A man who walks the talk
Updated: Sep 27, 2022
Neil Thorsen’s generous support is fueled by the urgent need to protect our most endangered species.
Vice Patron and founder of the Endangered Species Foundation, Neil Thorsen, is a huge advocate for endangered species. In line with his view that there needs to be more resourcing to protect endangered species, he continues to give generously to the Endangered Species Foundation through substantial time, expertise and donations.
“Philanthropy is an area of my life where, apart from family matters, I have had the most satisfaction,” says Neil. “I hope through my input and support we are able to elevate the plight of endangered species and focus on getting funding to where it is so urgently needed”.
Whilst a strong advocate for the predator free movement, Neil also believes there is an immediate need for government, corporations, and individuals to fund groups who are engaged in saving our endangered species. He highlights the plight of hundreds of endemic species that will not benefit from the control of possums, rodents and mustelids.
“New Zealand has beautiful and unique marine taonga such as the Maui dolphin, the Antipodean albatross and the New Zealand sealion, which all require our urgent attention and resourcing,” says Neil. “There are also freshwater taonga such as caddis flies, galaxiad fish, freshwater snails, insects and plant life, which will not be protected from extinction by mammalian predator control.”
New Zealand Sea Lion
The Endangered Species Foundation has investigated what actions are needed and how much it will cost to protect the fifty species in Aotearoa that are closest to extinction here. A reduction in predator numbers will contribute significantly to protecting some species, but these make up only about half of the 50 most endangered.
As well as his strong advocacy for the environment and endangered species, Neil has spent many years improving the philanthropic sector, working alongside many other leaders in this space.
“Neil’s altruism and work to establish new philanthropic initiatives has covered decades,” says Stu Muir, Chair of the Endangered Species Foundation. “We are extremely grateful to have him as our Vice Patron, for the wonderful history, experience and connections he brings, as well as his continued generosity towards our cause for endangered species.”
Endangered Tara iti, Mangawhai, Image: Jacob Ball, DOC, Crown Copyright
Neil started his journey in philanthropy in 1991 as the Chair of the New Zealand Association of Philanthropic Trusts (NZAPT), which included the McKenzie, Todd and Self-Help Foundations, and most of the Trustee Companies. During this time, he steered NZAPT towards speaking for and representing the full charitable sector. Soon after he left, the Association became Philanthropy New Zealand, which is now regarded as one of the most successful NGOs, having had inspiring leadership and teamwork since its inception. Neil has since been elected an Honorary Member of Philanthropy New Zealand and follows its operations, with satisfaction as to where it is moving.
A major accomplishment, during Neil’s path dedicated to furthering philanthropy, was the creation of the Wellington Region Community Foundation. In 1991 he established this community foundation, which was a New Zealand first, with a powerful board headed by Sir Michael Fowler. In his three years as a trustee Neil obtained five sub-trusts trusts from NZ Guardian Trust clients, and eventually the Wellington Region Community Foundation was superseded by the Nikau Foundation
“The Nikau Foundation is currently going from strength to strength under good management,” says Neil, “I am delighted that there are now about 20 Community Foundations in New Zealand and the sector is growing well.”
Neil was also instrumental in enabling New Zealand to establish a Charities Commission based on that of the United Kingdom.
“Jenny Gill and I were able to convince a Cabinet Minister that his government should establish such a Commission,” says Neil. “It has been in place for years and is working well”.
As well as chairing NZAPT, driving the Wellington Region Community Foundation and carrying out duties as manager of a very vibrant branch of NZ Guardian Trust, Neil was also part of a key group of people who helped getting Zealandia off the ground. He was a member of a steering committee, tasked with establishing the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary Trust (now Zealandia) and his job was to ensure that a good Deed of Trust would be executed.
Mike and Neil Thorsen
The initiative however, that has given Neil the most enjoyment (and challenges!) was establishing the Endangered Species Foundation with his son Michael in 2013. Setting up the Foundation has been a journey of highs and lows and included liaising with many people to get the Foundation off the ground.
On 20th April 2012, Neil and Mike met with local MP Tony Ryall who was a cabinet minister to outline the proposal for the Endangered Species Foundation.
“The Minister’s reaction,” says Neil, “was “Why hasn’t someone done this before?”"
Throughout all Neil’s endeavours he has been supported immensely by his wife Jo.
“Jo has been by my side through all the ups and downs and supported me through many of these challenges,” says Neil. “I am very grateful to her for the support I have received over the years, and we share these successes together.”
Neil is now optimistic that the Foundation is solid in its vision, governance and delivery to achieve outcomes for our most vulnerable species.
“I have no doubt that ESF is heading towards becoming one of New Zealand’s greatest conservation trusts, saving myriads of the rarest of the rare,” says Neil.
“Establishing the $1 million Paterson Conservation Trust, whereby Donald Paterson established a Memorial Trust to honour his deceased sister, Pamela, was a thrill. I do hope that more Memorial Trusts will follow”.
Neil Thorsen with his ancestral Duart Castle in the background.