The David Thomas Challenge

In 2007 the Foundation committed $10m to the David Thomas Challenge.

It remains among the biggest single private environmental pledges made, and Philanthropy Australia lists it in Australia’s “Top 50” philanthropic gifts.

The David Thomas Challenge was a matching-funds program. It generated total grants of $28.1m for biodiversity conservation programs and projects.Philanthropy Australia lists it in Australia’s “Top 50” philanthropic gifts.

Encouraged by the Thomas Foundation’s commitment to match donations, private Australians gave $12.6m. TNC received a further $1.2m from USA donors.

In addition the Federal Government allocated $6.2m to buy land for the National Reserve System. The land purchases were made through TNC’s partner organisations – BHA, AWC, Greening Australia and the Trust for Nature. More recently Birds Australia and Ecotrust Australia joined the program.

TNC reported:

“The outcomes are globally significant. The additional lands now protected in Australia represent more than 12% of the land protected by TNC worldwide over its 60-year history.”

Achievements of the David Thomas Challenge

  • Creation of new protected areas
  • Acquisition of six properties totalling 914,316 hectares, with some of Australia’s most under-represented and threatened habitats
  • Management of six other properties totalling 1,074,468 hectares
  • Conservation management of 3.36m hectares of Indigenous-owned country through four projects with Indigenous communities and groups, including support for the declaration of two Indigenous Protected Areas totalling more than 2m hectares
  • Support for six landscape-scale projects
  • Support for four science and research projects to achieve conservation outcomes in priority regions
  • Support for one conservation policy/mechanism project that will achieve broad conservation outcomes nationally

The David Thomas Challenge wound up in 2012.

The matching-funds strategy of the Challenge has been employed with great success by WWF and (to a lesser extent AMCS) in the Fight for the Reef campaign, generating some $1.6m in additional funding.

While not a matching funds strategy, in its first six months The Great Southern Seascapes program run by TNC has attracted an additional $500k from a US donor foundation, $100k from an Australian trust fund, and $120k from the Victorian Government.  Our objective was for the grantor to use our establishment grant for this project to encourage other supporters, with our objective for it to be at least matched by other private and government contributions. This is an encouraging start. As well, $100,000 to the Tasmanian Land Conservancy, while not granted as a matching funds strategy, has enabled the Conservancy to attract a further $180,000 from other donors – another encouraging result.

Encouraging private philanthropy

While Australia’s most successful business people have long been generous benefactors, broad-based private philanthropy here is still young.

In 2002, philanthropy was boosted by then-Prime Minister John Howard’s introduction of Prescribed Private Funds.

One of the aims of the David Thomas Challenge was to support this initiative, and to encourage private philanthropic support for conservation.

Of 154 Challenge donors, 63 were new supporters of conservation. The average value of donations was almost $79,000. All prior donors increased their support. Half of prior donors committed to multi-year pledges. More than a third of all donors – old and new – committed to multi-year pledges.

In 2010 there were 863 PAFs in Australia. Their funds totalled $2bn and annual grants $153m (

david thomas challenge

Dr Michael Looker TNC and David Thomas AM