How the Thomas Foundation Is Transforming Australia’s Oceans


David's philanthropy has been groundbreaking in Australia. He joins Pew in also having a deep commitment to the science that underlies what we do on behalf of the health of the oceans. Joshua S. Reichert
The Kimberley Coast is now the site of a protected marine park thanks in part to the work of David Thomas, a leading figure in Australia's conservation movement.

The Kimberley Coast, one of the world's most pristine tropical marine regions, is now the site of a protected marine park thanks in part to the work of Thomas, a leading figure in Australia's conservation movement. (Sara Winter/Shutterstock)

Growing up on the Australian island of Tasmania, David Thomas loved to bushwalk—“you Americans would call it hiking”—as well as to fly fish and sail. “Nature just seemed special to me,” he says, “and I always wanted to be in it.”

In his younger days, Tasmania was undergoing a transformation. Rivers were being dammed for industrial uses, and a nascent environmental movement grew in response. With his love for the nature, Thomas took up environment-focused politics for a period in the 1960s because, for him, “protecting special places was all about political action.”

But as his business career progressed and he began to travel more, he realized there were other ways to promote conservation. His success in business—the company he created, Cellarmaster Wines, introduced wine-of-the-month clubs to Australia in the 1980s—allowed him to pursue his passion for fly fishing on trips to New Zealand, Alaska, Russia, and elsewhere. While abroad, he frequently found himself rubbing elbows with fellow fly fishermen who also were successful professionals—most of them Americans, he says—and who shared his zeal for protecting the environment. But they were involved in land acquisition through nature conservancies, which he saw as a new and potentially fruitful way to have a transformational impact in his own country.

The conversations he had while knee-deep in hip waders were the beginning of his self-education in philanthropy, eventually leading him to create, together with his wife, Barbara, the Thomas Foundation. The foundation has helped protect land and create marine reserves in Australia—and made him one of the nation’s leading environmental figures.

The Kimberley Coast is now the site of a protected marine park thanks in part to the work of David Thomas, a leading figure in Australia's conservation movement.

David Thomas says that philanthropists should follow their passions—but employ dispassionate analysis to ensure results. (Courtesy of David Thomas)

Now retired, widowed, and living near Brisbane, Thomas is eyeing the end of his decades of giving and contemplating the lessons he’s learned. And he’s making plans for his final gifts, which will include a bequest to Pew for marine conservation projects.

“I’m 77. I’ve lost my wife,” he says with a low-key, dry matter-of-factness. “I think about mortality.”

When Thomas sold Cellarmaster in 1996, he and Barbara began to contemplate the next chapter in their lives. “We knew nothing about philanthropy,” he says. “It’s relatively new in Australia.” But they were quick learners, and two years after selling the company, the couple created the foundation, which initially focused on education and the arts in addition to conservation.

One early lesson Thomas says he learned is that philanthropists should follow their passions—but employ dispassionate analysis to ensure results. He saw that his grants to The Nature Conservancy, which he encouraged to come to Australia, were helping to protect large swaths of land.

As he evaluated the return on his investment in that work, he saw the chance to spur real change in the way Australia treated its natural heritage. Soon conservation became the foundation’s overriding emphasis, because, he says, “to have impact, we had to have focus. If something is working, you do more of it.”

From 2005 to 2012, he sponsored the Thomas Challenge, a matching funds program for purchasing land for conservation reserves that grew so large it was named one of Australia’s top 50 philanthropic gifts.

About five years ago, Thomas shifted his attention to marine conservation. As he schooled himself on the issues, he says, he discovered that “when it comes to the ocean, all compass headings lead to Pew.”

For more than a decade, Pew has been working around the world to encourage establishment of large marine reserves, based on research showing that such reserves play a vital role in rebuilding fish stocks and protecting the health of the oceans. In 2012, Thomas met Joshua S. Reichert, Pew’s executive vice president for environment projects, at a conference in Singapore. Soon they were looking for ways to collaborate.

Since then, Pew has worked with Australian partner organizations, which Thomas supports, to successfully advocate for the Western Australian government’s creation of the Great Kimberley Marine Park in the northwestern corner of the country. Together, the groups have also taken steps to ensure that the world’s largest network of marine parks—in place around Australia’s coastline—endures. Additional ocean-focused work by the Thomas Foundation has supported major campaigns to protect the Great Barrier Reef.

“David’s philanthropy has been groundbreaking in Australia,” Reichert says. “He joins Pew in also having a deep commitment to the science that underlies what we do on behalf of the health of the oceans.”

Thomas’ devotion to science has included an annual “oration,” in which, with Pew’s help, he brings a renowned scientist to Australia for tours and speeches to increase professional knowledge and public awareness about the latest findings important to the conservation of biodiversity. Recent speakers have included biologists Callum Roberts and Daniel Pauly.

“We do deep research before we invest so we understand what we invest in,” Thomas says. “For me, Pew’s got a five-star investor rating.”

Thomas placed the bulk of his assets in his foundation when he created it. What was left was what he calls his “cushion” so he could enjoy retirement. “Everybody wants a cushion,” he says. “But then the question for later is what to do with your estate?”

Always a long-term planner, Thomas has decided to sunset the foundation by 2018. He says he’s made arrangements for his three children and—in what he says is the next and final logical step in his giving—has decided to bequeath the largest portion of his “cushion” to Pew and another major conservation organization.

“I like to build things,” Thomas says, “and Pew has just begun its bequest program.” In remembering Pew in his will, he says, he has a chance to extend his giving—and believes his bequest will be used wisely because of his trust in the organization’s leadership.

“The oceans are not going to disappear after I’m gone; the issues are not going to disappear.

“But there’s enough flexibility [in the will] for Pew to use its best judgment” about how to use the resources in the future, Thomas says. “This is an act of confidence meant to inspire others.”

For more information about philanthropic partnerships at Pew, please contact Senior Vice President Sally O’Brien at 202-540-6226 or sobrien@pewtrusts.org.