Phil—
anthropy

Phil—
anthropy

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The true value of partnerships

Lou Sanson

Lou Sanson

Director General, Department of Conservation

Lou Sanson’s outrageous flair for forming philanthropic and commercial partnerships has revolutionised the Department of Conservation.
Brown Bread founder, Jo Blair talks with Lou – long term friend, mentor and #DOCBoss – about forming real partnerships between people, businesses and government.
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J: We’re here to talk about partnerships. DOC, from our point of view, is leading the way and your ability to engage and connect people to a greater vision is remarkable. Brown Bread is a big admirer. Tell me, what do you need in a good partnership?

L: It’s about a value exchange – each party contributes their own piece of value and both understand the bigger picture of the partnership. While we appreciate the money and brand awareness, what we really appreciate is how we grow conservation together.

Take Air New Zealand for example. Not to dismiss our passionate community of sandal wearers and tree huggers, but the Air New Zealand partnership has played a fundamental part in lifting DOC’s credibility throughout the country. DOC gets to connect 16 million AirNZ customers to New Zealand’s nature, and, they support our projects – i.e. putting native birds back on our tracks.

As part of our partnership, Air NZ have also helped us with our baseline industrial relationship strategy, as an example of best practice in NZ.

It’s about a value exchange... what we really appreciate is how we grow conservation together.

J: So you’re using their templates?

L: Yes. It’s gold for us. It’s a fine example of how businesses can practice generous partnerships, helping one another become better and smarter.

J: We like that. It’s a real relationship – you look after one another. So, how do you find ‘the one’?

L: How these partnerships happen is bizarre. We had one of our team sitting next to a Fulton Hogan person on a plane, they got talking, their business ethos aligned and by the end of the plane trip we’d booked a meeting with him, which eventually lead to a million dollar partnership.

J: Amazing! And what is Fulton Hogan giving to specifically?

L: They’re giving to the conservation of our unique native bird, the Takahe. We’re about to shift the first population of Takahe with Ngai Tahu, and thanks to Fulton Hogan’s generosity, we’ll have trampers walking through Heaphy Track amongst one of NZ’s iconic rare birds. When I met Bob Fulton I asked him what he wanted to get out of our partnership, to which he replied “we’re New Zealand’s biggest road construction company, we use a lot of tar and we just want to do some good for New Zealand”.

Bob and his team see beached whales and will phone up right away asking if we need a front end loader; we get hit by the Kaikoura earthquake and he calls asking if DOC need any equipment. Again, it’s a real relationship.

The Takahē: a unique bird, a conservation icon and a survivor.

The Takahē: a unique bird, a conservation icon and a survivor.

J: You’re obviously bringing the right people into your circle of good stuff, but we know some people have been quite cynical about your Fonterra partnership (for example) – is it becoming more palatable?

L: We want DOC to be in the mainstream because our country’s backbone is moving from one of farmers to nature – and Fonterra is doing exactly the same. This partnership enables us to get in with dairy farmers and work together to shift into a new culture which is thinking about our rivers as the front door, not the back door.

Now that people are starting to see results, they get it.  Fonterra is helping us change things. Their CEO, Theo Spierings, and DOC both want to work with the farmers to figure out how exactly we can fix fresh water. So, while people were initially really cynical, this partnership has instigated the rebuild of Waituna International Wetlands and Te Waihora riparian (the point where the land meets the river or stream), which has softened the doubt. Our partnership with Fonterra fits perfectly into the heart of what we do.

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J: Has DOC always had a partnership approach?

L: It’s been going since DOC started but without a structure. In 2013 we started our own partnerships directorate to bring together commercial, community, local government – there are just so many partnerships everywhere and each one’s quite different.

There’s people doing weeds, there are people building historic bridges – there are people partnering with DOC everywhere. It’s a partnership with the people for the people.

J: What has been one of your most significant partnerships to date?

L: Predator-Free – basically the biggest partnership ever set up in New Zealand. We have upwards of 200,000 people out there, trapping and thinking about our landscape. There’s people doing weeds, there are people building historic bridges – there are people partnering with DOC everywhere. It’s a partnership with the people for the people.

J: And is there money going into that as well? Is it all funnelled through a trust?

L: Yes – we have the DOC Commmunity Partnerships Fund trust that gives out about $5 million a year to community groups. Every couple of years we take a real punt and give one of them half a million dollars. Out of all the amazing community groups in this system, there are some that are really super-charged and so we flick them half a million to grow that – and each has been phenomenally successful. This half a million ‘to Kiwis for Kiwis’ created another $10.5 million for the Kiwi. Half a million to Predator-Free created the $28 million fund it now has.

We encourage and work for these community groups and then we’ll go back to government with a big idea – the community puts in a dollar, philanthropy puts in a dollar and government puts in a dollar.

The community puts in a dollar, philanthropy puts in a dollar and government puts in a dollar.

J: And you’re off and it’s magnetic!

L: It completely snowballed – our estimates to government is that for every dollar that they put into community partnerships, they get $4 back. The community we’re appealing to is a lot of baby boomers who can give their time for nothing – they’re retiring, want to keep fit, and want to belong to something.

J: You’re offering the new religion. It’s something they can believe in for the future of their children.

L: Everybody wants to leave this country better. People are worried about water, worried about the loss of birds, worried about weeds taking over. You’re appealing to that and you’re appealing to people’s connection to their whenua (land).

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J: Are there any other government agencies doing this, at the same level?

L: Not really. A few of them are looking at us and the State Services are keen to work out how other agencies can learn from DOC.

What we’ve done is set up a partnerships unit within DOC, with the best people to create partnerships. They’re usually Millennials or Generation Y who are great with creating some zany ideas to make it work – cool ways of using social media to supercharge initiatives.

J: And just how big is this partnership team of yours?

L: There is the communities partnership team made up of about 90 people who are out there working with the communities, but the team actually forming commercial partnerships is much smaller.

J: Will there ever be enough money for conservation?

L: There’ll never be enough money for conservation but we get 400 million from government and if you take 200,000 people working on various projects around New Zealand, that’s a heck of a lot of resource. It’s the Air NZs, the Fulton Hogans and the Predator-Free members, but it’s also the people doing beach clean-ups – there are movements everywhere.

J: And imagine how many you don’t know about either.

L: That’s right – and they’re all constantly forming. When I go to Okarito on the West Coast, their population of 30 each have their own stoat trap and with funding from Air NZ and DOC, they’re going to make the whole island and the lagoon predator-free. Then I go to Farewell Spit and the owner of HealthLink has just announced a gift of half a million to make all Farewell Spit predator-free too. Brian Sheth, chairman of the Global Wildlife Conservation, has given us half a million for black stilt programme in Twizel. I live in Seatoun where we’ve got MOA – a group of guys who go out very weekend and set traps in the Rimutaka Range.

J: What does it stand for?

L: Men of Action (but they take their wives too!).

J: Do you wear capes and tight underpants when you do it?

L: I’m not part of MOA myself so I can’t be quite sure.

It’s the Air NZs, the Fulton Hogans and the Predator-Free members, but it’s also the people doing beach clean-ups – there’s movements everywhere.
Black stilt (Kakī) is a native wading bird only found in New Zealand. It is regarded by Māori as a taonga species – a living treasure.

Black stilt (Kakī) is a native wading bird only found in New Zealand. It is regarded by Māori as a taonga species – a living treasure.

J: Here’s a question – do you think the more success you have bringing in dollars will affect the funding you receive from government?

L: No way. We have a thing called the National Parks and Conservation Foundation where some of these companies put their money in, completely isolated from government. Philanthropists and companies are also really clever in how they do work.  Many insist on that model of a dollar from government, a dollar from philanthropy, a dollar from communities. They won’t give unless they know government is committed.

Then there’s the Next Foundation who give to environment and education and have devised an agreement called The Tomorrow Accord which says that philanthropy give however many millions to help bring the predator numbers right down and then obligate the government to work to upkeep it so the philanthropy or commercial money is never wasted. No philanthropist wants to give $20 million to DOC, kill a whole lot of pests and then have DOC underfunded with the inability to maintain it.

J: So the philanthropists and the givers are setting the agenda and setting the terms. It’s a really genuine, sophisticated 3-way partnership. Do they come into discussions with your minister?

L: We always involve the Minister of Conservation in our agreements.

No philanthropist wants to give $20 million to DOC, kill a whole lot of pests and then have DOC underfunded with the inability to maintain it.

L: People can see the results of giving to conservation. Ultimately Our Nature is New Zealand's brand identity and if people believe in ‘100% Pure’ and they physically want to see it, they’ll contribute. One of my biggest issues is that I’m often seen as competing with the symphony and the ballet and I really feel that.

J: Because you love arts yourself.

L: I know. It’s hard. We have drawn money away from the arts to the environment. Meridian has recently come on because at the end of the day the value they get from connecting with Ngāi Tahu through DOC and being able to help look after this iwi’s most precious bird, the kakapo is so compelling.

J: Why don’t we do something with arts and the environment?

L: We just launched the Wild Creations which is a selection process for leading NZ artists that we take out into the environment. They might go to Kapiti island or they might go to Chathams – we look after them and Creative New Zealand helps fund it.

J: They are the communicators after all aren’t they? They’re the thinkers and the ones seeing ten years ahead of anyone else.

L: Exactly.

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J: So do you think philanthropy has all been unlocked in New Zealand? Are we at the tip of the iceberg… Or not even close?

L: Chris Liddell, the chair of Next Foundation, has been helping us with this. He’s trying to set the challenge that in the U.S. there’s a whole philanthropy culture, that Kiwis haven’t struck just yet. His proposition is there are a lot of baby boomers in NZ who are retiring with quite a lot of wealth. They can either give it to their kids, die with it or put it into something. Chris is trying to create this wave of Kiwis that actually want to leave behind a legacy and contribute to the environment – our country’s magnificent brand – rather than rely on philanthropy coming from offshore.

Chris Liddell, the chair of Next Foundation... is trying to create this wave of Kiwis that actually want to leave behind a legacy and contribute to the environment.

J: Awesome. Chris Liddell’s vision is kind of what Brown Bread wants as well. It’s about unlocking the giving power, making it an everyday thing, while we’re still alive! If you had to choose between bringing in commercial money or philanthropic money, which would you choose?

L: The money from philanthropy is bigger and potentially has less strings. Commercial wants a brand and return on investment. Philanthropic-wise, some people just want to contribute, the money tends to be much bigger, and you’re dealing with one person as opposed to a whole company.

J: Do you put commercial companies through a criteria for accepting their support?

L: We do. We have had to turn away some big ones because the greater value exchange wasn’t there. We want people who are going to contribute to New Zealand nature sustainability and who truly want to grow together. There has to be a conservatioin value exchange.

J: Ethics?

L: Oh yeah. They have to align with our values.

We want people who are going to contribute to New Zealand sustainability and who truly want to grow together.

J: In terms of managing the big donors, if they don’t live here how do you keep them in touch and keep them engaged?

L: My blog is sort of my connection to them, quietly letting them know what’s going on. I’ll also try and do something very personal for the big donors as well as prospective givers. I took Julian Robertson and his family out to show him the kiwis – and we took a group of givers for a weekend in Dusky Sounds.

J: Amazing. You can actually be together and use their minds to talk about the issues.

L: And they get to know me quite personally.

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J: Not that we want to think about it, but what happens when you go, Lou Sanson? How do you make sure your amazing ability to connect and engage with people, businesses and communities lives on?

L: I hope successive Governments see this successful model, and they’ll want to still see it continue. I think we will be leaving DOC in quite a different place to where it was when I started.

J: What’s DOC going to be like when you leave it?

L: There will be a quarter of a million people working with us on conservation around the country, our Treaty Partner will be a genuine partnership with DOC, and we'll have some super charged and impactful partnerships. That’s where we want to go. DOC will be genuinely owned by kiwis, not by DOC.

J: You’re community builders… You’re culture builders!

L: Exactly. Oh, and the birds! The birds will be kicking up everywhere. We’ll be managing tourism well – in terms of its value, not volume.

J: What kind of qualities do you think your successor will need?

New Zealand is going to need our next CEO to have a skill set that takes DOC to the next level – whatever the next level is. Maybe they won’t be like me at all and maybe that’s a good thing – it might be a Gen Y that can think differently to me.

J: I like that – disruption!

L: I can only add so much value and then it needs somebody else, probably not a baby boomer, who can take DOC to new heights, but remain true to the heart of what we do. Our role will always be to enable people, give them money when it’s needed, thank them when we need to and then help them do it! Ultimately, we’re partnering with people for a vision that is much, much bigger than DOC – "Conservation of Our Nature".

Our role will always be to enable people... we’re partnering with people for a vision that is much, much bigger than DOC.
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