stuff – will know best how to do it!
Our science, and medical research in particular, tends to be reductionist, finding an association between this one gene and that particular trigger. But increasingly we need to take a big picture view, looking at the association between well-being and health, for example. We need to address environmental issues like that too, holistically, and ensure our research and our grants take that bigger picture into account.
Once you start to look critically at this big picture and realise where the environment is headed, you can’t help but become concerned and committed to do something about it. There are a few things we need, but the number of things people want is endless. Those things we think we want are depriving us of those things we actually need!
Some time this century attitudes will change: the trick is whether or not we can convince people to change before they have to, when the sea level has already risen 3 metres, when the temperature of the earth has gone up 5 degrees. It would be nice to get in before then, but it does require a heavy rethink of our priorities.
Pam: So one of the best things to do is to join the AEGN. We’re all in our apprenticeship and the world is changing very fast, so collaborating and sharing knowledge is one way to try to keep a little bit ahead of the curve.