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The Ross Knowles Foundation

Ross Knowles, Founder and Director

Tagged in: Biodiversity, Indigenous management, Marine, Advocacy, Capacity building, Private land management, Research

Ross Knowles is the co-founder of the financial planning firm Ethinvest and the founding co-president of the Responsible Investment Association of Australasia.  A keen environmentalist, he has played a part in the protection of some significant Australian wilderness areas including Washpool National Park and Yengo National Park. He has also discovered three new species of Australian frog, two of which are on the endangered species list. Ross is on the Board of the Australian Centre for Evolutionary Biology and Biodiversity, and continues to make use of his biologist background by conducting wildlife surveys and as a wildlife photographer.
A keen environmentalist turns philanthropist

Environmental issues have always been important to me. From my time at university onwards, pretty much everything I’ve done has been in the environmental space, with different twists. I’ve worked as a high school biology teacher, a volunteer activist and then paid lobbyist with the Wilderness Society, and I worked over a 10 year period as a relief teacher at Taronga Zoo.

Wilderness and wildlife issues have always been prominent. I established Ethinvest, my financial advising company, to make positive environmental and social investments. I’ve been involved with Earthwatch for many years, and of course I set up my Foundation specifically to donate to environmental issues.

Setting up a Private Ancilliary Fund

Prior to setting up my Private Ancillary Fund (PAF), I’d donated every year, mainly one-off donations to environmental groups. The opportunity to set up a PAF really brought all the ends together and made me think more strategically about what I am doing with the funds and what impact they are having. It’s building year by year, and I’m pretty happy with how effective my grants have been.

With my PAF I take all the granting decisions myself, so that’s allowed me to be very responsive to urgent need in a timely way. For example, I recently made a donation to assist the Wilderness Society to helicopter Indigenous people back to their native land at James Price Point, to demonstrate against the developer Woodside Consortium. They needed the funding right then, to get in before the end of the wet season when all the bulldozing would start again.  It was only recently that Woodside decided to pull out of that project – so the development is not going ahead after all, which is a fantastic result.

The value of advocacy

I’m pretty passionate about advocacy. I know it’s difficult to determine what effect you have had when you donate to advocacy, and a lot of trustees probably veer away from it for that reason. It would be wonderful if you could accurately measure the effectiveness of advocacy funding, but the fact that you can’t doesn’t mean that it is not incredibly significant.

An example is the recent government decision to create marine sanctuaries right around Australia; that was a fantastic project and incredible win.  If you look at how much money went into that campaign it would be just a tiny fraction of the value of creating those sanctuaries, even the management commitment by government will result in many millions of dollars for marine protection. We could not provide those funds directly, but if we can help influence government to take actions like this then philanthropy becomes incredibly powerful.

One of my donations to the marine sanctuary campaign was a $5,000 grant which helped fund a dinner at Parliament House for politicians and staffers, with sustainable seafood and a celebrity chef. Tim Winton spoke and it was a huge success. Now whether those politicians went away from that event determined to do something about marine sanctuaries, or whether they just walked away thinking that was a great dinner, you’ll never know. But even if the marine sanctuaries campaign had not succeeded, there was quite a bit of publicity that came from the dinner, good press, so even in just getting the message out I was confident that it was money well spent.

Australia’s most successful environmental campaign

As it turns out, the marine sanctuaries campaign has probably been the most successful environmental campaign in Australia, expanding the marine reserve network to cover 3.2 million square kilometers which is more than one third of Commonwealth waters – so that was particularly gratifying. It will be right up there with the Franklin and the Daintree campaigns.

Deciding what to fund

It’s not always easy to find suitable projects. Supporting people who are very good at what they do is important. You’ve got a better chance of achieving things if there are strong and effective people carrying out the work, campaigning or running projects. It’s a big issue – getting the most conservation value for each dollar spent.

Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) gets quite a large proportion of my funding, in two grants each year; one untied as a capacity building grant, and one for an internship program to provide a living allowance for young graduates to go and work on their properties in field ecology. That’s been particularly successful – they have about 5 interns each year and receive about 200 applications!

With AWC I’ve been very hands-on. It’s wonderful to see things first-hand. They have a pretty solid program for getting donors involved, going and visiting properties. Because I have a scientific background I asked if I could go and help with their scientific surveys. Getting together with others working towards the same aims is always a sound strategy. A number of my ethical investment clients have set up Private Ancillary Funds so we now have a group who are all in communication about their philanthropy, and sometimes co-fund.

Also, the AEGN has a clearinghouse on their website where you can put up a project that deserves funding, more than you can provide alone, to see if others may be interested in joining in. I’ve done that on a number of occasions to great success.

Everyone that I’ve come in contact with who has set up a PAF, maybe even if they were half-hearted in the first instance, absolutely love it to bits. They think it’s one of the best things they’ve ever done, which has been my experience as well.