‘A mockery’: Great Barrier Reef Foundation raises just $21m of $357m target

The Great Barrier Reef Foundation has raised only $21.7m out of a target of $357m in donations more than two years after it was awarded the largest single environmental grant in Australian history.

It has prompted Labor to call for greater transparency from the foundation about its fundraising, while the Greens have said the figure “makes a mockery of the government’s logic” for awarding the grant.

The charity controversially received $443m for reef projects in 2018, with the government defending its decision at the time by saying the private foundation would leverage the funds to attract further investment in reef restoration and science from the private sector.

The foundation released an investment strategy in October 2018 that set a target of $357m to be raised over five years, bringing the total reef investment to $800m.

The target is made up of $200m in contributed funds from research and project partners, and $157m in cash donations from a capital campaign ($100m), corporate giving ($50m) and individual donations ($7m).

In response to questions from Guardian Australia, the foundation said it had raised $21.7m in in-kind donations from research and project partners, about 6% of the total $357m target.

It has raised none of the $100m from the capital campaign and refused to provide any figures to show how it was tracking towards targets for corporate giving and individual donations.

A spokeswoman said the Covid-19 pandemic had now “made the fundraising environment more challenging and uncertain for many not-for-profits across Australia and around the world”.

In-kind contributions are non-cash donations, which a foundation spokeswoman said included things such as a farmer donating time to work on a water quality project, or a project partner supplying equipment such as a boat.

“Cash is what we need to fund science projects and offer grants for community projects,” said Peter Whish-Wilson, the Greens senator who chaired a parliamentary inquiry into the awarding of the grant.

“The kind of funds they’re seeking, yes it’s potentially lumpy and can take time to raise. But I would have thought they would have at least $50m to $100m by now.

“It makes a mockery of the government’s logic and intent giving nearly half a billion of taxpayer money to a small private foundation on the basis they would raise dollar for dollar co-contributions from the private sector.”

The foundation said the reason it had yet to raise any money through the capital campaign was because the initiative was attached to a reef restoration and adaptation program that was not launched until April this year.

It said its planned fundraising activities were still running on schedule and it had completed detailed feasibility studies across its different giving programs.

“Our fundraising target was $157m, of which $100m was to support the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program which was launched in April 2020,” the foundation’s managing director, Anna Marsden, said in a statement to Guardian Australia.

“With this program now finalised and as per the strategy outlined in the collaborative investment plan, fundraising revenue is expected to start to be realised from the third year of the partnership.”

However, the investment plan states the foundation had intended to raise 60% of that $100m across years two (2019-2020) and three (2020-2021) of the strategy.

The foundation refused to answer questions about how much it had raised of the remaining $57m made up of corporate giving and individual donations.

The foundation’s spokeswoman told Guardian Australia there had been some donations in these categories but the organisation would not be supplying figures.

The environment department also failed to provide this data in response to written questions through senate estimates from Greens senators.

Labor’s environment spokeswoman, Terri Butler, called for more transparency from the foundation about how and when it would deliver on its investment promises.

“The Liberals and Nationals justification for this dodgy backroom deal was that the reef foundation would be able to secure money from the private sector,” she said.

“It is concerning that almost two years after receiving almost half-a-billion dollars of public money, without a tender, in a dodgy backroom deal from Scott Morrison, there is no clear detail on funds raised from the private sector.”

A spokesman for the environment minister, Sussan Ley, said the foundation was already working on important projects for the reef that involved communities, scientists, traditional owners, universities and land owners.

“Planning for the foundation always envisaged that main thrust of philanthropic and corporate investment would be in the third year of the partnership which commenced in July this year,” he said.

“Nobody could argue that it has faced perhaps the most challenging corporate environment we have ever seen but it has also made strong corporate connections which it believes will bear fruit.”

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