The Ian Potter Foundation

A heightened commitment to the environment

19 June 2020

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

Committed to honouring Sir Ian Potter’s vision of a vibrant, healthy, fair and sustainable Australia, the Foundation currently distributes more than $30 million in grants each year.

Sir Ian was said to favour programs that sought to be preventative, or in his own words, ‘building a fence at the top of the cliff rather than paying for an ambulance at the bottom’ and after an extensive review of the Foundation’s grantmaking and impact, The Ian Potter Foundation narrowed its focus in 2019 from seven program areas to four funding pillars:

  1. Vibrant — Arts and Culture
  2. Healthy — Medical Research Equipment and Public Health Research Projects
  3. Fair — Early Childhood Development and Community Wellbeing
  4. Sustainable — Environment Grants and Research Projects

Commitment to the environment

The Foundation signalled its heightened commitment to the environment, which includes a focus on the impact of climate change and biodiversity loss, by joining AEGN’s Environmental Giving Pledge and announcing a $10 million environmental funding increase over three years to 2022.

“Our foundation seeks to lead by example,” says Craig Connelly, CEO of The Ian Potter Foundation.

“Environment funding, via our Sustainable pillar, will now receive 25 per cent of the program area funding at The Ian Potter Foundation as opposed to 13 – 14 per cent previously.”

“Through our work we aim to highlight the significance of the issue, be targeted in the areas we seek to fund and follow words with action and funding — and we invite others to join us.”

The Ian Potter Foundation has intentionally chosen not to limit its environmental focus and currently distributes funds across Australia in the areas of land management, water management and marine management.

“By not limiting ourselves to a particular aspect of the environment we aim to have a broad and sustained impact that is unlikely to be wound back or lost when funding ceases,” explains Senior Program Manager, Louise Arkles.

“What we’re looking to do is achieve transformative change where we can facilitate or support enabling environments that ensure that the impact our grants contribute to is not short lived.”

“We’re particularly looking for opportunities that have a strong scientific focus and are highly collaborative,” Arkles continues. “These are the key elements we come back to time and again.”

Louise Arkles, Senior Program Manager.

The Foundation’s environmental funding objective is to support ambitious and transformative environmental initiatives in three areas:

  • Support for the environment sector
  • Applied environmental science research projects
  • On ground conservation of natural environment projects.

‘Ambitious and transformative’ environmental initiatives require big picture thinking, Arkles says.

“Sometimes we go back to grantees or applicants and encourage them to be even more ambitious,” she explains.

“One of the ways we look at these initiatives is through the lens of collaboration because we want the impact of our funding to go beyond the walls of one institution or one place so that there is a ripple effect of benefits, or that changes will be replicable or scalable.”

One such example is the Foundation’s $2 million support over five years for the Sustainable Farms Initiative led by the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society. The project is translating 20 years of sustainable farming research into information and tools for farmers to use to better manage their natural capital assets.

“The project is debunking the myth that farmers must choose to be either economically viable or environmentally focused,” Arkles says. “It’s a falsehood – farms can be both economically productive and environmentally responsible and it seems that farmers achieving on both fronts suffer fewer mental health problems too.”  

“It’s a truly cross-sector initiative, bringing together economics, health and environment and we were really pleased to see that they were able to leverage five times the amount of funding we contributed through government and industry funding.”

Philanthropy can take risks and trial things that government wouldn’t be prepared to put support behind.

Louise Arkles

Other transformative initiatives to receive recent support from the Foundation are Gondwana Link, a joint capacity-building project with Great Eastern Ranges, to further connectivity conservation, and the Environmental Defenders Office to support the merger of eight state-based entities into one national office.  

Philanthropy’s ability to serve as risk capital gives it tremendous catalytic potential, Arkles says.

“Philanthropy can take risks and trial things that government wouldn’t be prepared to put support behind,”she says.

“Innovation is one of the ways for us to measure our success. If we were receiving final reports from our grantees that tick every single box showing that they achieved all their aims, it would probably indicate that we’re not doing our job really well, that we’re funding the easy or the safe, not the ambitious, and therefore not shifting the dial on some of these wicked problems.”

Collaborating, learning and sharing knowledge through networks is another hallmark of the Foundation’s philosophy. A core funder of the work of the AEGN, The Ian Potter Foundation has praised the professional support the AEGN offers to those funding (or contemplating funding) in the environmental space.

“Being able to talk to peers and get specific advice or bounce ideas around is very valuable and it’s not just that I believe in it, I use the AEGN for all the time as a peer support network,” Arkles says.

“They’re such a well-functioning network and hugely valuable to be a part of.”

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