The long-term mission of not-for-profit organisation the Great Barrier Reef foundation is to protect a world heritage-listed national icon. But the reef has a diverse array of stakeholders, and the foundation’s substantial taxpayer funding means it faces intense public scrutiny.

    Visitors to the tropical waters of the Great Barrier Reef quickly learn there’s more beneath the surface than coral, turtles, fish, sharks and manta rays. A citizen science mapping project, cloud- brightening trials to shade corals, and the development of a reef assessment tool co-created with Traditional Owners are among 334 projects currently underway to combat the existential threats this natural wonder faces due to climate change and other impacts. All have been funded through a six-year partnership between the government’s Reef Trust and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a not-for-profit (NFP) founded after the reef’s first mass coral bleaching in 1998.

    Following subsequent back-to-back bleaching events in 2016–17, and the ravages of tropical cyclones Yasi (2011) and Debbie (2017), the 2018–19 federal budget included a $443.3m partnership grant to the foundation. It was part of $535.8m in funding over five years to accelerate the delivery of activities set out in the federal and Queensland governments’ Reef 2050 Plan.

    The funding came at a critical time, says foundation managing director Anna Marsden. “There were scientists and a whole reef community deeply affected by both the impact to the reef and the enormity of the challenges and work that lay ahead in their continued efforts to protect it.”

    The urgency associated with restoring and repairing damaged reefs is not in dispute. A December 2021 study published in Current Biology notes that only two per cent of the Great Barrier Reef’s corals have escaped bleaching over five mass events since 1998. The Great Barrier Reef Foundation estimates there are only 10 years left to prepare the reef for a warmer climate.

    What lies beneath

    However, when the sizeable grant was announced by then Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg, it unleashed criticism and controversy around accusations of improper allocation processes. A subsequent finding by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) concluded that while all decisions associated with the grant were informed by departmental advice, there were “shortcomings in aspects of the department’s advice, partly as a result of non-compliance with elements of the grants administration framework”.

    The ANAO identified numerous failings in the department’s approach, including insufficient scrutiny of the “capacity and capability of the foundation’s delivery partners to scale up their activities”, insufficient scrutiny of the “foundation’s past fundraising performance”, despite this being a factor in the decision to award it the grant, and insufficient scrutiny of the “total administration costs of the partnership model” (an estimated $86m). For Marsden, it was a testing time, particularly as the grant and its size was unanticipated. “There’s been a lot of curiosity, but it’s not lost on us as to why. This is a significant amount of public money on an issue of great public importance. We had to demonstrate the very best in transparency, accountability and governance.”

    The foundation set a matched fundraising target of $357m from business, philanthropic and science partners, including $157m in cash, as it set about building the governance, consultation and collaboration, including advisory groups, around the decision- making. (The ANAO found that by December 2020, the foundation had reported raising $53.6m.)

    “We drew strongly on the foundation’s almost two decade-long track record of bringing together science, business, government, philanthropy, Traditional Owners and community for the reef to really ensure we had the right brains and advisory groups around us to prioritise the investment and make every dollar count,” says Marsden. “We ensured we had the right checks and balances in place, because, in the end, the reef needed this money to deliver impact [and] it couldn’t get caught up in issues about conflicts of interest or duplication.”

    The grant facilitated the development of a more coherent reef conservation strategy, whereas previously, funds had been siloed off into discrete areas such as reef science, water quality or crown- of-thorns starfish control — without necessarily considering overlaps or synergies. “To have an integrated portfolio was something very powerful and new,” says Marsden. “This was a powerful catalyst for all the players who work in reef protection to come together with the right resources and work to achieve the best outcomes for the reef.”

    Marsden notes the foundation already had a strong history of working with leading Australian marine and science institutions. “That’s something we’re proudest of — that we have been part of a better way of showing up for the reef,” she says. “It’s something we truly hope will be an enduring legacy of this grant.”

    Testing the waters

    Four years on, Marsden faces the operational and governance challenge of strategically leveraging the funds and securing partners for greater impact. “We’re privileged to work with more than 400 project partners, like-minded individuals and organisations committed to reef protection, from frontline workers, farmers, Traditional Owners, conservation groups and citizen scientists to Australia’s leading researchers and reef managers,” she says.

    The foundation also sought to challenge the innovation agenda in this space. “When we deal with the reef, we’re dealing with a scale most people can’t comprehend, and a time complication,” says Marsden. “We don’t have all the time in the world to crack this. That’s why we have the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program, bringing together the best minds from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, CSIRO, University of Queensland, Queensland University of Technology, James Cook University, Southern Cross University, Queensland Parks and Wildlife, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the foundation to collaborate on developing the science and technology we urgently need to help the reef resist, adapt and recover from the impacts of climate change.”

    In a May 2021 performance audit, Auditor-General Grant Hehir MAICD found the design and early delivery of the RTP had been partially effective and said the total value of the partnership over six years was estimated to be $822m. It made seven recommendations addressing bank deeds, fundraising, subcontracting the delivery of reef protection projects and administration costs — each of which the foundation has agreed to and implemented. The foundation acknowledges that receiving this external perspective proved helpful and contributed to the organisation’s evolution to a more sophisticated, agile and effective NFP.

    The challenge the foundation faced in gearing up for major fundraising from a standing start was not to be underestimated. Yet two-thirds into the six-year partnership, with approximately 98 per cent of the grant allocated and the vast majority contracted, the foundation has successfully raised $227m in co-investments including partner co-contributions and pledged funds.

    Complementary skills

    In February, Dr John Schubert AO, who had been on the board since the foundation’s inception, and its chair for 19 years, retired, handing over to new chair David Thodey AO FAICD and deputy chair Dr Martin Parkinson AC PSM. Thodey is chair of Tyro Payments and Xero, a director of Ramsay Health Care and former chair of the CSIRO. Parkinson is former Secretary of both the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Treasury and the inaugural Secretary of the Department of Climate Change. He is is currently Chancellor of Macquarie University. Together, they lead a board of 11 mostly corporate and scientific leaders.

    Thodey and Parkinson have known one another for 20 years, having worked together on both the Champions of Change Coalition and the Australian Climate Leaders Coalition. Although Thodey is officially listed as chair, Parkinson says they effectively function as co-chairs due to their “complementary skills and perspectives”.

    “We’re doing all [the work of the chair] collectively and the weight of who’s doing what just flexes depending on the nature of the issue.” Thodey, Parkinson and Marsden meet once a week, in addition to quarterly board meetings with the foundation’s other nine directors.

    They work well together, notes Marsden.

    “There are benefits, particularly in a NFP environment, to have two really fantastic leaders who have very different perspectives and experiences,” she says. “I feel it in the way we’re approaching problems. When you work for the reef in this critical decade, you’re always faced with challenges, so you have to always look at new ways to generate impact, accelerate work and solve things.”

    The co-chair arrangement echoes an important dynamic within the foundation, adds Marsden. “We exist on the premise that a single actor cannot solve the problems the Great Barrier Reef is facing. It requires public-private partnerships and needs us to be ambitious and play a long game. I couldn’t think of a better model for our governance of this icon than having these two represent the skill sets they have, but also to be working in tandem and in parallel, because it is the personification of our world and our purpose.”

    There are two remaining years for the RTP to run. A further $1b investment over nine years (2021–22 to 2029–30) in the 2022 federal budget will help ensure the reef is protected for future generations, says Marsden. Parkinson notes that one of the “unintended Great Barrier Reef Foundation restoration works during annual coral spawning (left); coral bleaching (far left) consequences” of intense external focus on the initial grant has been an improvement in collegiality and collaboration, which continues to this day.

    “This unique public-private partnership and whole-of-industry collaboration to benefit the reef has really charted new territory and the benefits will be ongoing,” he says.

    Future plan

    Although the Reef Trust Partnership has dominated the headlines, it is not the only thing the foundation does. It is exploring the idea of a long-term sustainable funding model as thoughts turn to a post-RTP environment. “We’re in the midst of quite a deep thought exercise about our strategy and we haven’t got to the end of it yet,” says Parkinson.

    Under consideration is the changing global environment around ESG and carbon emissions, and building interest from people eager to invest in a cleaner and more environmentally sustainable world, says Thodey. “Obviously, the philanthropic side will remain, but we’re now starting to turn our minds to questions like, is there a different funding model? There’s never going to be enough money to do everything we need to do on the reef. We’ve been exploring ideas like reef bonds and providing a vehicle that others can invest in for the greater good and get some credits from. There’s a changing dynamic in global giving and what big funds like Fidelity and Bank of America are looking to do. That’s a big focus.”

    Parkinson points out that the money to flow from public coffers “will never be enough” so it was important to find ways to harness private capital. “That comes about by giving landowners incentives to reduce nitrogen runoff to improve water quality and the things that impact negatively on the reef, but at the same time, finding innovative ways for big corporates to be able to put their shoulder to the wheel.”

    While such markets were immature, five years down the track “could be a very different environment,” he says. “Part of the challenge is how do we manage from here to there? How do we position ourselves and the reef to be an early facilitator? And for the reef to be an ultimate beneficiary of that private capital?”

    While the Great Barrier Reef remains the foundation’s key focus, Parkinson argues that Australia could potentially lead the world in reef conservation and adaptation, gaining knowledge that is just as applicable to Ningaloo, New Caledonia, Belize or Palau.

    “The expertise we’re able to develop in addressing the challenges of the Great Barrier Reef is actually going to be exportable across the world,” he says. “That’s another reason for thinking of ourselves as both an ideas facilitator and disseminator, but also as an innovation catalyst.”

    The problems the foundation address go far beyond “saving” the Australian icon. “If you position the challenge in terms of saving and sustaining and nurturing marine ecosystems, then our work is globally relevant — you can see why there is global interest in what we do,” says Parkinson.

    Thodey, Parkinson and Marsden concur that there’s no doubt the reef needs more help and they welcome all offers of support. “Protecting the Great Barrier Reef is one of the great missions of our time,” says Thodey.

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