North American environmental philanthropy: observations and learnings

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Louise Arkles (centre) with Ruiying Zhang, Executive Director of the China Environmental Grantmakers Alliance (left) and Tess Bone, Program Associate, The Tiffany & Co. Foundation

In September I had a rare and precious opportunity to escape from the grants treadmill and spend time with colleagues in North America. In Vancouver and San Francisco, I visited 10 philanthropic foundations that fund in environmental conservation. Asheville, North Carolina, was the next stop, to attend the Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA) annual Fall Retreat.

Observations from North American foundations

Overwhelmingly, people were generous in sharing their time and knowledge. Their interest in our work in Australia was high, regardless of whether their foundations fund here. They were especially interested in our unique ecosystems and biodiversity, and in our Indigenous land and sea management experience.

A key lesson from my meetings with foundations was environmental funder collaboratives are thriving and impactful! Here are five great examples:

BC Water Funders Collaborative

The Water Funders Collaborative, with 24 member bodies, facilitates the strategic use of collective resources to advance freshwater protection in British Colombia, Canada. It provides a forum for exchange of information and peer learning between funders and water leaders (from NGOs, academia, First Nations, the water industry and government) by strengthening relationships, knowledge and networks.

The Collaborative started out a bit like the AEGN, acting as a conduit between funders and a bridge connecting funders to water sector leaders. However, the Collaborative increasingly acts to seed and develop projects which are jointly funded by its members and provide support and advice to NFP water leaders.

It is inclusive of everyone in the watershed (catchment), and now has government/quasi-government funders as members too, as it is well regarded as a trusted expert and a valued neutral player.

BC Fresh Water Legacy Initiative  is a project run by the BC Water Funders Collaborative. This is an initiative which makes seed grants and leverages funds. It is tasked with:

  • supporting pilots to show successes. These pilots are pitched ideas about implementing the new BC Water Sustainability Act.
  • creating the roadmap for freshwater:  place-based and co-created; focused on regions with champions in place and where partnerships can be forged.

Resources Legacy Fund (RLF) is an unusual intermediary player, working between philanthropy and frontline players. It is a charity which helps philanthropists set goals, design and deliver initiatives, build coalitions, administer grants/initiatives, and leverage further funds from philanthropy, government and mass market donors for conservation of land and water resources and climate change resilience.

RLF has been going 17 years and was originally started by the Packard Foundation coming together with legal specialists to provide legal support for environmental projects. RLF, therefore, began life as an environmental law firm and grant/initiative-administering foundation.

RLF focuses on driving policy change, creating new funding sources, constituency building and creating more (racial) diversity in the field. They do not fund conservation or climate science, as there is already public and university funding for this.

Their understanding of the law and legal obligations to meet environment requirements and standards is seen as a valuable tool as in the US it is the very real threat of litigation that often drives collaboration and action. This work requires a high level of expertise – legal, facilitation, policy, strategy – beyond that of individual Foundations. Therefore, environmental funders prefer to outsource initiatives to RLF to design and deliver.

Water Solutions Network was funded by the S.D. Bechtel Jr Foundation, which has a strong focus on engaging other funders in water to marshal philanthropic efforts. To achieve a clearer view of what was needed in the water space, Bechtel engaged consultants to unpack opportunities for impact in freshwater. In doing so, they learnt that water professionals had tools and authority, but no networks. It became clear that the skills needed were in developing empathy, making connections and collaboration.

Therefore, Bechtel went down the path of supporting shared learning experiences and have supported the Water Solutions Network, which currently supports around 70 people. The participant profile is mid-career professional people working in water or related sectors (non-profit, agencies, agriculture, First Nations etc.). The aim of the network is not to create alumni but career-long engagement across these sectors. 

Oceans5 is a collaborative effort to focus philanthropic effort on – and maximise impact for – the world’s oceans. It is a sponsored project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. Another Oceans5 member, The David & Lucile Packard Foundation, also co-funded Fundingtheocean, a Foundation Center tool which allows anyone to see who is funding what and where in the marine space.

Environmental Grantmakers Association 2018 Fall Retreat

Rather unusually for those of us based outside the US, the central theme of this philanthropy conference was the intersection between social justice and environmental justice: the ‘global south’, power and politics. The issues were framed as a critical trifecta of inter-related challenges: climate change, economic inequality and institutionalised racism.

Presentations from funders, community leaders/organisers, non-profit organisations and academics all emphasised that environmental change and sustainability cannot occur until people are politically empowered, environmentally aware, and leading from the grass roots up. Consequently, there was a strong thread of discussion throughout the four days about community organising and mobilising.

The nexus between climate change and social justice is the new cutting edge. At this conference, the emphasis was placed squarely on ground-up work, on funders stepping down from the driver’s seat and trusting those most impacted to take the reins, and on listening to and supporting communities to take the lead on their preferred strategies. The theme was securing their environment from threats (industrial expansion, corporate monopolies, polluted water, logged forests), but the focus was on community power and self-determination, for example, ‘food sovereignty, not food security’. This was acknowledged to be an uncomfortable space for many funders, but critical to long-term and sustainable success.

All conference sessions advocated that environmental justice (i.e. saving forests and landscapes, ecosystems, freshwater and farming land, biodiversity) starts – and ultimately resides – with the people on that land, particularly with First Nations people. Increasingly, people who live and work on the land are generally strongly motivated to take care of that land (and its water, rivers and oceans etc.) and to reducing or preventing pollution; addressing climate change; and pushing back on corporate greed, vested interests and short-term profits that cause environmental damage.

In summary, the conference reflected and is a part of a broader movement of political/democratic engagement which is seeing people question the structures of capitalism and industry, and challenge the era of weak governments and excessive corporate power.

How much of this is relevant to Australia is hard to determine. The US experience could be seen as a window into what Australia may face in 3–5 years’ time. I leave you with three excellent resources that reflect this global movement.

  1. At the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco a joint statement was issued by several leading funders which have jointly pledged US $459 million to support forests and indigenous land rights as a way to mitigate climate change.
  2. Grantcraft has produced a new report called Deciding Together: Shifting power and resources through participatory grantmaking which explores the increasing number of foundations responding to the growing demand for accountability and transparency by seeking ways to challenge existing practices, and work with community players to help set priorities, develop strategies, or sit on boards or advisory committees.
  3. A new book called Winners take all: the elite charade of changing the world  by Anand Giridharadas seeks to uncover the ‘dark side’ of doing good. The author’s thesis is that the top 10% of humanity hold 90% of the planet’s wealth, and these winners in our highly inequitable status quo are also the self-appointed drivers of change who are taking the front foot in leading the search for solutions (and thereby deflecting the blame), usually by creating initiatives of their own.

Giridharadas' argument is that we in philanthropy (and social entrepreneurship/social investment) apply our financial resources to problems that we helped to create in the first place, and that our efforts to address these are ‘half-measures’ which are perpetuating long-term harm while achieving short term good. See this review by Mark Kramer in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Much food for thought!


Louise Arkles is Program Manager for Environment & Conservation.


collaboration,Environment & Conservation,grantmaking,impact,philanthropy

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