23 Aug 2020

Philanthropic Kiwi couple giving away more than $50 million

From Sunday Morning, 4:15 pm on 23 August 2020

By the time Christchurch couple Grant and Marilyn Nelson retire they will have given away more than $50 million. In the late 1970s, the pair started a business in their garage which proved to be so successful that in 1995 they sold it and started a charitable trust, The Gama Foundation.

Over the years the foundation has given millions of dollars to conservation, research, disability, and educational causes, including $50,000 recently awarded to Professor Michael Baker for his work on Covid-19. The list of causes they have helped is long.

Christchurch philanthropists Grant and Marilyn Nelson

Christchurch philanthropists Grant and Marilyn Nelson Photo: Supplied

Grant Nelson told Sunday Morning Gama was founded when the couple decided to take a new path in life.

They couple does not ask for any publicity from the organisations or efforts they support - except in cases where people may be able to find out they can apply for support.

"By the time we retire, yes, we will have given away about $50 million."

Nelson was born blind.

"I was born with quite a number of eye conditions and had very low vision so during my primary school years I was in a special class. But in those days in secondary school and university there  was no extra help available so I just had to get by as best I could. 

"I did end up with a bachelor's degree in economics but I wasn't able to use those qualifications, and I ended up starting a business working from home - and of course my wife Marilyn was able to help me a lot with that with things I wasn't able to do myself.

"But about 20 years ago I did get a talking computer so that made a huge difference and I've been able to do a lot of work on that."

The business that the couple set up that allowed the establishment of the Gama Foundation was importing PVC and making doors from it, then it began importing PVC roofing, floorboards and wooden doors, and selling the products through retailers like Mitre 10.

"In 1995 we had an offer to purchase the business from a larger national company and we just decided we would take a different direction in life, and we put the proceeds into a trust and we've just been working on that.

"We saw a lot of things going on and we thought, well, we would like to do something about that.

"I suppose there are always things that crop up where you think 'that's not right, I wish I could do something about that'.

"We thought 'well, we have got some money now, perhaps we can do something about these things'."

Nelson acknowledges that they had invested wisely in properties - although there were problems when they were damaged in the Christchurch earthquakes.

That led the couple to set up a legal issues centre to promote a more efficient and accessible legal system.

Asked where he had directed his efforts in the past decade, Nelson said: "Back in 2012 we did establish the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at the School of Government at Victoria University, and its role is to carry out research on government decision making and do research on environmental and social areas where interests of future generations are not being well represented.

"Also we did give $5 million to Forest and Bird for their work and we have supported a lot of other projects but certainly our work over the last decade has been a little bit disrupted."

Nelson said last year they developed an interest in public health and creating a public health education centre.

"Well of course, the Covid-19 situation has arisen and Michael Baker and his colleagues have been very busy advising the government and educating the public about these issues so work on the centre has been delayed but we are hoping that it will be up and running by the end of the year."

The Gama Foundation receives no donations, asks for no applications, and the Nelsons take no money from the trust.

"We just live off our savings. We don't ask the public for any money and we don't ask other charities to make applications to us. We just decide on what projects we would like to support then we approach those organisations."

Nelson said at age 73 and Marilyn aged 67, they "would like to have a more relaxing lifestyle".

"I think we will always be interested in what's happening but we want to take more of a back seat.

"We are quite happy with the way things have gone. We have quite a modest lifestyle. We have been married 47 years and only on our second house. We have never been overseas. If we do go away for few days we try to combine that meetings with organisations around the country. 

"We have always tried to keep our spending to a minimum and we have a website which is designed to help people keep their spending to a minimum ... it's called everydollarcounts.org.nz."

Nelson said The Gama Foundation would continue on.

"We will be getting a trustee company to carry on the running of it and they will receive reports from the different endowments and projects that we have been involved with - and they will check to see the work we have provided the funding for is actually being undertaken."

As for what had given him the most satisfaction, Nelson said: "It's really difficult to say. I suppose preserving some of the native bush that we have done and some of the endowments, that's been quite satisfying but we are not like other charities because ... what we have tried to do is concentrate on some of the problems that result in a lot of victims falling down the cliff so we have been trying to erect fences at the tops of cliffs and that's a long, drawn out process and ... you can't really tell to what extent the work you have done has made a difference. 

"But I suppose just being involved with that, and hoping that in time it can make a difference, can be quite satisfying."

Nelson said looking back, there were a lot of things that could - or should - have been done differently, but there was not much point looking back and having regrets.

"We are fortunate. We've had the resources to try and do something and it's been good to help make a difference for our country."