Dr Pamela Parker, Australian Landscape Trust
Mr G Fitzhardinge
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006
Philanthropic organisations and the civil society in general have been cautious in their investments in conservation and environmental issues. There are obvious reasons for some of the hesitation. One is a tradition of private philanthropic support for social issues (such as medicine, education and welfare) and the arts, activities that are often specified by mission statements and charters of the long-established trusts and foundations. The environment is a relatively new concern. Some institutions have the flexibility to encompass the environment within their charters; others had to undertake a specific effort to do so.
Given the compositions of many of the boards of these organisations, it is not surprising that the political activism that characterised many elements of the environmental movement in the 1980s did not ‘mesh’ with the interests and comfort of board members who were generally leaders in business, politics and professional life in the major cities. Further, some of the rhetoric and ‘marketing’ positions taken by politically active conservation groups about some topics were not judged to be a fair treatment of all sides of an issue or sufficiently factual to fit with the internal cultures of these philanthropic organisations.
In excusing themselves from political campaigns in conservation and environmental activism, these organisations became recipients of grant requests for small projects, including wildlife surveys, and field-based species and focused research. Such projects lack the strategic grit that characterised many of the competing bids for support that came from social, medical, basic research, education and international programs. These small projects rarely engaged the imagination of trustees or provided creative scope for program development. They also tended to be ‘one-off’ investments in which the dividends from the investment vanished with the end of the granting period. Consequently, many foundations invested their resources relatively sparingly in environmental issues. There were certainly exceptions, such as The Ian Potter Foundation, which signed up other philanthropic organisations and the government to implement The Potter Farmland Plan that saw its values and mission emerge through components of the subsequent Landcare movement. The Myer Foundation, Thomas Foundation, R E Ross Trust, John T Reid Charitable Trust, Hugh Williamson Foundation and others made significant contributions in the interface of rural capacity building, sustainable primary production, conservation, restoration, species recovery, basic research and land management. Generally these organisations provided grants that enabled other organisations to carry out tasks approved by the philanthropic organisation’s chartered purpose but, through the nature of their charters, did not undertake work directly themselves.
As major conservation organisations such as the Australian Conservation Foundation, Greenpeace, WWF–Australia and the Wilderness Society took to the stage of national political life, they increased their memberships, expanded their political influence and developed an urban constituency. Their relationships with government were in part probing and adversarial, and in part collaborative and dependent. Out of this complexity, conservation organisations pushed policy direction and drove decision making in government as major lobbying forces to be cultivated while remaining significant parts of a successful political constituency. Government funded some operating costs of these organisations’ administrative roles. Support from the constituencies of these organisations propelled the expansion of Australian government interests into what was the business of states and territories.
Recent years have seen some Australian corporate philanthropy move overseas as traditional iconic Australian businesses have become foreign-owned. Corporate head offices, generally located away from Australia, make most decisions about philanthropic investment. Exceptions are, particularly, mining companies working in regional Australia that invest in the communities in which they operate, supporting the activities of local non-government organisations and engaging in their own conservation activities. However, corporate giving within Australia includes two-thirds of all businesses that provide financial and in-kind donations. Much of the new giving is from successful individuals and small businesses committed to making a difference in their communities.
Within Australia and overseas, philanthropy is experiencing growth driven by two factors. One is wealth. Over 200 000 Australians have liquid assets of over a million dollars and several thousand Australians have a net worth of more than $20 million, as reported in the summer 2004–05 issue of Australian Philanthropy (Cham 2005). The other factor is change in taxation policy to encourage the establishment of foundations and provide incentives for giving. These factors helped about 400 newly emerging philanthropic bodies that are perpetual and thus constitute a major structural change within the private sector.
Examples include the Poola Foundation, a new Australian organisation that established the Climate Institute with a grant of $10 million to inform Australians about climate change. The Christensen Fund (www.christensenfund.org ), an American foundation with a base in Cairns, links people, culture and elements of landscape to achieve sustainability. Philanthropy Australia’s counterpart, the international Environmental Grantmakers Association (www.ega.org ), is a forum for foundations investing in the environment through their recognition that environmental issues are global in their scope and significance. The Myer Foundation’s funds a range of activities in water and land management, biodiversity, and the roles that social, cultural and economic factors play in these. Watermark Australia, instigated by the Victorian Women’s Trust, works to increase ‘water literacy’ in Australia. Philanthropic interests are also drawn to the support of a conservation economy that provides financial, social and environmental opportunities for traditional peoples.
Volunteer hours rose by 16 per cent since 2000 for the year to 2005, reaching 836 million hours per year. Volunteering Australia reports that the environment is a major recipient. The ‘Giving Australia’ report (www.partnerships.gov.au ) (FaCS 2005), commissioned by the Prime Minister’s Community Business Partnership, documents giving in many forms that total $7.7 billion from individuals and $3.3 billion from businesses in one year (2004). Leadership within the philanthropic community in Australia has been provided by Philanthropy Australia, its staff and member organisations.
Motivation is difficult to assess for some environmental and social activities in large businesses that are featured in annual reports and shareholder meetings as investments in sustainability. How much of the investment is the expression of cultural change in the business world and how much is driven by new components of tax laws?
Today, the reality for most large businesses is that investment in environmental and social progressiveness goes unrewarded economically in the cut and thrust of the marketplace that reflects global competitiveness. The increase in environmental awareness is not often matched by similar changes in activity on the ground. Similarly, large commercial operations in general give in smaller and more targeted amounts, seemingly in accordance with the public’s and shareholders’ perceptions. Throughout the corporate world, most share purchases are made by those who seek profitability through their investments, rather than good corporate citizenship.
In the longer run, it may not matter whether change is slowed by the economic realities of the marketplace, and accelerated by tax laws and the linkage between successful small businesses and individuals with their communities. As political will regarding the pursuit of sustainability increases, tax laws and government policy will be significant market forces in their own right. As well, the cultural changes that are rapidly emerging through the presence and activities of privately prescribed funds, burgeoning voluntarism and new understanding of the interdependence of nature, rural landscapes and urban populations give reason to hope for a more sustainable pursuit of environmental sustainability tomorrow.
Inside many corporate organisations, especially some prominent banking entities in Australia, are programs that facilitate staff donations and voluntarism. These programs may reflect that care of the environment may be seen by both the community and shareholders as a private responsibility more than it is a corporate responsibility. Nonetheless, there are many examples of generous and effective corporate support of environmental programs. Government policy can do much to reinforce corporate aspirations in this area.
Australia in the past has not attracted significant international corporate and philanthropic investment because of the perception abroad that Australia, a developed nation, does not need assistance. It is alleged that if Australia lacks adequate conservation investment, it is because of a lack of will to allocate the needed resources. Another assessment of Australia’s conservation needs for international conservation investment rests on its globally significant endemic biodiversity that is distributed over a large area of land with relatively infertile soils and a frequently erratic, stressful climate. Australian conservation draws on resources from a small tax base that must also support the infrastructure for the continent. A relationship of high biodiversity – large area – small tax base justifies international assistance in maintaining globally significant biodiversity.
Furthermore, Australian conservation is a good investment. It is carried out in a landscape and within a nation that is free of corruption, stably and sympathetically governed, replete with capable partner organisations able to leverage any international investment and provide an efficient means of demonstrating models or developing new programs in a low-risk setting. The Pew Charitable Trusts and The Nature Conservancy are looking at Australian conservation. Their interest will perhaps inspire others as well.
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