Stories in philanthropy

Sustaining the force for good: AEGN’s 10th anniversary conference

Environmental funders, perhaps like no other philanthropic collective, have an acute appreciation of the urgency and complexity of their cause and scale of their task. Though you’d be forgiven for expecting hand-wringing and the odd note of despair when they come together for the annual AEGN conference, you might just be surprised at how determinedly upbeat they are.

Nicole Richards, April 2018


More than 100 philanthropists and change makers came together in Sydney last month to connect with and learn from each other, while discussing and debating philanthropy’s role in energising the green economy.

The lively conference room, awash with light from Sydney’s glistening harbour, buzzed with a spirit of optimism and activism.

“It never ceases to amaze me how much AEGN members love getting together,” says AEGN CEO, Amanda Martin, who lists conversation, laughter, deep discussions and introductions as the hallmarks of AEGN events.  

“AEGN members really own the AEGN and they feel responsible for ensuring that new people are welcomed and that they meet the people that they need to meet. Of course, there is lots of passion and concern about environmental issues but the overwhelming atmosphere is one of welcome and laughter.” 


Funding seismic change

Keynote speaker and Divest-Invest Philanthropy pioneer, Ellen Dorsey, from the US-based Wallace Global Fund, set the tone for the day when she reinforced philanthropy’s capacity to be a powerful force for good, putting its influence and investments to work alongside its grants. She also cautioned that philanthropy has a role to play in making sure that the transition to the green economy doesn’t leave people behind and encouraged support for workers in the extraction industry. [Read more in our Q&A with Ellen Dorsey].

In the ‘Funding Seismic Change’ session, Belinda Morrissey from the English Family Foundation conceded that although the Foundation doesn’t necessarily consider itself an environmental funder, “whenever you look closely at impact, environment comes to the fore.”

Simon Holmes a Court shared his experience with Hepburn Wind, Australia’s first community-owned wind farm, and the ongoing search for ways to unlock capital.

The McKinnon Family Foundation’s Sue McKinnon issued a passionate plea for more advocacy as a tool for “moving the billions” illustrated by the impact of the Foundation’s support of campaigners, organisers, lawyers and strategists in organisations such as Lock the Gate, the Australia Institute, 350, Solar Citizens, Seed and ACCR.


Six by five by amazing

Showcasing the ‘new’ economy by exploring six powerful economic movements that are reshaping the world, highlights from the ‘Six by five by amazing’ session included:

  • Claire Marshall (The Sharing Map and If Labs) asserting that ‘ambient value’ makes us more connected and her prediction that: “Nothing will change our society more than the way we think about access versus ownership.”
  • Dan Madhavan (Impact Investment Group) urging funders to get clear about the outcomes they’re interested in achieving and then making a move. “If you’re looking for perfect, you’re going to be lonely,” he warned. “Don’t wait for things to be perfect before you do something. Don’t wait for someone else to go first. Don’t wait till you know it all – doing something is the best way to learn.”
  • Rich Gilmore (The Nature Conservancy) outlining eight global challenges, foremost of which is sustainable food production with global food systems consuming 70 per cent of global fresh water.
  • Andrea de Almeida (B Lab Australia & NZ) explaining that the B Corp movement is “about redefining success in business” and “moving from ‘best in the world’ to ‘best for the world’”. She also noted that 76 per cent of Millennials believe business should be a force for good and that of the 2,000 certified B Corps across the world, 230 of them are in Australia.
  • Tim Buckley (Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis) expounding on the transformation underway in China, which “declared war on pollution” four years ago. “Driving the greening of the Chinese economy” became a clear priority for government and has already yielded impressive results with the country passing peak coal production and consumption back in 2013. “China is moving very rapidly and ahead of everyone’s expectations, dominating world in solar with 55 per cent of all solar installations last year. China leads the world on electric vehicles; with annual EV sales growing at 50 per cent per annum. China is also close to peak emissions – well ahead of its commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement. The transformation is staggering.”


A decade of connection

Reflecting on the AEGN’s 10th anniversary, Martin said the organisation’s goal had always been to create “a safe space for funders to network and collaborate” and to act as a “facilitator and catalyst for environmental philanthropy.”

After launching with “25 courageous funders” in 2008, AEGN now has 120 members across Australia, for whom the Network has hosted “hundreds of events, field trips, funding tools, research, connections and guidance.”

Martin also acknowledged AEGN’s success in pioneering “one of the world’s first rapid response platforms – the AEGN Clearinghouse.”

AEGN Chair, Jill Reichstein, launched a new initiative designed to secure AEGN’s future: The Sustaining Fund.

Like other nonprofits, AEGN “is entirely dependent upon donations for its existence,” Reichstein explained. “Relying on donations every year makes it difficult to plan and puts the organisation at risk of being adversely affected by downturns. We need a stable source of income to underpin AEGN’s financial sustainability which is why we are launching the Sustaining Fund.”

As further incentive, an Australian philanthropist who wishes to remain anonymous, has offered to match outright gifts, pledges or grants made before 25 June 2018 dollar-for-dollar up to $1 million (funds can be transferred up to 30 June 2019).

“I hope this challenge will inspire millions more philanthropic dollars going to the environment,” Reichstein said, before introducing philanthropist Josette Wunder who explained her own $50,000 gift to the Sustaining Fund and wish to support the future sustainability of AEGN.

AEGN’s goal of raising $50 million over the next five years for environmental philanthropy is on track with more than $11 million raised to date.

Post-afternoon tea, delegates had the opportunity to ‘speed date’ investment managers, advisers and project intermediaries who are helping to drive the transition to the green economy and learn about 14 different offerings across seven tables.

After a final discussion about how AEGN members can work together to integrate the environment with the economy, the day ended with cocktails by the harbour.

“Watching AEGN operate as a true network was an absolute highlight for me,” CEO Amanda Martin (pictured right with Ellen Dorsey and Sue Matthews) said of the day. “It doesn’t get better than seeing our members come together and share their knowledge and interests in a space where people can learn together.”

Learn more about the work of the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network.

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