Environmental governance: Role of the philanthropic sector in environmental stewardship

Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Beeton RJS (Bob), Buckley Kristal I, Jones Gary J, Morgan Denise, Reichelt Russell E, Trewin Dennis
(2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee), 2006

11.3 Role of the philanthropic sector in environmental stewardship (more information on this topic)

The role of the philanthropic sector and conservation organisations in environmental stewardship has changed over the last 5 to 10 years. During this time approximately 400 perpetual philanthropic bodies have emerged in response to environmental and other issues. An annual total of $5.7 billion from individuals and $3.3 billion from businesses is donated in all fields of the Australian community, including the environment, arts and culture, health, Indigenous people, medical research, community development, social justice and education (FaCS 2005). Australia-wide, the results have been more on-ground environmental work in partnership with second-generation environmental organisations.

The environment is a relatively new concern for philanthropic organisations, as they have traditionally supported social issues such as medicine, education and welfare. A notable exception is the Ian Potter Foundation, which signed up other philanthropic organisations, and the government to implement the Potter Farmland Plan. Its values and mission later emerged through components of the subsequent Landcare movement.

Australians have become more interested in philanthropy for two main reasons. The first is wealth. More than 200 000 Australians have liquid assets of over $1 million and several thousand Australians have a net worth of more than $20 million. The second reason is that changes in taxation policy encourage the establishment of foundations and provide incentives for giving.

Voluntarism is a major component of this new investment, much of which is directed to communities in which this new wealth has been gained and in which volunteers live. This trend is clearly seen in an increase of 16 per cent in volunteer hours since 2000, reaching 836 million hours per year in 2004. The environment is a major recipient (FaCS 2005). The National Trust of Australia alone manages a volunteer workforce of 7 000 people.

An important role for philanthropic organisations is to help bridge the gap between public expectation and environmental reality. For example, urban dwellers have started to form strong views on how Australia’s environment should be used and protected (Witt et al 2006), but the diminishing rural sector and local governments are the ones who live in and manage that same environment. Economic, social, intellectual, environmental and other forms of ‘capital’ have been transferred over time from the countryside to urban centres (Beeton et al in prep) and there is little indication that a reverse flow has seriously begun, although the ‘tree change’ and ‘sea change’ movement of people to regional centres may stimulate the reversal.

The formal conservation estate will always be too small to meet the goals for conservation sought by the urban population. In response, several task-focused environmental organisations have brought in private sector investment to support a parallel, private conservation estate, which is receptive to activities that are not easily accommodated in the traditional national park model. As with philanthropy more generally, voluntarism plays a key role in enabling investment in this alternative conservation model. Two of these organisations are the Australian Bush Heritage Fund and the Australian Landscape Trust. There are, as well, a number of other active organisations with similar characteristics, including the Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

Table 20: Areas of land managed by some conservation organisations, as at May 2006
Organisation Area of land
Number of reserves Status
Australian Bush Heritage Fund 372 156 19 Own and manage
Australian Wildlife Conservancy 917 000 14 locations Own and manage
Australian Landscape Trust 340 000   Research, restore and manage
Trust for Nature 35 000 hectares of natural bush 56 bush properties in Victoria Own and manage

Source: Data from ABHF, AWC, Trust for Nature and ALT, May 2006

These organisations tend to rely on contributions from significant donors and on grants from governments and other donors, which provide opportunities for a variety of investments in land and biodiversity conservation. Many of them are learning organisations—evolving programmes and testing ideas within a private sector culture that recognises the ‘deal making’ approach of business culture and the give and take that is essential between donors, volunteers of services, and the management of the organisations. The organisations attempt to involve local communities in their operations, and seek to extend their influence beyond reserve boundaries. Because of the significant private investment that is required for their operations, performance milestones and accountability are high priorities.