10 Questions with Amanda Martin OAM

This week, in 10 Questions, on the eve of the COP26 summit in Glasgow we speak to Amanda Martin OAM, CEO of the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network, about how every dollar spent on climate action today, means less harm to address in the future.

Philanthropy Weekly: Let’s talk about funders’ willingness to support climate change initiatives. The percentage of philanthropic support for environmental charities is very low in this country (less than 2 per cent), and that’s also true internationally (especially when the focus is on climate change causes). Why? There is widespread acknowledgement that we are in a climate emergency, so why do you think it doesn’t generate more philanthropy?

You’re right, considering what’s at stake, philanthropic giving to the environment and climate change is too low. In Australia, 0.5 per cent of all charitable revenue and around 2.5 per cent of giving from PAFs goes to the environment, which includes climate change. It’s just not enough!

I think the reasons vary for different people. For several people, they want to do something about climate change and protect our unique plants and animals, but they just don’t know where to start. How do these people find good organisations and projects to give to? Of course, the AEGN has got many answers to that question – that’s exactly why we were set up. Then there are some people who take our natural world for granted – our stunning beaches, lush forests, clean air and waterways that we are all so used to seeing. But many of these natural assets are really at breaking point.

For example, many people don’t realise that Australia has one of the worst extinction rates on the planet, and deforestation rates are up there with the Amazon. Our natural beauty hides behind a dark reality. 

And this is all wrapped up in decades of very toxic politics. Caring for our land, oceans and air should have bi-partisan support. Thankfully most of us recognise this and philanthropy is beginning to really step up. Did you hear that tech entrepreneur Mike Cannon-Brookes has committed $500 million to climate philanthropy? After years of drought, coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef, lots of crazy weather patterns and the fires in 2019 and 2020 we are seeing more and more people wanting to know how to give our environment and climate. So, while the giving statistics are still low, the data has at least a two-year lag and I think we will see a huge shift in the next few years. Strategic funders know that prevention is better than a cure, regardless of the issue. Every dollar spent on climate action today, means less harm to address in the future. And because philanthropy is getting more and more strategic, there are more ways Australian funders can get into funding climate.

How hard does that make your job? Does it change how you go about it? What are the main challenges facing funders who want action on climate change?

Ha! That’s a good question. I don’t see my job as hard at all. In fact, it is a great joy for me. Every day I get to work with amazing, inspiring people who have chosen to give their money to make a difference to the world we live in. That’s not hard!

We are seeing things rapidly change now – giving to the environment and sustainability is the ‘flavour’ of the decade. So, my job is about welcoming new donors to the AEGN and getting good projects and organisations to them as quickly as possible.

The AEGN is a network of funders, many of whom are very experienced. I can leverage their experience, build connections, and share their wisdom to help shepherd other existing and potential funders to have real impact. You might call me a philanthropic concierge.

The main challenge for funders who want action on climate change is how to find their place in funding climate solutions. It is a really big issue that impacts all of society, but that doesn’t mean each individual has to fund everything. I always advise people getting started to do two things: 1. Find your people — you can do that by joining the AEGN and meeting other funders to learn from and share with, and 2. Find your focus — for example, it could be supporting low-income households to reduce their heating costs and hence produce fewer emissions, or protecting our forests so they can store carbon (there are many other examples).

In response to this challenge, our experienced team, along with over 40 experts from the field, have developed a Climate Change Funding Framework. The framework helps funders find the gaps and opportunities — what needs to be funded and what projects and organisations are around to fund. Having the framework reduces the barriers to funders getting started. I know, from our members, they are using the framework as a tool to have a climate discussion with their Board, and it has given them the confidence to plan and take action on climate funding.

Many people find the climate change debate complex and challenging. How important is advocacy in this instance? And how hard is it to find the kind of advocacy that provides clarity, cut-through and purpose?

Advocacy is incredibly important. By funding advocacy philanthropy can unlock the power of government to provide the right conditions for business and community to act on climate. Let’s take renewable energy as an example.

Philanthropy supported the Australian climate movement, to advocate for policies, to support the roll out of wind and solar. This unlocked billions of dollars of investment in real projects getting built across the country. Now in 2021 there are times when over 50 per cent of our electricity comes from renewables. That’s huge! And such a clear example of philanthropy, coupled with incredibly strategic advocacy, leveraging massive investment from government and business.

These days it’s not hard to find excellent advocates in our charitable sector. Beyond Zero Emissions won the Philanthropy Australia Environment Award last year. And AEGN members are always coming up with excellent suggestions. The Australian NGO sector has a critical role to play in a vibrant democracy by speaking truth to power, stimulating the possible and extending the boundaries. It’s the powerhouse behind the change we are seeing. Philanthropy can help NGO's get even better by getting to know them and once a good relationship is established providing longer term, core funding that allows organisations to get on with the job rather than worrying about how to keep the lights on or how to retain great staff.

We have reached a point where the climate problem goes well beyond being an environment issue – it’s a whole of life concern. How does that change funders approach to funding solutions? And how does it change community expectations about who helps find solutions?

You are completely right. And many people are recognising exactly that — climate is not simply an environmental issue. It impacts housing, food, health, gender equality and so much more. That is why many of our discussions talk about applying a climate change lens to all funding. So, if combatting climate change isn’t your core purpose, you can still play a crucial role in ensuring your funding takes climate change into account. For example, if you care about funding affordable housing, you can apply a climate lens to that funding and make sure that any housing innovation you support is also energy efficient, which not only reduces carbon pollution, but also reduces energy costs, so it’s a real win-win.

I see addressing climate change as an opportunity to deliver co-benefits for people right across Australia. For example, by providing better cycling infrastructure in cities, we are not only reducing emissions but reducing transport costs, increasing social connection, boosting peoples time being active, and creating healthier communities.

Being a climate change funder doesn’t have to be about giving up your existing funding passions, rather it is an opportunity to invest in improving people's lives today and for generations to come.

Outside of philanthropy, what can individuals do in the face of the environmental challenges?

Use your influence! Here at the AEGN we are inviting all funders to sign a joint statement to the Prime Minister and all Members of Parliament calling for greater action on climate change ahead of the global talks happening in Glasgow in November. You can join us and sign the letter too.

It is incredibly important that people use their democratic power by getting in touch with their local Member of Parliament to let them know that acting on climate change and protecting our environment is important.

Our political leaders act on things they think we care about. If they hear about climate change, from their constituents, they will know we expect action. I know it sounds simple, but it is so important. Have you seen the latest Craig Reucassel documentary —titled Big Deal — it’s all about people power!

The other thing you can do is start taking simple steps at home and in your personal and work life. “Action is the antidote to despair” and it makes a difference and makes you feel good! I have solar panels on my roof, and we recently installed insulation in our walls and roofline. I’m obsessed about watching how much power we are making – especially on sunny days. Oh, and it’s good for the bank balance. We’ve recently shifted to an electric induction stove and our power bills are now zero! And of course, I love my veggie garden – especially during lockdown. All these things add up to make a big difference.

You’ve run Australia’s premier network for climate and environmental philanthropists for more than 12 years – how would you characterise the change in funders’ approach to supporting the environment over that time?

Since we established the AEGN in 2008, the whole of the philanthropic sector has transformed. Most funders are much more interested in outcomes and impact. They are more sophisticated and strategic, and they are prepared to take on risk in a way that was not common a decade ago. For example, when we were first established, one of the big debates was whether funding advocacy was charitable.  These days, many of our members refer to their funding as the venture capital of social and environmental change. For those funders who are willing to take a bit of risk, then the rewards can be huge. It’s an appealing approach to many new funders, particularly those who may have come from a business background.

The other thing I’m noticing is that funders are interested in how they can work together and how to leverage their influence. We are seeing increasing demand for things like funder frameworks, funding strategies, pooled funds and advocacy opportunities for funders to influence policy, legislation or business behaviour.  

And finally, I would say that due to the urgency of climate and environment issues, there’s an increasing commitment among AEGN members to spend their corpus down in a five-to 10-year period.

It’s a really exciting time to be part of this sector now. It’s dynamic and demanding and people want to see change happen now. They want a seat at the table and to be making a difference.

Has there been one (or two) initiatives that you’ve seen over the past 12 years that made you stop and think: “Wow! If only we could do more of that!’’ (What were they? What made them so special? And why hasn’t there been ‘more of that’?)

The initiatives I think we need more of are those that are bold and courageous, fill a gap or support those on the ground doing the hard yards. One of my favourites was the Purves Tree Clearing Challenge which ultimately led to the Queensland Government establishing a $500 million Land Restoration Fund and millions of acres of trees and bird and animal habitat protected. In 2017, frustrated with the fact that Australia had the highest tree clearing and extinction rate in the developed world, the Purves Environment Fund offered matching donations of up to $1 million to support the Purves Tree Clearing Challenge. Rob Purves established a steering committee of NGO leaders and experts and very quickly $2 million was raised from around 30 Australian philanthropists. It showed the power of philanthropy working together with NGOs and lead by someone with vision and capacity.

Another initiative I love is the establishment of Watertrust Australia. Led by The Myer Foundation and the Ian Potter Foundation, a coalition of 15 philanthropic funders have committed $31 million to establish a national and fully independent policy centre focused on helping improve the way decisions are made about water and catchments across Australia.

The final initiative I think is really important is the Robert Hicks Foundation and, the Climate Action Network Australia (CANA) Small Grants Program. It is designed to resource CANA members to run high impact, low-cost projects around climate action and solutions. It supports small projects that educate and organise new or diverse voices to advocate for a rapid transformation to net zero emissions, in accordance with principles of climate justice. 

Amid the distressing diagnosis of what’s happening to the planet, how do you find hope that there are solutions? Where do you find optimism?

I find hope in everyday action. At the AEGN we have what’s called a Project Clearinghouse where members post projects they love and ask other funders to join them. Every day I see inspiring projects that have great strategies and simply need funding to start making a difference in the world. What an honour it is to be able to help funders across the country connect their passion for action with practical ways to make an impact!

In the last financial year, we saw 64 projects worth $26 million proceed as a result of members contributing funding in our Project Clearinghouse.

I find hope reading our member stories. They are inspiring and I love it when they send me photos and updates on their successes. This is really where I find hope – in our membership.

I’m also really lucky to have a lot of young people in my life. This next generation is fantastic! They care about the environment; they care about gender issues, and they care about our First Nations friends. They are so much more fluent in these issues, and they are demanding a different world to the one we are leaving them. They too are my inspiration (and my challenge).

In your experience, is there a common set of principles or approaches that distinguish the most effective environment funding initiatives? Is it collaboration? Is it long-term investment? Is it something more intangible?

I wish there was a simple recipe I could hand over, yet if it was that simple, we probably wouldn’t be staring down the climate and biodiversity crises we are! That said, there are a few core elements that are important. The first is to just get started and not let "perfect be the enemy of good". There’s no better way to learn than by doing and there are so many wonderful people who are willing to help in this way. Secondly, providing longer term funding is significant in allowing organisations to get on with the job, and spend less time wondering if they can keep the lights on. Thirdly, I would ask yourself whether the project you support is contributing to systemic change, or transformational change? By that I mean, if this project goes well, will it change the fundamental drivers of the problem and have a long-lasting impact? For example, advocacy to reduce political donations from coal companies could have transformational benefits that not just reduces the power of the fossil fuel lobby, but also strengthens our democracy and makes our Members of Parliament more accountable to the Australian people.

Again, our new Climate Change Funding Framework is the best source to understand where your philanthropic funds can make the best tangible impacts with climate change. I cannot state this enough.

We are on the eve of COP26 in Glasgow. There’s has been long and intensive debate on the position Australia would take to the conference. Where is Australia placed in the international debate? How does that position change funders’ approach to the array of climate problems?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has faced sustained criticism from world leaders who are concerned that Australia is not doing enough to reduce our carbon emissions in the lead up to the COP. The Federal Government has committed Australia to "reduce our emissions by 26-28 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030" which is one of the weakest commitments of any country in the OECD. By comparison, the UK has committed to a 68 per cent reduction, Japan a 46 per cent reduction and, US a reduction of 50 per cent by 2030.

Mr Morrison has recently committed Australia to reach net zero emissions by 2050, however, this is widely viewed as insufficient as it is what happens this decade that really matters. There is now very broad support from across civil society and business for at least a 50 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030, many scientists are advocating for a 75 per cent reduction in that time.

How this impacts funders; there has never been a more important time for philanthropy to act. The critical window to reduce our emissions is shrinking, at the same time as the solutions become clearer. If you’re a funder seeking to make a mark on the world, there can be no prouder legacy than helping address the issue that will define our generation and the time to act is now.

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