Engangered species such as the Tasmanian Devil will benefit from the $1 million gift.

Funds from the endowment will be used to save endangered species like this Tasmanian Devil.

Natasha Bowness, chair of the Bowness Family Foundation and a Zoos Victoria board member, raised the idea of establishing an endowment 18 months ago. The Bowness Family Foundation has previously made large donations to the arts, education and social inclusion initiatives but this was a first for both donor and recipient.

“Zoos Victoria has never had an endowment before and I think the Bowness family saw a real potential. Having worked with the National Gallery of Victoria and The Australian Ballet, Natasha has seen how it has really changed those cultural institutions and was interested in a similar exercise here at Zoos Victoria,” says Zoos Victoria CEO Dr Jenny Gray.

The Foundation’s association with Zoos Victoria dates back seven years to the development of an interactive area for children at Melbourne Zoo.

“They were one of our core supporters on developing a zone called Growing Wild, which is all about children playing around animals,” says Dr Gray. “It’s got meerkats and a classroom facility and is a really great place for kids to be. At that stage Natasha’s two boys were about nine years old and they just loved it as a safe place where they could play and experience animals.”

Natasha Bowness subsequently joined the Zoos Victoria board, where Dr Gray says she makes a significant contribution due to her background. Coming from a philanthropic family, she has an innate understanding of how giving works, while her career as a chartered accountant means she is a valuable asset when it comes to the financial side of the operation.

“Establishing it is one thing and talking about how that is managed in perpetuity is great but what you really need to do is start getting gifts in,” says Dr Gray. “I think that is where the Bowness family have been extraordinary in not only having the idea for an endowment but coming forward with this amazing gift of $1 million.”

The Zoo Endowment will be managed by the Victorian Funds Management Corporation (VFMC) and overseen by the Zoos Victoria Board. Dr Gray says the funds will be invested at a fairly aggressive rate.

The disbursement from the endowment will be focused on four areas:

  • animal welfare
  • education
  • staff development, and
  • saving endangered species.

“All four of these areas have a real future focus. The endowment takes us away from the bread and butter and gets us thinking about the future,” says Dr Gray. “We still have some amazing donors who support us year to year but this puts us into a different realm where we are really focused on building up a sum of money that will last well into the future.”

Animals such as the Asian Elephant at Melbourne Zoo will benefit from the $1 million gift.

Animal welfare is one of the four focus areas of the endowment, ensuring that animals like this Asian elephant who lives at Melbourne Zoo has the best conditions and care.


The gift is a big deal for a sector that doesn’t always get philanthropic love. “Philanthropy for the environment and conservation is very limited,” says Dr Gray. “It doesn’t get nearly the same attention as some areas like health, education and the arts, but we still have an important role to play and it’s home to a number of very interesting people.”

Some of Dr Gray’s favourite types of donors include the people whose gifts are accompanied by letters about their favourite animals and the myriad school children who come up with inventive fundraising activities to support the zoo. Another real stand-out for her was the two little girls who sold lemonade to raise money for the animals they love.

“What I love about philanthropy within animals and conservation and zoos is that it touches the lives of ordinary people as well as big donors,” she explains. “I don’t think many children are selling lemonade to buy a new work of art but they are selling lemonade to help save animals in the future – hopefully those little girls will go on to raise millions one day for a mighty cause. I think we work very much in the space of exploring and developing new philanthropy sources, almost growing the cake.”

Beyond her own slice of the cake, Dr Gray believes that philanthropy is growing in stature in Australia.

“I think many people will concede that it still lags behind somewhere like America where there is a huge culture of giving, but we’ve seen some really significant gifts in the last year, not necessarily to conservation but certainly to universities, health, indigenous outcomes; all are getting a lot more philanthropic support.”

Zoos Victoria has been going strong for over 150 years and this gift should ensure another 150 years. Dr Gray looks forward to a long relationship with Natasha Bowness, the Foundation and the other donors.

“I can imagine a time far into the future where her sons are interacting with whoever comes along after me at the zoo. We see this as a life-long relationship and many of the families and trusts and foundations we’ve been involved with have been with us for 50 to 60 years. We’ve had long-term relationships going back, I look forward to long-term relationships going forward.”