People who care about the world they leave behind
New Zealand’s environment has received a wonderful gift from two dedicated conservationists. Caroline Wood talks to Grant & Marilyn Nelson to discover what prompted their $5 million donation to Forest & Bird.
“It seems to us that Forest & Bird is often up against those who want to use their money and influence to exploit the environment for short-term profits. It can be costly to oppose these vested interests and carry out other conservation work, and we wanted to help.”
A softly spoken Grant Nelson explains why he and his wife Marilyn decided to donate $5 million to set up Forest & Bird’s largest-ever endowment fund, which will primarily support the campaign for freshwater and legal advocacy work (see the panel right).
The Nelsons have been members of Forest & Bird for 20 years and served on the North Canterbury branch committee for a decade. They also happen to run The Gama Foundation, a philanthropic trust that has donated millions of dollars to conservation, education, and other
Grant, 69, who was born with very low vision and has been legally blind for most of his life, explains how the couple moved from being young entrepreneurs to charitable benefactors in less than 20 years.
The Nelsons set up a small business from home in 1978 after Grant was forced to give up his job because of his deteriorating sight. The business grew into a thriving company selling building products nationwide. By the 1990s, the couple were working 24/7 on the business and they were ready for a change of pace, says Marilyn, 64.
“In 1995, we had the opportunity to sell and decided to take a different direction in life. The proceeds from the business were used to set up The Gama Foundation and since then we have devoted our time to the work of the trust,“ she explains.
After selling their business, Marilyn and Grant, who live in Christchurch, joined their local Forest & Bird branch and got more involved in local conservation projects.
“We always had an appreciation for native bush and concerns about conservation but were never able to do anything about it because we didn’t have time,” says Grant.
One of their earliest projects was to pay for the predator-free fence around Riccarton Bush in Christchurch.
Over time, the couple also bought 650ha of land in the Port Hills, and elsewhere in Canterbury, and gifted the land to the public.
Marilyn explains: “There is little remaining lowland native bush in Canterbury, so over a number of years our trust purchased various size blocks that had interesting features. After putting in signs and tracks, these blocks were opened to the public.”
But living in Canterbury, where the pollution of lakes and rivers is a significant issue, the Nelsons became increasingly worried about the state of New Zealand’s freshwater.
“Over the past 15 years we have been very concerned about the impacts of intensive farming on rivers, lakes, and drinking water aquifers. As the contamination of freshwater is going to get steadily worse over many decades, we have requested that part of the income received [from the endowment fund] be used to employ a freshwater advocate,” says Grant.
The couple says they would rather give their money to good causes than spend it on expensive houses and holidays. And, as they approach retirement, they have decided to distribute the rest of their trust fund to the charitable organisations they have been involved with in
By the time they retire, Grant estimates they will have given away an incredible $50m of their own money, including the hugely generous $5m gift to Forest & Bird.
They are sharing their story in the hope it might inspire others to make a donation. “Forest & Bird was formed to try to protect forest and birds, but it has ended up having to do far more than this. We encourage anyone wanting to support Forest & Bird to make a gift or bequest,” says Grant.
Making a difference
Forest & Bird’s Chief Executive Kevin Hague says the Nelsons’ gift will make a big difference to our freshwater advocacy.
He said: “Grant and Marilyn’s astounding generosity will fund vital conservation work that couldn’t otherwise have been done – in particular, increased campaigning to highlight the perilous state of New Zealand’s freshwater. Our rivers, estuaries, and lakes are going to benefit from this extraordinary gift.
“The Grant & Marilyn Nelson Endowment Fund will grow and, in time, will help fund work that will change the face of conservation in this country. That is an incredible legacy to leave to nature in New Zealand.
“At Forest & Bird, we are proud of our independence. But we only have this because of our supporters. There is a real advantage to this independence because it means we can stand up for nature without fear of the consequences. But what’s hard is we have to raise every dollar we use to give nature a voice. We have to fundraise for everything.
“Nature is in big trouble in New Zealand, and Grant and Marilyn recognise that. They understand the scale of the task ahead of us. I’m humbled by their generosity.
A fund for the future
The Grant & Marilyn Nelson Endowment Fund was set up with their gift of $5m. The annual interest will be used to employ a full-time staff member to advocate and campaign for improvements in the quality and quantity of freshwater in streams, rivers, lakes, and aquifers. At least one-third of this work will relate to the Canterbury area.
As it can be expensive to mount legal challenges, some of the income will be set aside for a legal fighting fund, to be used when needed. Other income will be used to promote conservation and environmental protection to elected representatives and officials.
If there is sufficient income, another priority will be to employ someone to promote greater pest and weed control, including the control of feral pigs, deer, and goats.
Leaving a Legacy
If you would like to find out more about making a bequest or endowment to Forest & Bird, please call Jess Winchester on 04 8012219 or email email@example.com.