Purves Environmental Fund

A force for nature

31 March 2022

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As funders, how do we best empower environmental organisations to succeed? If anyone knows, it’s Robert Purves AM, an astute Sydney-based businessman and philanthropist who’s spent some 20 years focused on this objective.

Robert is driven by his passion for the Australian bush and a determination to protect our precious wilderness. This determination has a defiant edge to it — there’s a sense Robert has had a gutful of vested interests and weak governments over the years, starting with a pivotal encounter in his mid-teens.

The making of an environmentalist

“I was a keen bushwalker and in Tasmania with my mother and sister at the time Lake Pedder was flooded,” Robert recalls. The year was 1972, when the Tasmanian Government allowed some 240km2 of pristine Tasmanian wilderness to be flooded for a hydropower scheme. “That was the craziest thing ever, to destroy such wonderful wilderness.”

Fast-forward 50 years, and Robert has achieved significant success both as a businessman and environmentalist, his contribution formally recognised in 2008 when he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for his service to conservation and the environment. Among other roles, Robert is a founding member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and governor of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC), and has been a director of the Climate Council, director of WWF International and twice president of WWF-Australia (“One term I had brown hair, one term I had grey hair!”).

Robert has also poured a considerable amount of his own wealth into the sector, selling down funds to raise $10 million for the Purves Environmental Fund, established in 2004.

Members of the previous generation decided to do something in the philanthropic sector towards the end of their lives. I realised you could use your passion, network, business smarts and drive to do something earlier in life. Environment is what I wanted to do, so that’s what I set out to do.

Robert Purves AM — Founder and Director, Purves Environmental Fund

Making change happen

The Purves Environmental Fund grants funds to catalyse change or fill gaps in effecting change, break down barriers to action, support new thinking and practice, and encourage stakeholder participation. Notably, the fund does not shy away from backing advocacy work — indeed it actively embraces it — with a focus on mitigating biodiversity loss, protecting wilderness areas and tackling climate change.

“In 200-odd years we’ve really trashed our natural environment,” says Robert. “We’ve trashed it not just by bulldozers, we’ve trashed it by introducing species. It’s about standing up for nature and valuing these natural places.”

Building capacity

Robert seeks to achieve the fund’s mission by building up key environmental organisations and making them stronger. “Most environmental organisations in Australia are really small, and giving them more robust funding models — particularly monthly donors — is my big focus. WWF, Climate Council, AYCC, the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) — all have built up very good monthly donor bases. The good thing about monthly donors is no one person can turn the money off.”

Robert’s involvement with the EDO has been particularly transformative for the organisation. In September 2019, the eight state-based Environmental Defenders Offices relaunched themselves as one merged national organisation, becoming the largest environmental legal centre in the Australia-Pacific. The Purves Environmental Fund was a key backer of this merger, providing essential capacity building support and connecting the EDO with other philanthropic foundations, including initiating co-funding support from AEGN members.

“I find with AEGN members, if you put up a really good idea, and you’re putting your money up as well, they’ll back you,” says Robert. “That’s one of the great strengths of the AEGN network — its ability to work together on projects.”

A force for nature

The power of collaborative funding

Robert has also harnessed the power of collaborative funding to address excessive broad-acre tree-clearing in Australia — “an ongoing issue that doesn’t get enough focus from environmental organisations”. At the 2017 AEGN conference, Robert offered to contribute $1 million to support an action plan to tackle rampant tree-clearing in Queensland — a global deforestation hotspot — provided this amount could be matched by other donors. Two million dollars was raised over the two-year challenge from 35 AEGN donors.

“The issues are so large, the best thing we can do is hitch our wagon to someone else’s train who is doing something really good, or pitch an idea to members and see who would like to support that initiative,” says Robert.

Trust is really important — people want to be able to trust others who are going to fund with them — and I think the AEGN has provided that opportunity.

Robert Purves AM — Founder and Director, Purves Environmental Fund

Sharing insights

Given Robert’s extensive experience in the environmental and philanthropic sectors, what insights can he share with other members keen to maximise their impact?

“Build up a really good understanding of the sector, particularly in the area of your passion. Who are the key players? Get out there and see what they’re doing, get to know the people, and talk to other funders who are backing the organisation. And keep funding ongoing and untied — the hardest money to get into these organisations is money just to keep the doors open.”

Robert walks the talk in this regard: he not only backs an organisation financially, but also reaches out to its people too — particularly Australia’s young and emerging environmental leaders — to provide ongoing personal support, finding out how they’re faring and to discuss the issues they’re facing.

Robert’s sense of optimism is also important to share with AEGN members, particularly at this time, given the multiple crises we face as a global community.

“From an environmental perspective, I’m optimistic, although you’ve got to be pragmatic as well — I think our kids are going to have a really hard time on a lot of fronts. Will the world act on climate? Yes. Will it act fast enough? That’s highly questionable at this stage, but I think in the Australian context there’s some real hope out there.”

I like to think the good forces finally do win.

Robert Purves AM — Founder and Director, Purves Environmental Fund

Related links

Purves Environmental Fund

Australian Youth Climate Coalition

Climate Council

Environmental Defenders Office

Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists


WWF International

Robert has also poured a considerable amount of his own wealth into the sector, selling down funds to raise $10 million for the Purves Environmental Fund, established in 2004.

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