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The dedicated environmentalist talks about her crusade to buy back the planet — piece by piece
Some time in the southern-hemisphere summer of 1990, Kristine McDivitt, then CEO of the Californian outdoor-apparel company Patagonia, took “a bunch of new executives” to Argentina to show them the terrain its clothing was designed to weather. It was a chance to “imbue them with the company’s ethos and spirit”.
There, in the middle of nowhere, she ran into Douglas Tompkins, co-founder of rival outdoor-gear company The North Face and, after he had sold it, the global fashion brand Esprit. He had resolved to sell his share of Esprit and his art collection (which included works by Francis Bacon, Balthus, Hopper, Léger and Picasso) so as to devote his considerable wealth to environmentalism.
McDivitt, who turned 40 that year, was tiring of corporate life too. She’d first met Yvon Chouinard, the mountaineer who went on to found Patagonia, when she was 15. He’d rented the beach house next door to her family’s; she’d “tried to teach him to skimboard”. When she graduated high school, he offered her a summer job at his company, which made mountaineering equipment; after graduating from college she went back to work for him full-time. In 1973 it diversified into outdoor wear. “I’d never had another job,” she tells me. “I’d never had an interview. And the thought that I could be sitting in the same seat when I was 40, 50, 60, maybe even 70… I knew I wanted something else. I just wasn’t sure what.”
She and Doug had met before. “He was a climber,” she tells me. “My first husband was a climber. Yvon was a climber. It was a small tribe.” This time, a spark ignited. “We fell in love and that was that. It changed both our lives and started our conservation work.” That ongoing project has protected and, in some places, rewilded more than 5.7m hectares of land, enabling the creation of 11 new national parks in Chile and Argentina and the expansion of several others. Their donations amount to the largest gift of land in history, projects on which they and private supporters have spent $350m. We meet in London, where Tompkins has come to give a talk on her work, having flown from New York where she was speaking at an event during the UN General Assembly. Girlishly dressed in a cotton skirt, cardigan and flats, she has the slightness, stature and steel-core air of a ballerina. Doug always called her Birdy, and there is indeed something bird-like about her. “Kris is like a migratory species,” an aide had answered when I’d asked where she lives. She is flying back to Chile next day. Is she always on the move?
“More than I’d like at the moment,” she replies. “For the past 26 years, we’ve lived wherever the projects are [mostly in Patagonia]. But I’m a nester. Nobody believes it but I am. I don’t do well hopping around but that’s been our life. And since Doug died” – in 2015, from hypothermia following a kayaking accident – “I’ve put up with it because we’ve had all these projects, which I love.” As the land they acquired and have worked to conserve has returned to public ownership, she’s been spending more time on the ranch in California’s Ventura County where she grew up.
“Doug was the draw,” she stresses about her move to South America after their marriage in 1994. He had found a farm in Chile situated “at the toe of a fjord that cost what a garage would cost in San Francisco”. The asking price was $35 a hectare: there were 17,000ha of temperate rainforest. He bought the lot for $600,000.
“I couldn’t imagine living there,” Tompkins confesses. “I come from Southern California, where the temperature is between 68 and 72 degrees and it almost never rains.” In this part of Chile the winters are bitter and the average rainfall is 1,942mm a year. There were also no roads. “You either had to come in by boat down a fjord or fly in [Doug had a Cessna] in vicious weather.”
The farmhouse at Fundo Reñihué was uninhabitable so the Tompkinses lived in the former smokehouse, a space of “barely 100sq ft”, Tompkins says. “We were really dependent on each other for everything. But you know when you’re in love, and everything’s fabulous, so it didn’t matter. In fact, when the house that became our base was ready” – in its final permutation an infinitely photogenic five-bedroom property with organic farm that she sold two years ago (Sotheby’s asking price: $10.5m) – “I didn’t want to move in. I was very happy in the smokehouse.”
Regardless, it was the land that mattered. As more adjoining parcels became available, they acquired them, careful never to purchase areas where people lived and buying mostly from absentee owners (during the 1930s, foreigners were offered land for rent or concessions if they were prepared to settle in Patagonia, and many families had retained but no longer occupied their estates). In 2007 they donated 294,000ha to the Chilean state to create what was posthumously renamed Pumalín National Park: Douglas R Tompkins. Today its area extends over 402,392ha of northern Patagonia and protects a fifth of all the alerce trees – a relative of the redwood – in Chile, as well as puma, pudu (a kind of deer) and monito del monte, a rare marsupial.
In the early days, they faced considerable hostility. “We were completely vilified,” she says. “Pumalín goes from the Argentine border to the Pacific Ocean so we were known as ‘the couple who cut Chile in half’.” And it went downhill from there. “We were creating a new Jewish state – although we were raised as Anglicans; a nuclear waste site for the United States; a base camp for the Argentine military so they could finish Chile off once and for all. There were a lot of death threats. We had military planes flying over where we were based. Our phones were tapped for five years. At the time it was frightening. But when I look back on it, it seems very reasonable to me. Foreigners coming to buy up huge amounts of land and do nothing with it – of course there was tremendous scepticism, so I don’t really worry about that any more.”
In any case, their intention was never to keep the land. “Our work was based on leveraging. We’re a family foundation, but we saw early on that to really go after large-scale conservation we needed to leverage every dollar that we invested” by persuading the government to provide, protect and manage adjacent land. So when acquiring estates, “we always looked at what was next door”. In that respect, Tompkins believes their combined business background was helpful. “It gives you a kind of discipline and viciousness about results that some NGOs or foundations don’t have.” It also taught her to manage a large staff: at its peak, Tompkins Conservation employed “up to 350 people, though now that we’ve donated everything it’s shrunk a lot in the past year”.
But, she stresses, “none of this would have been achieved without the [governments of Chile and Argentina] wanting it as badly as we did.” Over the past 25 years, she has worked with 10 presidencies. “You can’t donate something that a country doesn’t want to accept. And people forget that it’s not always politically beneficial to a president to declare a new national park. Without [Ricardo] Lagos, without [Michelle] Bachelet – she was extraordinary! – without [Sebastian] Piñera” – the Chilean president, to whom she presented a Global Citizenship award at the UN General Assembly in September – “there would have been no national park creation. That award was a salute to the entire country.”
The most recent park she was instrumental in creating is Parque Patagonia, which covers more than 300,000ha, 27 per cent of which was donated to the Chilean government last April. It, too, was initially controversial. “There was a lot of suspicion, and downright unhappiness, about Chile’s third largest sheep ranch becoming a park,” she says. “We’d never bought land with livestock on it, and this made it so contentious. By the time we closed on the deal, we had 25,000 sheep worth $1m, so all of a sudden we’d become ranchers.”
Tompkins ran the ranch for 14 years. “Doug saw this as my project. So I made a business plan, figured out how to maximise the investment. And that helped fund the transition of what became the national park. You have to be really cautious [selling that much livestock]; you don’t want to have a negative impact on the meat and wool markets.”
If Pumalín is about trees, Parque Patagonia is about landscape and wildlife – notably a rare deer, the huemul, Chile’s national animal, which was facing extinction but whose numbers are rising again. Once the sheep were gone, and with them 600km of fencing, herds of guanaco – related to the llama – returned to the valley. A casualty of their return has been the roses Tompkins cultivated in the garden of the lodge they built: “I’m fighting with them over that. I say, ‘You have 750,000 acres. Leave the roses alone!’ But they don’t listen.” She puts their present number at about 3,000, which in turn has positively affected the puma population.
At Estancia Iberá, meanwhile, a reserve of almost 20,000ha in northern Argentina purchased in 2000, they are proactively rewilding – a term, incidentally, Tompkins reckons they coined – by bringing back species that had died out there completely. “[Rewilding] is not for the faint at heart,” she says. “It’s very costly, and very complicated. You have to make sure the threats that extinguished them in the first place no longer exist. And though we have had great victories, when something goes wrong you lose animals.” And that, she says, hurts.
But the giant anteaters they’ve brought back are now thriving, as are white-collared peccaries and pampas deer. Indeed, having worked up to the apex predators, the focus now is jaguar, a species hunted to extinction in the Iberá wetlands in the 1930s. Three are due to be released in January. Lately Tompkins Conservation has diversified into the oceans, too, creating two parks covering 260,000sq km “at that junction between the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Antarctic”, where fishing is now banned completely. But ultimately, it’s the future of the planet that concerns her.
“I’m going to die of old age,” she says. “You probably will as well. But young people are going to die of climate change. It’s not that we haven’t known that, but boy oh boy: that gives you another perspective, a reason to get out of bed.” And that is why she puts her money where her mouth is. Because every hectare that Tompkins protects sequesters carbon, which is at least a step towards mitigating global warming.
“As much as I miss Doug, and [his death] almost killed me, sometimes I pinch myself that I’ve led this life for so long. Even on the worst days, I love what I’m doing. Imagine the percentage of people who can say that, who can’t wait to get out of bed because even when things are rotten, you know you’re on the right track. Even in the worst of the worst of the worst times, you’re on the right path. You’re doing what you want to do. That’s a gift.” tompkinsconservation.org. The Tompkins-created parks form part of Chile’s new Ruta de los Parques (rutadelosparques.org). Pura Aventura (pura-aventura.com/route) can organise self-drive itineraries. Rincon del Socorro (rincondelsocorro.com), inside the Parque Iberá, can organise visits to the Jaguar Reintroduction Project for potential donors.
The author putting children at the centre of our narrative
JK Rowling had just begun to write the first of the Harry Potter novels when her mother Anne died in 1990, having suffered from multiple sclerosis since Rowling was a teenager. A decade later, by which time she had written four bestsellers, Rowling set up the Volant Charitable Trust in her mother’s maiden name “to support charitable causes and issues I feel passionate about... organisations, large and small, [that] help women and children who are at risk in their lives or find themselves in situations where there seems no way out”. And in 2005 she co-founded what is now the Lumos Foundation, an NGO that works to support disadvantaged children internationally.
According to Volant’s accounts, its expenditure in 2018 topped £13m. But Rowling continues to make donations from her own wealth. Last September she gave £15.3m (including Gift Aid) to the University of Edinburgh in order to support research and fund new facilities for the Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic, which she helped found a decade ago.
Such is the extent of her philanthropy that when Forbes demoted her to its Billionaire Dropoffs list in 2012 it was because, it reported, that in giving an estimated $160m to charity, she was no longer rich enough to qualify. In a climate where politicians such as Bernie Sanders believe “billionaires should not exist” and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s policy adviser Dan Riffle has suggested that “every billionaire is a policy failure”, there’s quite an honour in that. volanttrust.org. wearelumos.org.
The ecommerce king creating an infrastructure for philanthropy in China
“A lot of countries have a long history of creating philanthropic foundations, but China is only just beginning,” said Jack Ma, co-founder of the ecommerce giant Alibaba and reportedly the richest man in China, last October at the Forbes CEO Conference in Singapore. Ma, a disciple of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, has encouraged corporate giving, and in the last financial year, Alibaba’s three charitable platforms raised and donated $184m. He has focused much of his own giving on Africa, prioritising “the three Es”: education (Ma began his career as an English teacher), entrepreneurship and e-government, which is both more efficient and more transparent. But he is also determined to encourage other entrepreneurs and “do more than just give money away”, and to create an infrastructure for philanthropy in China.
“I believe that in China one day hundreds of thousands of businesspeople will build their own charities and philanthropy foundations,” he said. “And I want them to avoid the mistakes I made. So we need a system. And I will be the guy to test it and share it. That is one of the missions of my foundation.” africabusinessheroes.org.
Jaap van Zweden
The conductor using music to empower people with autism
When their third child Benjamin was five, Jaap van Zweden, music director of the New York Philharmonic and one of the world’s best paid conductors, and his wife Aaltje were told that Benjamin’s autism was so severe that he would never have a relationship with them or his three siblings, let alone be able to live independently. He might never even speak. “It was not an easy discovery for us,” says van Zweden. But they were determined to explore every type of therapy, and eventually “we found a way to reach him through music”.
By singing to him and leaving out the odd word, they could persuade Benjamin to voice it, a method they happened on by chance when one of them forgot a lyric in a song he knew. His reaction told them that he understood language, and thus they embarked on the painstaking process of teaching him to talk through singing. It worked. Benjamin, who is now 28, not only speaks Dutch, but some English too.
Later that same year, the van Zwedens were invited to give a lecture on their experience. “We thought maybe 25, 50 people would turn up,” he says. “But 500 people came, and we realised then there was a need for us to do something. So in 1997 we started the Papageno Foundation.” The foundation, named after the character in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, who is bound by a vow of silence and can only communicate through music, began as a music therapy charity and now helps 1,000 children throughout the Netherlands. But it has also grown to support parents and carers; research into diagnosis of the condition, as early intervention can make all the difference; and young adults with autism.
Hence Papageno House, a handsome 19th-century urban villa in Laren, a small town 28km from Amsterdam. “It’s not a care institution,” van Zweden stresses, though 12 young people with autism live there, Benjamin among them. Rather it’s a place for them to learn the skills necessary to make the transition to living independently – each of its rooms has its own bathroom and kitchenette. And since it opened in 2015, “About 20 young adults have left and are now living on their own,” he adds. He expects Benjamin to move out towards the end of this year.
In addition to its residents, the house is attended daily by a further 60 or 70 autistic young people who come to take part in music therapy and sports activities – and to work in the kitchen of its busy restaurant, which is open to the public and overseen by the celebrated Dutch chef Paul Fagel of the restaurant Arsenaal in Naarden, giving them experience that can lead to paid work.
There’s also a 250-seat concert hall, and every Sunday a recital is given by students from the Amsterdam conservatoires or van Zweden’s friends and associates. “Great artists come to play there,” he says. “It is always sold out,” which brings in additional revenue. “And afterwards we serve cakes made by the children, and that’s important for their self-esteem. It’s a house of culture and of happiness.” Such is its success in transforming the lives of young people with autism, and of their parents, that though it receives “not one penny” of public money, plans are afoot to open a further five Papageno Houses in the Netherlands.
“What I am learning more and more,” says van Zweden, “is that in the end it’s not about what you got, but what you gave. I find more happiness in working for the foundation than anything else, and being able to help those young adults achieve what they are dreaming of. Everyone has dreams in life, and it’s wonderful to be able to make some of them come true.” papageno.nl.
Dee Dee Chan
The millennial using tech to impact social change in remote communities
Having started her career as an analyst at JP Morgan Chase in New York, Dee Dee Chan has been running her family foundation, Seal of Love, in her native Hong Kong since 2013. The foundation, focused principally on helping and educating underprivileged people in remote rural parts of China, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – because “one dollar goes a lot farther in making an impact [there] than in Hong Kong” – operates from the perspective that the problems facing “resource-limited communities” are solved not by handouts, but by technological innovation. Hence the donation of about £3.88m it made last November to Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, an endowment that will be used to support a project that encourages students to work towards solving global health issues.
“We hope [this] will allow students to use their imagination and know-how to come up with disruptive, tangible solutions to the world’s most pressing problems with maximum social impact,” she said at the opening of a new building at the university – the Seal of Love Charitable Foundation Wing.
Chan, whose grandfather was the hotels and real estate tycoon Chan Chak Fu, not only manages the family’s substantial funds but is also committed to what she calls “impact investing”, striving to turn the NGOs that the foundation supports “into businesses, when that’s just not in their DNA”, and to encouraging philanthropy in her peers – young people from families with at least $500m in assets who are active in the family business.
The rap star encouraging big philanthropic gestures
To mark his wife Kim Kardashian West’s 39th birthday last October, US rapper Kanye West made a million-dollar donation to Cut 50, the Buried Alive Project, the Equal Justice Initiative and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition – four of her “favourite charities that work so hard on prison reform”, Kardashian tweeted.
West has form when it comes to philanthropy, having supported dozens of causes, from Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, Save the Children and Stand Up to Cancer, to the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the Lunchbox Fund, which ensures vulnerable children in South Africa get a daily meal. He has set up two foundations. The first was in his own name, to encourage young people to finish their education. After it closed, he set up Donda’s House, named after his mother, but which is now known as Art of Culture Inc, this time to support creativity in young people in Chicago. When making donations directly, West supports a more eclectic range of causes: in January last year he donated $10m towards the completion of the artist James Turrell’s massive ongoing Roden Crater Project. artofculture.org.
The lawyer defending Mother Earth
A member of the bars of New York, California and the Supreme Court of the United States, James Thornton began his career on Wall Street at the massive law practice Paul, Weiss. He could have devoted his career to making money and giving it away. Instead he founded ClientEarth, a “public-interest law firm” that brings cases against companies, investors and governments it believes are accelerating climate change, and helps legislatures to “write good laws”, implement and enforce them. It has “stopped a generation of new coal-fired power stations in Poland,” he says; and sued the UK government over its violation of EU air quality rules – after which the High Court ordered the government to bring the country into compliance.
ClientEarth depends on donations for its work, and last summer it was given the proceeds of the sale of Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour’s guitar collection, which Christie’s sold for a record $21m. Even so, “We pay ourselves about 10 per cent of what people would make in the commercial world,” says Thornton of its 165 staff, spread across offices in London, Brussels, Berlin and Beijing. clientearth.org.
The Hollywood powerhouse championing culturally inclusive storytelling
When she was growing up in Chicago in the 1970s and ’80s, “most of the women” the television producer and screenwriter Shonda Rhimes saw on TV “didn’t seem like people I actually knew,” she says. “They felt like ideas of what women are. They never got to be nasty or competitive or hungry or angry.”
So she left for Hollywood (via Dartmouth College), where a succession of menial day jobs enabled her to write at night. She went on to create, write and executive produce shows such as Grey’s Anatomy (now in its 16th season), Private Practice, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. In 2018 she signed a $150m deal with Netflix, her first show for which, Bridgerton, set in Regency London, is set to stream later this year.
It’s a tough industry for anyone to break into, as she told the Los Angeles Times: “It’s hard for any playwright to find opportunities. If people feel they aren’t being included then I’m going to find a way to make sure they’re included. I’m going to find a way to make sure they have opportunities.” Hence the Rhimes Unsung Voices Playwriting Commission, which she set up to champion culturally inclusive storytelling and enable “under-represented writers of colour” to see their work staged by the IAMA Theatre Company in Los Angeles.
The commission is one of about seven regular recipients of six- or seven-figure grants from the Rhimes Family Foundation, that supports arts and education organisations. Its biggest beneficiary is the Smithsonian Institution, to which Rhimes has given a reported $10m. The Obama Foundation (which received $1m in 2018) in Chicago is another major client, as is Washington’s John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
But Rhimes also supports smaller theatre and dance organisations, not least the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Baldwin Hills, Los Angeles. “It’s not lost on me that 100 years from now, some child will look up at the DADA building and see that it is called the Rhimes Center for the Performing Arts and know that it was built by a black woman,” she has said, suggesting her commitment is long term.
She has also used her webzine Shondaland, now part of the Hearst Corporation, to champion philanthropy among its users, not least through a video in which she talks about her favourite charities – an eclectic spread ranging from Planned Parenthood and Time’s Up to the Chloe & Maud Foundation, which strives “to heighten global respect and appreciation” of tap dance; Black Girls Code and Girls Who Code, non-profits that work to increase the number of women working in computer science; and Beyond12, on whose board she sits, which supports students who are the first in their families to go to college, and to ensure that they’re “not the last”. shondaland.com.
Apurv and Alka Bagri
The family foundation bringing Asian art to a world stage
“I always feel that you get more than you give because the experience and knowledge that come from philanthropy are incredible,” says Alka Bagri, who, along with her husband Apurv Bagri, runs the London‑based Bagri Foundation.
The foundation, set up in 1990 by her father-in-law, Lord Bagri, founder of the metals giant Metdist, “supports many diverse things”, she says, mostly relating to culture, education, health and poverty relief. But as an art historian with a doctorate from Oxford University, and a former trustee of the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, she is most engaged by the cultural projects it enables, specifically those that bring arts from Asia to Europe and the US.
Last year it gave away almost £500,000, and among those it supported and programmed last year were the Indian artist Nikhil Chopra’s residency at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; a commission exploring artificial intelligence entities and organic life forms by the Korean-American artist Anicka Yi for the 58th Venice Biennale; a three-year initiative by the Classical Art Research Centre at Oxford intended to gain insight into Gandharan art and its links to ancient Greece and Rome; and a festival of contemporary Iranian cinema in London.
“Philanthropy opens doors and feeds my curiosity,” she says. “If I meet somebody and feel inspired by their work, I will try to provide a platform to showcase their talent,” though she stresses that not every decision is hers alone. “It’s a family foundation, supported by high-calibre professionals, so we discuss everything. [Eventually] I want my children to take over – so I involve them in everything.
“The wealth was created in my lifetime,” she continues, “so I was privy to the hard work that went into it, and that core value system of hard work and integrity is what we try to carry into all our philanthropic activities.
“With every project we try to observe the creative process. We don’t judge and we don’t interfere. We just want to see it unfold. That’s always a revelation for me. I think all philanthropy is reciprocal if you are open to receive. And that is a tremendous privilege.” bagrifoundation.org.
The moral philosopher and academic on a “10 per cent” mission
While Warren Buffett and Bill Gates’s Giving Pledge aims to inspire billionaires to pledge half their wealth to charity, Toby Ord, a Melbourne-born moral philosopher who is currently a senior research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, is on a mission to persuade the rest of us to donate at least 10 per cent of our income to charity and has put his money where his mouth is by pledging to give away everything he earns above £18,000 a year.
As a graduate student, Ord calculated that as a career academic he had the potential to earn about $2.5m. He realised he only needed a small fraction of that to live off “if I kept up that kind of grad-student type lifestyle”, in which case “I would only need about a third of this money, and I would be able to donate more than $1 million over my life to things I wanted to support,” he says in the TED talk he gave.
To be certain that it went to deserving causes, in 2009 he co‑founded Giving What We Can, which is now part of the Centre for Effective Altruism, a “community of effective givers”. A decade on, it has more than 4,000 members who have donated almost $127m between them. It seeks to maximise the impact made by the money it receives by running what it calls four “philanthropic funds managed by experts” that make grants to global health and development charities; animal welfare; “work aimed at improving long-term outcomes for humanity”; and “groups that drive more high-quality talent, information and capital towards tackling the world’s biggest problems”. In essence, it will do your due diligence for you. centreforeffectivealtruism.org.
All How To Give It editorial content was commissioned and produced by the Financial Times. Barclays Private Bank funded our reporting but it is the independent journalism of the Financial Times, and Barclays Private Bank was not given any editorial oversight of the content.
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