Why the Great Barrier Reef Is Anna Marsden's Only Customer

Anna Marsden

The head of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation says she has just one customer. But with that comes enormous responsibility.

Current role: Managing director, Great Barrier Reef Foundation Tenure Eight years
Previous roles: CEO, Queensland Ballet; general manager creative, Rowland; head of development, QAGOMA

How do you define good leadership?

Leadership has changed. I used to think it was climbing to the top, being an inspiring leader, having the road map and understanding the DNA. Now I really believe it’s when a team is able to stick together, bear the burden of disruption and challenge, and achieve great things. If you have multiple leaders across an organisation who feel confident, valued and validated in what they do, they then inspire o thers. So it’s a cosmos of leadership – a patchwork quilt of good people working together. You need everybody to be a leader in a room. It can’t just be one or two people at the top who carry it and everyone else simply does as they say.

You’ve driven record fundraising. How different are those conversations in 2024 as opposed to eight years ago?

One of the first things that struck me in this job was I couldn’t believe how easy it was to sell the Great Barrier Reef. People want it to survive; they want it to be okay. But there is no doubt that right now there is something in the air with ocean conservation and there is something about coral reefs that is very special, very pertinent. People are no longer arguing about climate change – they just want to know that we are making progress. We’re a practical, pragmatic, environmental NGO. We get our hands dirty, we bring people together, we are unashamedly obsessed with impact and we are a really trusted bridge to industry. We’ve just closed off one of the largest fundraising campaigns for the environment in Australia’s history but oceans are still hugely underfunded – from a philanthropic lens – everywhere in the world. So we need to do more.

What’s your secret tactic when it comes to getting donors across the line?

Someone said to me a long time ago, “It’s not that Australians don’t give; we’re just really bad at asking.” Well, I’m not squeamish about asking for help when I believe in what I’m asking for and that the person or company I’m talking to could make a difference. I’m not just selling it – I believe in it. And with the scientists around us, there is a way through.

How do you determine truly genuine partnerships?

We do a lot of diligence on any partner who is interested in supporting us. They have to believe that climate change is the number-one threat to the reef and they have to be on the net-zero journey and doing great work. There are multiple times we’ve walked away from significant amounts of money because the investor wasn’t in it for the right reasons. Our former chair, John Schubert, had a great phrase that everybody lived by: “We have one customer and that’s the Great Barrier Reef.” So every single decision we make has to place the reef first and make the reef better.

So, what’s the current status of the reef? Some parts of it are in recovery but there are new losses, aren’t there?

Yes, there are. We’re suffering the fifth mass coral bleaching event. What’s interesting about this one is that the previous bleaching events have played out in the middle and northern parts of the Great Barrier Reef. This time, cyclones have cooled down the weather up north and the southern part is experiencing bleaching. It’s not dead coral – in fact, it’s beautiful to swim over because you get these white corals and all the fish and turtles are still doing what they’re doing – but if the heat stays for longer than 30 days in a month, the coral will starve because the heat-stressed coral is not taking food. So it’s under extreme stress. Most people will visit the Great Barrier Reef and they’ll swim over the size of a tennis court when they do their snorkel from a boat or from an island but the reef as an ecosystem is the size of 70 million football fields.

Did you say 70 million?

That’s how big it is! So when people say, “It wasn’t looking good”, they’re not seeing the whole thing. I spent a lovely time before Christmas doing an outer reef expedition. We didn’t see a boat for seven days and I swam at reefs I’ve never seen before. It was so beautiful and untouched. Even though we’re experiencing bleaching, there’s not a blanket bleaching across the whole Great Barrier Reef. The public wants a simple frame – is it good or is it bad? It’s mixed. It’s a highly resilient natural system that’s facing immense pressures. She is fighting and she is trying to repair herself. But for the very first time, she needs human help and conservation.

It’s such a balancing act, isn’t it? You want to inform people about what’s going on but you don’t want to scare off travellers who bring such critical revenue.

Absolutely. The most common question during COVID was, “Gee, the reef must be doing so well with no tourists.” That is so wrong. Tourism is one of the conservation levers we must pull. First, by visiting the reef you’re paying money that goes to the conservation of the reef and helps manage it. Second, it’s so well-managed – you’re hosted by the ultimate guardians of the reef. We’ve also seen that by visiting the reef, people are more likely to adopt more sustainable practices. So we constantly tinker with the communication and evolve it and hold our breath. It’s a busy space out there and sometimes things land the wrong way.

It’s a huge responsibility. How do you shoulder it?

It’s an honour to have this job at this moment, when we aren’t in a dress rehearsal. This is game time for coral reefs globally. I am constantly surprised that it doesn’t get on top of me more – because it is tough – but the organisation is very optimistic. We don’t hover on the problem; we hover on the solution.

The foundation works with scientists and government, communities and big business. How do you successfully manage all those stakeholders?

A lot of programs that have been super-successful have started with meetings that were very clunky, with a lot of egos and elbows out. But we’ve become quite trusted as a group that can bring the right players together. We’re very good at building the right-sized governance and consultation so people can see their lane in that collective program. We’ll push them so it’s a bit of a ballet but we’ve learnt to trust our instincts on understanding the dynamics of human behaviour and motivations. That means we can be more reasonable in understanding what it looks like for them and create room for that.

In 2018, you were drawn into a media storm when the Coalition government gave the foundation a surprise donation of $443 million with no tender process. What do you remember most about that time?

I felt surprised at the backlash and how personal it became. It was the first time I’d ever been caught up in a political media storm, where you’re fielding calls and calls and calls. There was an insatiable appetite to prove that we were a bad group and there was something smelly at the core. But it was a lot of public money and people wanted to know that the investment was going to make a difference. The best way through it was to deliver A-plus work, to be transparent and to build best-inclass governance. So we just put our heads down and did that. I don’t want to relive those few months but without that scrutiny we may not have been challenged to be so focused and to look for perfection and not settle for anything less. So the reef benefited.

What did you learn about yourself in that process?

I was driven by what people thought of me. I realised that was probably not the best use of my energy and my spirit so it has allowed me to understand the opinions that I value and not look for validation from every single person. It’s not a popularity contest. But we felt every barb and every media article because people who work for purpose organisations intentionally have a thin skin to feel the cause. There were often times when I thought to myself, “You’ve got to toughen up.” But I fought against that because I want to feel the work, I want to feel it in my heart.

You work closely with First Nations people. What have you learnt from those partnerships?

Larissa Hale, who is chair of our Traditional Owner advisory group, said to me, “Remember that you’re joining our bus. This is our journey and we’ve been on this bus for a very long time.” That was a beautiful “aha” moment. There’s such a deep connection and understanding of the pace in which the natural environment moves when you spend time on Country with Traditional Owners. You appreciate conservation in a different, richer way. There’s a fantastic statistic that says Indigenous cultures or peoples make up five per cent of the population and yet they have custodianship or responsibility for up to 85 per cent of the remaining world’s biodiversity. There are two ways to look at that. One is that they’ve been looking after their Country a lot better than we’ve been looking after ours. And if you aren’t working with First Nations knowledge and people at the centre of your solution, you’re not going to get the kind of biodiversity and nature repair that you want. We’re all in this car together. But they were in the car first so we join that journey and add value as we can.

What’s your biggest strength as a leader?

I’m curious and I’m always open to giving things a go, which I think is what people really like. Others tell me that it’s a pretty flat structure – anyone can walk in and ask me anything and I’ll give them my honest opinion. But I do think it’s that curiosity, which means the journey is never finished, we can always find something bigger and there’s always the possibility of a further ambition or something else to achieve. That curious lens helps me a lot.

And what about your biggest gap?

In my older age, I’m getting impatient. Things take a while and that bothers me a bit. I’m also always running around doing too many things. I’m still not great at being able to identify the things that really need more time. I still don’t think this generation of working women has got the work-life balance right. We’re a lot better but there’s still this aspiration to get an “A” in both places. If I had more time, I could probably ponder and solve things deeper.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a CEO?

Being a CEO is not the destination. The destination is to find something you love. Then you’ll be a CEO.


Personal motto
Don’t put off what needs to be done.

Communication approach
If it doesn’t need to be in an email, say it in person or pick up the phone. The old-fashioned way worked well for centuries.

Motivation tactic
We won’t get to where we want to be if we go it alone. We are better together.

Productivity hack
Step away from work. I like to take my daughter to netball practice, binge a TV series or go for a run. It’s how I recharge and refocus.

Business book or podcast
I love to read and listen to lots of things but I can’t go past anything by Jim Collins.

Rule you don’t break
Use-by dates on food.

Favourite piece of advice
You don’t work with organisations, you work with the people in those organisations.

Qantas is a long-time partner of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation and is investing $10 million over 10 years to support scientists, Traditional Owners and local tourism operators restoring corals across Australia’s reefs.

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SEE ALSO: How to See the World’s Most Amazing Natural Phenomena

Image credit: Marc Némorin

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