Stories in philanthropy

Environmental philanthropy meets Parliament

The Australian Environmental Grantmaker Network event saw three funders and a government representative wrestle with what constitutes advocacy, the threat to DGR status for some environmental charities, impact investing and more.

Nicole Richards


On Day 2 of the Philanthropy Meets Parliament Summit, the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network (AEGN) hosted 50 funders at a lively breakfast event which explored the relationship between environmental philanthropy and government.

Jill Reichstein, Chair of AEGN, set the tone for the event in her opening remarks, noting that while philanthropy has an important role to play in safeguarding the environment, only government has the resources required to truly protect the environment.

The wide-ranging panel discussion, moderated by Pro Bono Australia founder and CEO, Karen Mahlab, spanned personal motivations for giving, the challenges of working with government, concerns about the DGR enquiry and its impact upon the work of environmental organisations, and the convening power of philanthropy.

Panellist and Philanthropy Australia Council member, Craig Winkler, stepping in for Robert McLean who was unable to attend due to illness, gave a succinct rationale for his own support of environmental causes, explaining that he always tried to look at issues in an incisive and sustainable way. “The environment is something that we can’t ignore,” he said.

Fellow panellist, Hayley Morris from the Morris Family Foundation, said that the environment had “always been a passion” and that her work to establish Sustainable Table  was the culmination of her interest in sustainable agriculture and the food system.

Representing the Ian Potter Foundation, Craig Connelly outlined the Foundation’s long-standing commitment to supporting biodiversity and large-scale land and water management. He also foreshadowed a potential increase to major grants in this area that would see the Foundation’s environmental funding increase significantly.

Connelly stressed that working with government was a priority for the Foundation. “Leverage for us is very important,” he said. “Working closely with government means that both philanthropy and government have the potential to achieve optimal return on investment.”

Matt Cahill, Deputy Secretary for the Strategy and Operations Group, Department of Environment and Energy, pointed to the Australian National Botanic Gardens, a joint investment with the Ian Potter Foundation, as a recent example of what can be achieved when productive relationships are forged between philanthropy and government.

“Most good initiatives come from relationships,” Cahill stressed.

Turning to questions of advocacy, Connelly said that philanthropy had a clear role to play. “Policy inertia on issues like climate change has meant that philanthropy has had to lead.”

The Ian Potter Foundation, Connelly said, is partnering with universities with vast knowledge about environment and conservation matters, to help them translate that research in a way that will positively impact government policy.

Hayley Morris conceded that funding in the area of climate change can be a challenge. “It can be difficult in that you’re giving and giving and giving and nothing’s changing,” she said, adding that policy uncertainty further complicated the issue.

Craig Winkler echoed Morris’ comments. “Philanthropy is really useful as an early stage tool, getting things rolling and proving different models, but there often needs to be something else that takes that on. For instance, when you’re speaking about issues impacting the public good, then government needs to be involved.”

The discussion about the threat to the DGR status of environmental organisations elicited similarly forthright responses, with Craig Connelly explaining that the Ian Potter Foundation provided a submission to government on the issue and that “any threat to environmental DGR status is fundamental and significant.”

Craig Winkler agreed. “One of the crucial roles of philanthropy is advocacy across the board,” he said. “Let’s not lump all types of advocacy together and call it bad - it’s a wonderful thing in civil society.” 

Rounding out the panel discussion was an examination of impact investing and its potential to advance philanthropic objectives.  

Craig Connelly spoke of the appeal of program-related investments (PRIs), similar to those most commonly found in the US, noting that if these could be included in annual distributions, the Potter Foundation “would be there in a heartbeat” and that the introduction of PRIs “would have a strong snowball effect.”

Hayley Morris said the Morris Family Foundation was enthusiastically “focussing on impact investing” and spoke about a recent investment in a Townsville prawn farm.

“Impact investing is an area we’d love to see more policy in because it would help us move quicker,” Morris said.

For his part, Winkler was unequivocal. “The corpus is there to do good,” he said. “It’s there to be used to deliver the outcomes we’re looking for and it’s one of the tools available to us for achieving those ends.”

“I don’t think the decision is whether it’s an investment or whether it’s a grant,” Winkler continued.

“With any investment, there’s a risk that you might not get your money back, but if you were to put that money out as a grant then it’s 100 per cent risk because that money is gone.”

“If you do it right, impact investing is the gift that keeps on giving.”

The session wrapped up with questions and comments from the audience, the most poignant of which came from Alluna Land Trust Co-Chair and member of North Queensland’s Irukandji community, George Singleton, who shared a powerful story about Indigenous knowledge of the coastal community and the heartbreaking sound of dugongs sobbing when caught in drift nets.

“We are one in spirit with the whole land,” Singleton reminded the crowd.


For more information about the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network, visit the website.  

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