Pro Aere, Aqua, Terra. For the good of air, water, and earth. This single sentence in latin distills the legacy of Maj and Tor Nessling, their love of nature, and their wish to conserve it for generations to come. But who would guess that behind a foundation dedicated to nature conservation is a power couple who made their fortune in the automobile industry? When Tor Nessling wanted to unwind, he would either jump behind the wheel of the car, or seek solace in nature.
The motor industry and nature conservation might sound like a strange combination. Tor Nessling (1901–1971) loved shiny cars and puffing on cigars, and he quickly rose to become managing director of Suomen Autoteollisuus Ab (Finnish Motors Ltd), a major truck manufacturing company. Nessling, known for his relentless leadership style, dedicated his life’s work to the motor industry, but spent all his free time in the forest, birdwatching, or sailing the Archipelago Sea with his wife Greta Maria ”Maj” Nessling (1901–1974). Nature was always an important part of his life, ever since joining the Boy Scouts as a child. Later on he became an avid sailor, a pastime that continued until his death.
The decision to establish the Maj and Tor Nessling Foundation was most likely made in the Finnish archipelago.
Tor did not have time to establish the foundation bearing his name before he died. Maj, left alone, made their common dream of using their estate to establish a foundation a reality. In the summer of 1972, Maj visited the zoological research station in Tvärminne on the West coast of Finland. A family friend, Heikki Sisula, introduced her to ongoing research at the station, and took the widow sailing in the surrounding archipelago. As their boat sliced through the water, Maj was reminded of countless boat trips with Tor. It’s not hard to imagine that she must have felt strongly compelled to dedicate their fortune to conserving these beautiful surroundings.
Heikki Sisula, who worked as a researcher and lecturer at University of Helsinki, and later in the Ministry of the Environment and the OECD, shares his memories of Maj Nessling’s visit and the formation of the foundation on this video (subtitles available in English):
The charter establishing a foundation bearing the Nessling name arrived in Finland’s Ministry of Justice in June 1972, right after Maj got back from Tvärminne. Permission was granted that autumn. Money originating from the motor industry forms the base of the foundation’s funds to this very day.
With no children of their own, the Nesslings wanted their estate to be directed into conserving Finnish nature, and ensuring that future generations too would have the chance to replenish their soul in the beauty of nature. The couple’s stance on nature and environmental conservation was exceptionally progressive for the times. In the last few decades, our need to protect the environment has become more pressing than ever.
Today, the foundation is in the hands of a Governing Board of seven members, Science and Executive Director, Head of Administration, Grant and Administrative Coordinator and Communications Specialist. Their duty is to manage the foundation’s wealth and to ensure funding for outstanding and significant environmental research. In order to receive funding, research must be solution-oriented and place emphasis on collaboration between different actors. Our environment needs both.
In 2022, 50 years after the foundation was established, it has awarded almost 89 million euros in grants for over 3,400 projects altogether.