Catalysing change - water catchments

How philanthropy helps support new approach to water resources

The Ian Potter Foundation and The Myer Foundation, two of Australia's leading philanthropic foundations, recognised in 2017 the importance of addressing the political and policy conflicts surrounding the nation's water and catchment governance arrangements. After more than two years of research and analysis, assisted by specialist firms consulting with an international and national group of experts, they have built a coalition of 15 philanthropic funders to invest in Australia's future by establishing a national and fully independent policy centre focused on helping improve the way decisions are made about water and catchments across Australia.

Just two weeks ago, it was announced that the centre would be established following firm commitments that exceeded $31 million towards the funding target of $35 million. In addition to the commitment of $5 million from each of The Myer Foundation and The Ian Potter Foundation’s, there has been substantial support from the Colonial Foundation, the Margaret Reid ‘Kingston’ Bequest, The Besen Family Foundation, the Wright Burt Foundation, and nine other funders. Gilbert + Tobin are supporting the centre with pro bono legal services. Leading international executive search firm Egon Zehnder has been engaged to recruit a chair, board members and a CEO, with a view to launching the centre next year.

Philanthropy Australia spoke to Craig Connelly (CC), CEO, The Ian Potter Foundation, Leonard Vary (LV) CEO, The Myer Foundation and Andre Carstens (AC), CEO, Colonial Foundation about what the initiative says about philanthropy’s approach to the fundamental issue of freshwater resources.

1. Thinking back (particularly Leonard and Craig), how confident were you that you would reach the original $35 million fundraising goal?

CC: I was quietly confident and, as we progressed through a range of early meetings, I was increasingly confident we would achieve our target. Though a reminder – we still have not reached $35m, so our work is not finished.

LV: I was completely convinced by the criticality and urgency of the cause but recognised the herculean nature of the target. I would describe my sentiments early in the process as hopeful. With the benefit of some early successes, I became cautiously optimistic. I’d now describe my sentiments as to this project as ecstatic, recognising of course that our fundraising remains a work in progress.

2. What does the response to this idea tell you about the need for such a centre? What message does it send to government? What does it say about Australian philanthropy’s engagement with the broader environmental issues?

CC: Need – the unanimous response has been that the quality of the research presented a compelling case for the Centre and its proposed approach. Government – the message is that the Centre can be an independent, effective partner working for the benefit of all Australians. Working alongside government and communities as a trusted but independent adviser to effectively engage ALL stakeholders in processes that really matter at a local, regional and national level. 

To raise in excess of $30m solely from philanthropy for a well-researched idea, where the organisation still does not exist, that is yet to appoint a Chair or a CEO tells you that philanthropy is deeply engaged with the issue. That water is life and ensuring sustainable access to our inland waters for current and future generations is a matter of critical importance.

LV: I agree entirely with Craig’s response to these questions. There is a real appetite in philanthropy for forward-looking initiatives designed to have the prospect of materially impacting critical issues of national importance. This is a bold project that remains unproven, yet philanthropy has been attracted to it because of the very considerable due diligence that has been undertaken and the recognition of philanthropy’s capacity to act as an independent, disinterested party that has an appetite for risk commensurate with the prospective return.

AC: Craig and Leonard have answered this comprehensively. The only comment I would add is that there is a growing interest by philanthropy to engage in large catalytic initiatives. These often require large amounts of money that are sometimes considered out of reach for smaller organisations. Collaborative funding, such as this project, enables philanthropic organisations of all sizes to participate in catalytic initiatives.

3. The proposed centre as outlined in your material last year and the most recent briefing note will be a highly consultative and collaborative institution. Given the urgency of the water problem, how quickly will it be able to mobilise its responses to the situation? 

CC: This will be situation-specific and depend on the issues that are prioritised by the Board and executive. We are seeking ENDURING change on matters of significant importance. So, whatever time is deemed necessary to achieve the desired outcomes will be the time it takes. There will be issues that may be resolved quickly (six to 24-month timeframe), others that are more complex and so take longer and yet others that will be a long-term WIP. Evidence-informed, deliberative processes are one of the best ways of responding to urgent but highly contested, issues if your aim is enduring, high-quality policy decisions. Deliberation can be faster and more effective than less collaborative approaches because when all stakeholders have contributed to a policy decision, the risk of implementation being delayed or derailed by those who weren’t properly consulted or is significantly reduced. There’s also considerable evidence that decisions arising from the deliberative engagement of the collective intelligence of all stakeholders tend to be better decisions overall.

LV: The issue to which the centre will direct its resources does indeed require urgent intervention. These are, however, long term issues that will need to be approached in a timely yet measured fashion. With the benefit of fundraising to date, a centre will be created and a board and executive appointed within the coming months. Engagement on specific projects, prioritised as appropriate, will commence over the next six months.

4. As your material makes clear, government decides policy. What do you see as the best way to engage government on what is a highly polarised issue? 

CC: By engaging effectively with government, stakeholders and communities to create the authorising environment within which ALL stakeholders can contribute to a policy decision or the resolution of a policy conflict. The work will then be to ensure that position is worked through government machinery and translate into enduring policy outcomes.

LV: The centre will only be successful if it is seen by governments and communities as a means by which diverse stakeholders might be brought together with a view to their finding common ground, in turn allowing government to incorporate the results of the deliberative processes in its own policy determinations.

5. What would be your goal for the centre in a decade? What would its contribution look like?

CC: Passage of legislative and regulatory amendments and fiscal decisions on issues prioritised by the Centre that represent the views of all relevant stakeholders and establish the framework within which Australia’s freshwater security is established.

LV: The finding of common ground between divergent stakeholders represented by enduring policy which will have taken legislative form.

AC: I would emphasise that, not only do we want to find common ground between all relevant stakeholders, in the end the policy outcome needs to be viewed as effective and workable by all stakeholders.

6. Reflecting on philanthropy and the environment for a moment – what are the elements within philanthropy that make it suited to address these kinds of issues? How can philanthropy prioritise the list of environmental causes it can support? Does it need to? And if philanthropy does have a significant role to play, what does that say about government’s willingness to act?

CC: Elements of philanthropy – risk capital (tackle complex issues that government might not fund), patient capital (10-year conditional commitments from most funders), informed capital (detailed research informed our approach and the final design of the proposed Centre). We have sought to try to plan for success.

Prioritise? The Ian Potter Foundation perspective – we spend a lot of time thinking deeply about the issues we wish to consider supporting. We have narrowed our focus areas to five, one of which is Sustainable (or environment). And within the Sustainable funding pillar, we have quite specific funding guidelines. We ensure those are understood by prospective grantees and seek projects aligned to those funding guidelines. Potter does believe that narrowing our focus (as outlined) represents best practice philanthropy.

Government is very often an engaged and effective partner working with philanthropy. Government is also often the entity that pilot programs funded by philanthropy seek to present evidence that leverage’s recurrent government funding.

LV: Craig has answered this question beautifully, I have nothing to add.

Find the latest briefing notes here.

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