“By and large you like to be private about these things,” he explains, “but if it helps and inspires others to follow on and do good, then you do it.”
Bringing visibility to the importance of environmental philanthropy is one of the reasons the McLean Foundation also became a signatory to The Environmental Giving Pledge.
“To my mind it’s a challenge to increase giving to the environment, there’s no question about that,” McLean says. “There are so many competing demands for the philanthropic dollar and we’re certainly having the case made strongly for us about the great need for the environment.
“Philanthropy is only ever a small part of the equation when it comes to systems change, but it can be especially good at marshalling diverse coalitions and constituents and getting things underway and allowing trials and experiments to be done before others can help bring it to scale.
“If there’s one thing I’d like to see philanthropy do more of it’s to realise its potential to act like risk capital.”
McLean, who is Advisory Board Chair of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) Australia and Council Member of TNC Asia-Pacific, is a private equity investor and company director who spent a large part of his professional career at global management consulting firm, McKinsey & Company.
In 2007, together with his wife, Paula, Rob established the McLean Foundation to provide structure and focus to their charitable giving.
“Like a lot of people, we got to a point where we’d been supporting a number of things,” Rob says.
“We thought the whole idea of structured giving was good, so we created a family foundation that focused on our interests; Paula’s in literacy and education, and mine in conservation, and that’s what we continue to support all these years later.”
In 2018 the McLean Foundation gifted $1 million to TNC to establish Nature’s Future Fund which aims to secure the long-term future of nature conservancy in Australia.
Along with other investments, the Fund aims to grow to $20 million which will provide enduring support for TNC’s core capacity.
The value of unrestricted, capacity funding is something that McLean came to appreciate through his many years of close work with non-profit organisations.
“When you work intensively with organisations you’re supporting, such as TNC in my case, or the Stella Prize in Paula’s case, you realise how hard it is for them to make all ends meet,” he says.
“There hasn’t really been a great tradition of philanthropy supporting capacity; organisations mainly see support coming in for program funding, with only a limited contribution that can go to what are called ‘overheads’.
“These ‘overheads’ are people and they’re talented people who can raise money, develop new program ideas, and get things done, so it’s a bit of a misnomer to call them overheads.”
It’s only through a shared understanding and commitment to action that we’ll see real change for the environment.
Awareness and change
McLean’s personal commitment to protecting the environment grew over many years as he himself became exposed to various aspects of conservation.
“During my formative years while I was growing up, I loved the arid land around Broken Hill, but it was only after I became an adult and read the works of people like Jock Marshall and his book The Great Extermination that I had that sort of awakening and realised that all wasn’t right.
“Then the succession of droughts and difficulties for people on the land just reinforced to me that there had to be another way for us to preserve and protect this country,” McLean says.
“My direct involvement didn’t really come about until I was well established in my business career. My first engagement was when I joined the board at Earthwatch while I was a senior partner at McKinsey.
“Earthwatch’s mission is to get scientists in the field to address issues and that opened up a wonderful world for me,” McLean says. “Later on, it led me to view the importance on having The Nature Conservancy, the largest conservation organisation in the world, operating here in Australia.”
One of TNC’s projects McLean is most fond of is its work to facilitate the return of 88,000 hectares of wetland on the Murrumbidgee floodplain, known as Gayini, to the local Nari Nari people. The purchase was made possible through co-funding provided by the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation and The Wyss Foundation Campaign for Nature.
“This collaboration between TNC and the Nari Nari people is the most significant handback of land to Indigenous people in southern Australia,” McLean explains.
“The whole notion that this land is now going to be managed sustainably by Indigenous people is a wonderful thing for us all to be seeing and, of course, we’d like to see more of it.
Unique solutions for impact
“We see Australia as an extraordinary place with its biodiversity and we know that we face significant challenges,” McLean continues.
“The range of things we’ve funded are quite diverse from supporting Indigenous Ranger programs to protecting migratory bird habitats, and in Paula’s case, celebrating writing about nature through her funding of the Nature Writing Prize which is granted every two years.
“Some people might say something like a writing prize is a long way from conservation, but we’d argue that’s not the case because it’s all about awareness and helping people recognise the importance of nature.
“It’s only through a shared understanding and commitment to action that we’ll see real change for the environment.”
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