More details have emerged about $443.8 million in reef funding that was awarded without a competitive tender process.

A small not-for-profit called the Great Barrier Reef Foundation was announced as the recipient of the funding in this year’s Federal Budget, leading many to wonder just who the group was and how it was selected from a range of larger and better-known alternatives.

A Senate inquiry this week has been told that the organisation was offered the funding at a meeting in Sydney that included Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, environment and energy minister Josh Frydenberg and the foundation’s chair John Schubert.

“The foundation did not suggest or make any application for this funding. We were first informed of this opportunity to form a partnership with reef trust on the 9th of April this year,” Great Barrier Reef Foundation managing director Anna Marsden told the hearing.

“And who was it that contacted you about that and who did they speak to?” Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson asked.

“That was a meeting between the prime minister, minister Frydenberg … and our chair,” Ms Marsden said.

She said the foundation was informed about the funding allocation announced in the May federal budget at the 9 April meeting.

Ms Marsden said she spoke to departmental authorities the next day to talk about what would happen if the foundation accepted the offer.

She said they determined some “collaboration principles” to be put to the foundation’s board, “and once they were approved there was an exchange of letters between the minister and the chairman which cemented the agreement to enter into a partnership”.

The foundation’s chairman’s panel is a corporate membership group that includes chief executives and directors of companies including Commonwealth Bank, BHP, Qantas, Shell and Peabody Energy.

Each of the 55 members pay $20,000 a year for membership.

Ms Marsden said the foundation looked for members that have similar values and commitment to the reef.

Labor senator Kristina Keneally also asked the federal department about how the funds were awarded.

“It’s still not clear to us how it came to be that the prime minister felt that he could meet with this foundation and offer them $443 million of money,” she said.

Officials said the decision was made within “the confines of the budget process”, and that it had been the government’s decision to approach the foundation.