The Ian Potter Foundation

Support for Reef Life Survey

9 September 2020

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Impact case study: When the Ian Potter Foundation first heard about the Reef Life Survey citizen science program it was a fully volunteer effort.

Today, the program’s methodology is being used in countries around the world.

Since its establishment in 1964, The Ian Potter Foundation (the Foundation) has been one of Australia’s leading philanthropic funders.

Committed to honouring Sir Ian Potter’s vision of a vibrant, healthy and fair Australia, the Foundation added a fourth pillar, “Sustainable”, to its focus areas. The Foundation currently distributes approximately $30 million in grants each year and is a long-standing member and supporter of the AEGN.

In 2017 the Foundation was the recipient of Philanthropy Australia’s inaugural Environmental Philanthropy Award for their support of Reef Life Survey Foundation. The award recognises “significant achievements and outstanding grant-making in the past five years, displayed through investing in projects or organisations that improve the conservation and functioning of Australia’s environment”.

Reef Life Survey is a citizen science program that trains SCUBA divers to undertake standardised underwater visual surveys of rocky and coral reefs. Reef environments are amongst the most biodiverse on the planet, yet they make up about one per cent of the ocean. Despite their vital role in the marine ecosystem, reefs around the world are under pressure from climate change, coastal development and overfishing.

Today Reef Life Survey has trained over 300 SCUBA divers who have conducted over 13,900 surveys across 3500 sites in 54 countries and territories around the world from Greenland to Antarctica and our very own Great Barrier Reef. Reef Life Survey is an example of how one great idea can go global.

We spoke with Louise Arkles, Senior Program Manager at the Ian Potter Foundation to hear more about this successful project.

How does supporting Reef Life Survey fit in to The Ian Potter Foundation’s vision and mission? What drew you to support the organisation?

Reef Life Survey is a fantastic match for us. It is an environmental organisation with a twist: Driven by a small team of highly respected marine scientists but harnessing the power of citizen scientists. The citizen scientists that Reef Life Survey rely on are highly trained and their methodology credible and sustainable, which means the quality and reliability of the data they produce is excellent, and that was really appealing to us. The team that created Reef Life Survey had such great credentials; they truly are leaders in their field.

Also, not a lot of philanthropy had gone to the marine space when we first supported them in 2014, so there was a really clear and strong case for why our support was needed.

Having highly trained scientists doing the program means we have a high degree of confidence in the outcomes.

Louise Arkles, The Ian Potter Foundation

Why do you think the Ian Potter Foundation’s support for Reef Life Survey caught the eye of the Philanthropy Australia judges and won the 2017 Environmental Philanthropy Award?

Perhaps because they have seen such incredible international success. When the Foundation first heard about Reef Life Survey it was a fully volunteer effort, today their methodology is being used in many countries across the world and has been picked up by the Smithsonian Institute. What a great Aussie export!

It is also an extremely efficient organisation. Whilst there is initially a substantial cost due to the rigorous training that the divers undertake, once they are trained and ready to go it is very low cost to roll out.

The Foundation’s support for Reef Life Survey is a great demonstration of the power of philanthropy. Philanthropy can provide a huge morale boost to organisations which run on the sheer vision and perseverance of volunteers to keep their head up and believe in themselves and the impact they can achieve.

A Reef Life Survey diver at Lord Howe Island in 2020.

What level and type of support did you provide Reef Life Survey?

After an initial small grant of $20,000 in 2014, we gave Reef Life Survey a grant of $278,000 over two years from 2016-18 for core funds, which allowed them to decide how best to use the funds to strengthen their organisation and build their capacity to deliver on their mission. They know what they need better than we do, and it worked very well.

Ten years ago their volunteers did a lap of Australia conducting surveys of reefs around the country. We have now given them a grant of $434,000 to go back to those same 500 sites to compare their health ten years on. Having highly trained scientists doing the program means we have a high degree of confidence in the outcomes. Not to mention the power of being able to amass and share rigorous data over that timescale.

What started as a modest grant for us has been huge for them. And we couldn’t be happier with the results.

Do you have any advice for funders seeking to support citizen science?

It may sound simple, but citizen science programs do need to be properly resourced. They seem like a cheap solution but there is still a substantial cost in terms of training and ongoing volunteer management, even if they are volunteer run. The impact citizen science programs can achieve depends on things like the quality of the data they produce or the sustainability of outcomes they deliver, which need strong strategies, management and leadership. Hopefully that’s where philanthropy can assist.   

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