AEGN

Planet Wheeler Foundation

Backing good people doing good work

23 November 2021

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After 30 years of making the world of difference by supporting organisations around the globe, through Lonely Planet and then Planet Wheeler Foundation, Founders Maureen and Tony Wheeler have decided to wind down the activities of their foundation.

Over this time they have remained committed to one of Lonely Planet’s key goals — to make the world a better place — deploying funds from the company’s sale to the BBC in 2007 to make this happen.

Interview with Anna Demant, Foundation Manager. 

Winding up over the next two years

Anna Demant, who for the last 12 years has worked as the foundation’s manager out of Planet Wheeler’s Melbourne office with a small close-knit team, is happy to share key insights she’s gained over this time.

“Because Planet Wheeler came out of the company, we wanted to give back to the countries that helped shape it,” explains Anna. “Initially, we followed one of the first overland treks that the Wheelers took, taking in Afghanistan, Myanmar and a couple of other countries along the way, to help shape what we were looking for and the kind of projects to support.”

There’s a lot of work associated with running a large foundation and the Wheelers are at a stage in their lives when they want to do different things, so they’ve made the decision to wind up over the next two years.

Increasing environmental focus

Anna says while the foundation initially focused on health, education and human rights projects, over the years it increasingly sought to tackle environmental and climate-related issues. “Everything’s intersectional, so there’s an understanding that these things are linked.”

A more explicit focus came in later years, particularly when there was an opportunity to support the campaign to close Hazelwood, then the highest-polluting power station in Australia, located in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley. “Given we’re headquartered in Victoria, the trustees felt there was an obvious imperative to shut this coal-fired power station down, so we were able to support Environment Victoria through a fairly substantial grant to assist their efforts to make that happen,” says Anna.  

When we back local founders, people who live in these communities, they’re not going anywhere, and they’re committed to the project.

Anna Demants, Foundation Manager — Planet Wheeler Foundation

Backing good people doing good work

It’s a strategy that’s informed Planet Wheeler’s support for Inclusive Development International’s Follow the Money Initiative, which works with local people to identify and prevent harmful development projects and seek redress for those affected. “We entered into this partnership through a human rights lens, but I would say that it’s one of our most significant climate organisations in terms of impact,” says Anna. She credits the organisation’s investigative work with helping to change the way the World Bank now funds intermediary banks through its private funding arm, the International Finance Corporation. A shift in lending practices has resulted in stronger environmental safeguards, effectively turning off a flow of funds to several fossil-fuel projects slated for our region.

Planet Wheeler’s funding strategy behind all these partnerships is simple: they look for good people doing good work. “We’re interested in organisations and not telling them which strategies they should pursue. We look for the people, the basic infrastructure behind the organisation,” says Anna. “Are their finances sound? If not, are there some quick fixes that could help bring them up to speed with the quality of the work, because sometimes people are building aeroplanes in the air, right? Pay for staff, pay for travel costs, pay for phone calls, pay for zoom licences — the stuff that makes projects happen.”

The Planet Wheeler Foundation funds climate change in Australia, in addition to health, education and human rights internationally.

Building community and collective ambition

Planet Wheeler is a long-term member of the AEGN, joining the network in 2014. Over this time, Anna believes the foundation has benefited enormously from its membership, particularly by being connected to like-minded funders.

I remember being at the launch for the AEGN’s Environmental Giving Pledge and thinking this is what climate funders need.

They need a community, they need to know they’re part of collective ambition, and I think the AEGN has done a great job of realising that collective ambition, in putting a face to it and harnessing this fervent desire to do something among this collection of donors.

They’ve built community in a way that’s vital, and it’s really inspiring to see it play out

Anna Demant, Foundation Manager — Planet Wheeler Foundation

For Anna, the AEGN remains an invaluable guide as she transitions into a new role with the Australian Communities Foundation, also an AEGN member. “To a prospective member I’d say you’re not alone. Best practice funding is collaborative, it’s through partnerships, and that’s what’s being encouraged through the AEGN. There’s as much or as little as you want; you can dip your toe in or throw yourself into the pool of possibility.” Anna laughs at her off-the-cuff metaphor. “It’s a nice pool. Saltwater. No chlorine.”

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