Philanthropic couple to donate $100 million

By Geoff Cumming

What drives a philanthropic couple to donate $100 million to environment and education projects? Geoff Cumming reports

Chris Liddell (left) with philanthropists Annette and Neal Plowman. Photo / Greg Bowker
Chris Liddell (left) with philanthropists Annette and Neal Plowman. Photo / Greg Bowker

There are three things New Zealand's growing pool of mega-wealthy can do with their money, says Chris Liddell, the corporate high-flyer.

"You can give it all to your kids, which is great but, beyond a certain point, can be counter-productive.

"You can give it all to the Government, which can mean the same thing. Or you can give it all away."

Liddell, the New York-based ex-financial whiz at Microsoft and General Motors, is not yet so flush that money is flying out of his hands but he likes to give back - scholarships that he and his brother fund at his old school, Mt Albert Grammar, being one example.

But he's licking his lips at the prospect of distributing $100 million to major environmental and education initiatives in New Zealand, funded by a retired couple he advises.

We saw a real opportunity to do a very small number of projects which promise to make a significant difference by offering substantial grants. There's a lot of people with great ideas - we want to invest in what we describe as social entrepreneurs who are constrained by a lack of resources.
Chris Liddell

The Next Foundation, launched by Prime Minister John Key yesterday, is something of a departure in New Zealand's philanthropic landscape. Instead of sprinkling cash evenly across the spectrum of worthy causes, the foundation aims to pick winners in its two target areas and support a select few projects handsomely. And it won't necessarily be established players who benefit - anyone with a big idea but lacking the capital to make it happen can apply. "We saw a real opportunity to do a very small number of projects which promise to make a significant difference by offering substantial grants," Liddell told the Weekend Herald. "There's a lot of people with great ideas - we want to invest in what we describe as social entrepreneurs who are constrained by a lack of resources."

Liddell is doing the talking - not just because he will chair the foundation which, to a degree, is his brainchild.

The couple with the money value their privacy so highly they had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the high-brow launch at Auckland's Viaduct Events Centre. Neal and Annette Plowman, who live in Kerikeri, are best known for bankrolling the restoration of Rotoroa Island as a conservation gem in the Hauraki Gulf. But that multimillion-dollar project was under way for some years before the names of its benefactors were revealed.

For more than a decade, the Plowmans have quietly channelled their considerable wealth into a select bunch of education and conservation initiatives and beneficiaries - including the Auckland City Mission, Lifeline, the Auckland University business school and Abel Tasman National Park - often had no idea (at least in the early years) where the money was coming from. The establishment of the Next Foundation represents very much a "coming out" for the Plowmans.

"They are naturally very modest, very happy to be in the background and let the projects speak for themselves...they are totally genuine about their altruism: they feel fortunate to have grown up in New Zealand and want future generations to enjoy a similar upbringing."
Chris Liddell

Education and the environment are seen as touchstone areas where their wealth can be put to best use to safeguard, or enhance, that future. The Government can't do everything - as the Department of Conservation acknowledged last year with its restructuring to pursue commercial and community "partnerships". Similarly in education, the Government has welcomed private adjuncts to the state system, particularly experiments to boost student achievement in low decile areas.

It's a philosophy shared by Liddell and the close-knit band of high-achievers who advise the couple.

The same names crop up on the management boards that oversee their altruistic projects: besides Liddell they include retired Auckland accountant Barrie Brown, Wellington tax lawyer Geoff Harley, forest manager Devon McLean, who worked with Liddell at Carter Holt Harvey in the 1990s, and Carol Campbell of the Business Advisory Group.

Brown chairs the Rotoroa Island Trust and is a director of Project Janszoon, which works with DoC and community groups in Abel Tasman National Park to eradicate pests and weeds and restore habitats. He also chaired the Auckland City Mission Capital Foundation for 8 years. Harley chairs Project Janszoon (it's Abel Tasman's middle name) and is a director of the Rotoroa Island Trust. Liddell, too, sits on the Rotoroa and Project Janszoon boards. He is a former chairman of Project Crimson, which McLean now chairs. McLean directs Project Janszoon ...

Lest this sounds like a backslapping richlisters' club, they meet no more than annually - most work is done by email. And they have hard-headed expectations of "deliverable" results. They trust each other implicitly, says Brown, a former partner at PwC.

"The key to our projects is to use good people you can trust and know you can work with. We all bring a different skill."

He says the foundation will focus on education and environmental schemes "because that's where the Plowmans see the future of our country. We have to have well-educated people and our environment is why people come here. But unfortunately our forests are dying at the moment due to pests and weeds."

Most of their previous projects have set goals and deadlines. Project Janszoon, for example, will wind up in 2042, the 400th anniversary of Tasman's visit to New Zealand. The Next Foundation has a 10-year timeframe and a strategic, businesslike approach. Liddell, who left General Motors three years ago and now chairs Xero, the stellar-performing accounting software developer, devised the concept after researching philanthropic foundations in the US.

"We saw an opportunity to fill gaps which the Government and the private sector aren't filling," Liddell says.

"We debated making it a perpetual foundation but there was enthusiasm to get out there for up to 10 years and try to make a significant difference in a few areas.

"With all our projects we have taken a very structured approach with a specific set of deliverables and strong management which we have found very successful and we wanted to formalise that approach. For every dollar spent we want to maximise the return that we get, not in an economic sense but in social gains. There needs to be a tangible impact."

The foundation is expected to distribute $5m to $15m annually to no more than three projects. Criteria for education projects will include schemes that contribute to New Zealand's "long-term knowledge capital and performance", covering research, teaching, skills and values development, technology adaptation and/or innovation.

Environmental proposals must look to protect and sustain natural habitats and species through research and innovation, conservation and/or community participation. An advisory panel will shortlist applications for further development; the first projects could get the go ahead by the end of this year. Liddell hopes they will achieve long-term sustainability, with other benefactors swinging in behind.

"I believe we can multiply income if we take a disciplined approach.

"It's an opportunity to make a big impact and change New Zealand as we know it."

Liddell and Harley's association with the Plowmans dates from the 1980s, when they assisted in a buy-back of the old family firm, NZ Towel Service, which was publicly listed at the time of the 1987 sharemarket crash. An astute businessman, Neal Plowman took the commercial linen company in new directions before it was sold to American firm Steiner Corporation. There were subsequent ventures into multiplex cinemas, property investments and a director's seat with Waste Care.

Now in their 70s, the couple divide their time between Kerikeri and Noosa, Queensland. But their names don't feature on the NBR Rich List - their wealth is not conspicuous. "They are not proud people at all," Brown says.

"They just want to get on with things and they don't want any fanfare at all. Neal likes pitching in at Rotoroa and he plays golf with his mates at the Kerikeri Golf Club - they are not pretentious in any way.

"With the Auckland City Mission foundation, it was three years before I could tell the board where the money was coming from. It was the same with Rotoroa Island.

"They are passionate about New Zealand, the environment and education and they have the wherewithal to make a difference. It's no more complicated than that."

The couple gave a rare interview in late 2011 when the Herald shortlisted them for its New Zealander of the Year award for the gift of Rotoroa Island. Neal Plowman said he believed everyone with enough disposable income should invest in philanthropic activity.

"In the US, it's normal for businesses to put at least 10 per cent of their capital wealth into endowment funds for the future of everybody - not just their family or business."

Liddell says the group shares a vision about the potential for philanthropy in New Zealand. Research shows that though we give generously as individuals, and trusts and foundations support a vast range of social services, the business sector has room for improvement. Shining lights include the Todd Foundation and the Tindall Foundation, which distribute widely across the spectrum of community agencies.

"New Zealanders are very generous by nature but we don't have a strong or long history of institutional philanthropy.

"Our generation is probably the first where there's been a large number of people with high net wealth - following the opening up of the economy in the 1980s. New Zealanders are very generous individually but, to my mind, there's an opportunity for people who have the resources to adopt a more systematic approach and make a difference.

"I think it's important for one generation to leave a legacy for the next."

There's one other outcome expected from the foundation's focus on deliverables, says Brown. "It's something the Plowmans should hopefully see the benefits of in their lifetime."


Other philanthropic initiatives by Neal and Annette Plowman:


Project Janszoon

A 30-year project with Department of Conservation, Abel Tasman Birdsong Trust, iwi and community to control weeds and pests and restore habitats in Abel Tasman National Park. The Project Janszoon Trust aims to demonstrate the potential of a sustained restoration effort in one of our most accessible national parks, which attracts more than 150,000 visitors each year. Its goal is to restore the ecology of the park before the December 2042 celebration of the 400th anniversary of Abel Janszoon Tasman's visit to Golden Bay.

Rotoroa Island Trust

The Plowmans paid the Salvation Army up-front for a 99-year lease of the island, a former treatment centre for alcoholics. Their endowment is funding heritage building restoration, a visitor centre and planting of 400,000 native plants. A partnership with Auckland Zoo is introducing native birds and reptiles and providing conservation education for schools. The project is forecast to cost in excess of $40m.

Teach First NZ

Charitable trust that helps equip graduates and professionals to teach in schools in low-decile areas. In partnership with Auckland University, participants receive training and are placed in secondary schools for an initial two-year commitment, with the aim of inspiring young people to fulfil their potential. Based on a UK model, it aims to build a network of leaders committed to addressing educational inequality.

Auckland University Business School

A $10m endowment fund to support post-graduate scholarships and fellowships, research, teaching projects and visiting experts. Aims to help students become business leaders and entrepreneurs and ensure the school's international competitiveness. The Plowmans also gave $1.5m to establish a chair in entrepreneurship.

Auckland City Mission Capital Foundation.

Provides funding that helps to underwrite the mission's costs, allowing staff to concentrate on delivering help.

- NZ Herald

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