Anyone have a spare million?
One Christchurch couple does, and they’ve been giving it away for more than two decades.
In the ’70s, Grant, 73, and Marilyn Nelson, 67, built a business in their garage that became so successful, they sold it in 1995 to launch a charitable trust, The Gama Foundation.
Since then, the foundation has poured millions into conservation, research, and disability and education causes, recently awarding $50,000 to coronavirus specialist Professor Michael Baker for his work during the pandemic.
By the time the couple retires, they will have given away around $50 million.
The foundation seeks to “sponsor research and produce educational resources that help field leaders in insurance and financial services run their businesses more effectively,” according to its website, and is the only organisation of its kind to do so.
While the Nelsons avoid the spotlight for their charitable endeavours, their recent efforts have gained global attention for their passionate commitment to their projects.
The charitable trust receives no donations, no applications and the couple uses no money from the foundation.
Instead, Grant says they just “live off [their] savings.”
“We just decide on what projects we would like to support then we approach those organisations,” he tells RNZ.
Opting for a quiet and modest lifestyle, the couple, who have been married over 47 years, have never travelled overseas or lived beyond their means.
“We have always tried to keep our spending to a minimum,” he explains, revealing they launched a website designed to help people keep their spending under control.
Grant, who was born blind and suffered a series of eye conditions in his youth, launched the home business with Marilyn after being unable to pursue his qualifications in Economics.
Importing PVC, the couple’s business turned the raw materials in doors, roofing and floorboards, distributing the products through retailers such as Mitre 10.
“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,” he said.
In 1995, the couple sold their home-grown business to take a “new direction in life”.
“We saw a lot of things going on and we thought, well, we would like to do something about that,” Grant explains.
For their first charitable project, the philanthropists were prompted by the Christchurch earthquakes, creating a legal issues centre to provide an accessible and efficient legal system.
The pair also established the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University, to encourage research and decision making into areas where future generations are underrepresented.
Their interest in public health amid the coronavirus crisis connected them with Dr Michael Baker and his colleagues, helping them formulate a centre geared towards “educating the public” that he hopes will be running by the end of the year.
Moving forward, the couple says they will be getting a trustee company to continue the work.
“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,” Grant shares.