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‘You’ve got to be optimistic’: Playing the long game with environmental giving

Profile of Dom O'Donnell
Written by Dom O'DonnellPosted on 5/8/2020

The Melliodora Fund’s Bruce and Ann McGregor have a long and varied history in safeguarding the environment.

“We’ve never just been on the giving side of things. We’ve always worn many hats,” says Bruce.

“Both of us grew up in rural Victoria and were deeply interested in the environment as teenagers – you could say that’s why Ann and I teamed up.

“We started out as small-time donors in the ‘80s. But when you’re younger, you’re busy – you have work, family or perhaps another priority.”

For Bruce and Ann, that priority was restoring the Merri Creek in Melbourne’s inner north.

“When we got married and moved to Brunswick, we became very active in looking after the local creek, and in the process learnt what it means to be an environmental activist,” says Ann.

Meanwhile, work for the McGregors was environmental planning (Ann) and scientific research (Bruce).

Bruce credits his career in research with giving him a greater insight into the grantseeking side of the equation and informing how he gives today.

You certainly don’t spend 40 years as a research scientist without learning about how grants processes operate. So that’s another hat we’ve worn.”

For Ann, her career involved environmental policy and planning initiatives, working as an academic, a public servant and a consultant.

Ann and Bruce visit Bush Heritage Australia’s Boolcoomatta Reserve in South Australia.

Today, Bruce and Ann draw on the knowledge and experience they’ve gained over the years for a number of roles.

“We remain active in several community environmental organisations,” says Bruce, who currently heads up the Victorian National Parks Association (VNPA) in his role as President.

“We’ve been lucky enough in that our capacity to give has increased over that same course of time, so we can respond when we see things which need more support”

The McGregors joined Australian Communities Foundation when they established a fund in 2006.

“It was around that time our giving became more significant,” says Bruce.

“When we started out in the ‘80s, it was arguably a more optimistic time for the environment. Victoria, for example, had a State Conservation Strategy and that was rolled out into local environmental strategies. But in the last 30 years, a lot of things have been wound back or undermined.”

At the same time, Ann notes, the McGregors have been able to increase their giving in response.

“We’ve been lucky enough in that our capacity to give has increased over that same course of time, so we can respond when we see things which need more support,” Ann explains.

Optimism in the face of challenges

Meeting other funders through Australian Communities Foundation and the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network has been an inspiring part of the journey for the McGregors, and has helped them to become more strategic.

“The tricky thing with environmental giving, though, is there are lots of problems and complex systems.”

“I think coming together with other donors through initiatives like ACF’s Learning Circles is particularly useful for social and environmental causes. You’ll quickly find that people are sympathetic to those sorts of causes.

“The tricky thing with environmental giving, though, is there are lots of problems and complex systems. Trying to pick targets that will have impact can be hard, especially for people who haven’t had experience in the sector.

“It can be overwhelming. I think a lot of younger people feel that way especially,” Bruce admits.

“Younger people have had an education where they’ve watched David Attenborough – they’ve seen these incredible images of flourishing biodiversity. They’ve grown up with an optimism that things will change and improve.

“Now, the experience is that most environmental indicators are getting worse and not better.”

On this point, Bruce highlights the importance of truth-telling across Australia to foster greater care for the environment.

“Indigenous Australians are rightly aggrieved — there’s just not enough acknowledgement of what happened here. Not enough respect for their knowledge of the land.”

“But you’ve got to be optimistic. I’m optimistic. You wouldn’t do this if you weren’t – why would you bother?”

“There’s so much more knowledge in the community, coverage in the media, and more trained and skilled people.”

“The question, then, is how is it all applied? How can we best support people to apply the knowledge and resources they have, and achieve effective action by governments, businesses and households? How can we continue to inspire more people?”

Connecting with nature during Covid-19

Supporting people to look after the planet is made all the more difficult by the ongoing restrictions in effect during Covid-19.

“People cannot go out into the bush and they cannot do environmental volunteering,” Bruce explains.

“Getting people out into nature, into national parks, is the best way to connect them with the environment and garner their support. When that’s not an option, we have to improvise”

But in the meantime, VNPA is working to connect people with nature – David Attenborough style.

“Getting people out into nature, into national parks, is the best way to connect them with the environment and garner their support. When that’s not an option, we have to improvise,” Bruce explains.

Bringing Nature to You is VNPA’s answer – a series of four inspiring videos covering Victoria’s forests, threatened wildlife and the importance of national parks. Each video will include segments from young enthusiastic campaigners with the aim of engaging the community in the wonders of nature across Victoria.

“Now, I could’ve gone out there with my phone in between the two lockdowns and had a chit-chat to the camera,” jokes Bruce.

“That wouldn’t have cost much. But to do this properly, you need something professional. You need to employ a few people, get the sound and colour right – it costs a little bit of money.”

The total funding required to deliver the four videos is $28,000. With over $7,000 already raised, the first of the four is nearing completion. 

While the value of connecting with nature – even virtually – cannot be overstated, Bruce reiterates that this is only one part of the solution.

“There are so many issues. Environmental problems – they’re everywhere.

“You know, I look out the window and there’s all sorts of things to do with emissions, energy, recycling – it goes on. With the lockdown, you need to keep engaging people with the environment.

“We’ve been in this a long time – but you have to be, you must be persistent to achieve change. You just do what you can at each step of the way, and celebrate your achievements with your collaborators whenever you can.”

Bruce and Ann were part of a group of funders recognised for their commitment to environmental philanthropy last year at the 2019 Australian Philanthropy Awards. Read this story

Feature image: Ann and Bruce McGregor planting by Merri Creek. Photo appeared in local newspaper, the Brunswick Sentinel.