The Norman Wettenhall Foundation Story
Gib Wettenhall, chair of the Norman Wettenhall Foundation (NWF) is Norman’s eldest son. A lawyer and journalist by training, he is the author of books on cultural landscapes and Indigenous history, the editor of Australian Forest Grower magazine and publications officer for central Victoria’s 300km long Great Dividing Trail, amongst other community roles.
Beth Mellick, executive director of the Foundation, has a background in the environmental movement, in campaign and project management, fund-raising and activism. Her role is to assist the board of the NWF to research issues and applications, provide support to their grantees to develop strong and sustainable projects, and administer the Foundation’s three grants streams.
Setting up the Foundation
Gib: My interest in the environment came through my father, Norman. He always had a great love of the outdoors and bushwalking. When he came to sell his natural history book collection, recognised at the time as one of the best private collections in Australia, he decided to set up an environmental foundation from the proceeds. Although in his ‘80s, Norman himself actually did the hard yards in setting it up, and he was there for the first 3 years of its existence.
Why be involved in environmental philanthropy?
If you ask me why people should be involved in environmental philanthropy, it’s because the problems we face can’t be tackled alone. Saving the environment is a collaborative exercise – in any patch of land, however small, there will be a mix of interested parties involved and a mix of social, economic and environmental factors to balance.
This to me is the real challenge – how we get ownership and commitment from the people who live in landscapes, land owners and land managers? I believe the best way is through supporting community groups in rural landscapes who work together to build their own vision for how they operate on their land.
Driving community change
Our niche is driving community change through a bottom up process, which means working with land holders and land managers to determine what can be done to optimise biodiversity and improve habitats.
Beth: At the Norman Wettenhall Foundation we have two specific focus areas – biodiversity conservation and landscape restoration. These are the areas we feel are not only greatly under-funded but have the biggest benefits, and on-the-ground tangible outcomes for species conservation.
Gib: A third element is supporting scientists – we know the importance of working from a good knowledge base, so we put money into conducting base-line inventories of the flora and fauna, and then ongoing monitoring to see if the actions taken are actually having an effect.
Beth: We’re a perpetual charitable trust with DGR and TCC status, and we are named on the Register for Environmental Organisations. This gives us greater flexibility to fund groups regardless of their tax status. Our application process is a simple online one, with two pages of questions and two references, and I am available to help them with it.
A lot of funders I speak to tell me they don’t get the applications they want to fund, but if the application process is too difficult then only the large NGOs with fundraising staff are going to apply and the small groups will struggle on un-aided.
So we devised a scheme where other philanthropic funders can give money to NWF, and we receive applications and disburse it on their behalf. We distribute funds for The RE Ross Trust, Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation, The William Buckland Foundation, The Ian Potter Foundation and now Yugilbar Foundation.
GW: In terms of filtering the applications we have a lot of knowledge and expertise on our Board – which we recently expanded from 5 to 9 – and strong networks, but if we don’t know enough to make a sound decision we ask Beth to do some research.
Supporting research and citizen science
Our approach is to try to influence cultural change by supporting activities like recording and sharing traditional, practical and research knowledge. We also fund capacity building, putting money into skills training and capacity building to enable volunteers to connect with, monitor and improve their landscapes.
We’re keen to encourage citizen science, where volunteers get trained in monitoring or land management techniques and become engaged with conservation projects in their local community. When a group of concerned friends and neighbours undertakes a small project, they’re not just counting Spot-tailed Quoll, for example, but in effect they are engaging in community capacity building – bringing volunteers together, sourcing an experienced conservation expert to help them design their project, getting trained in flora and fauna species recognition. So, whether or not they find a Spot-tailed Quoll, in the end it is the process rather than the result that will make the difference.
Beth: We get lots of applications for people to do plans to protect a certain species but they haven’t actually done any research into whether that species exists on that land. So we often support groups to go back a step, to do the research to collect the base-line data, which will gives them a strong foundation on which to design their project.
An integrated approach
Gib: At NWF we are working towards a more holistic and integrated approach. We have to stop looking at the environment as completely separate from welfare and the arts. The health of the environment should underpin everything we do, and we know that the ‘ripple-effect’ ramifications of environmental projects can be seen in terms of health, training and jobs, and community development. You can’t look at one element in isolation from the others.
The power of small grants
Beth: There’s a trend for philanthropy, in seeking to achieve social impact, to make fewer small grants, and concentrate on larger grants to the big NGOs, but we can show examples of small grants which have been successful in leveraging larger funding or establishing partnerships. With Connecting Country, one of our first landscape restoration projects, we gave them $80,000 over 2 years, and 6 years on they’ve leveraged at least $4.2 million of other philanthropic and government funding sources.
Even with the smaller grants, a group did some research on bandicoots in a reserve managed by Parks Victoria, who were very impressed by what they had achieved with volunteers and philanthropic money. Now there are stakeholders, including industry, who are going to pay to protect that habitat and those species. We initially gave them $4,800 to do the research, and the end result is that both industry and government are now on board to save that particular place. We have lots of these stories.
Fostering land custodianship
Gib: We’re now beginning to understand that when Europeans arrived on this land it was in very good hands, there were high levels of custodianship by the Aboriginal land-managers. If they could do it so can we – we’re trying to foster custodianship by today’s land owners and landscape managers.
Working together to create real change
I love the saying – from little things big things grow. Some funders say “come to us with a fully formed idea and then we’ll look at supporting it”, but that’s a ridiculous approach, turning the whole thing upside down. Strong projects and sustainable outcomes come from putting time and collaborative effort to develop, test and refine ideas, and create practical solutions upwards from there.
We donors also need to work together – like the saying it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to save the environment. We’re going to have to be a lot more innovative, flexible and collaborative in the future.