Conservation’s Role in Philanthropic Giving Is Changing

In Brief

Recent reports from the Highstead Foundation and Environmental Grantmakers Association, as well as observations from experts in the field, demonstrate a changing landscape of philanthropic conservation giving.

Philanthropic donors have broadened the scope of conservation efforts: often taking more systems-based approaches, integrating additional social and environmental issues, and focusing on organizations that work with a broad set of partners.

Many overarching philanthropic strategies have shifted to focus on climate change, but some foundations have worked to integrate land conservation efforts into their evolving climate change strategies.

Forest in Royalston, MA

Royalston, MA / Tyler Frost / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As warnings mount to protect biodiversity, respond to climate change threats, and decarbonize our industries, many NGOs are looking to philanthropies to fund responses to environmental crises. Yet, at $12.7 billion, environmental causes made up only 3% of charitable giving in the U.S. in 2018, according to Giving USA. And that $12.7 billion amount includes giving towards animal welfare organizations.

Historically, the environment (and animal welfare) has been one of the smallest categories of giving, though there is some evidence this proportion is growing faster than other categories. This has made understanding the breakdown of that funding important, especially around land conservation, which is core to many environmental challenges in the U.S.

In an effort to understand how environmental philanthropy can help advance the field of conservation finance, the Highstead Foundation recently published their findings on the trends in grant-making from 2004 to 2014 in the Northeast U.S. There is also much to learn from the Environmental Grantmakers Association’s Tracking the Field report, which provides information from 2007 through 2015 for the entire U.S.

These reports, as well as observations from experts in the field, demonstrate a changing landscape of philanthropic conservation giving. Now, foundations more often incorporate broader social and environmental issues into conservation goals. They also frequently approach conservation through the lens of climate change.

Broadening the Scope of Conservation Giving

The Highstead report noted that, since 2004, there has been a major shift away from traditional land acquisition and stewardship efforts from philanthropies. They have now broadened the scope of conservation efforts: often taking more systems-based approaches, integrating additional social and environmental issues, and focusing on organizations that work with a broad set of partners.

“After the recession, there was a real decline in foundation giving to the environment broadly, but even more specifically conservation,” said Nathalie Woolworth, one of the Highstead report’s authors.

“But something we found is that, while that very directly tied grant-making was declining, we were seeing increases in grant-making to stuff like climate change, and energy development, and projects that intersected with economic development and community revitalization,” she said. “We’re seeing funders think about conservation in a broader way.”

Now, foundations more often incorporate broader social and environmental issues into conservation goals.

Many foundations, including the Ford Foundation, MacArthur Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation, have gone through reassessments that have incorporated more systems approaches to conservation giving, according to Caitlin MacLean of the Milken Institute. This includes holistic approaches to tackling multiple connected issue areas, as well as increasing collaboration. Sustainable Development Goal 17 focuses on global partnerships, and funders are realizing that partnerships often have more value than one-off projects, especially for conservation.

Many foundations are now also working to have more impact on local social issues and empower communities through their conservation work. Some of this change comes from funders looking to work on a specific regional issue, such as rural economies or minority rights. This means that foundations are spending more time finding partners that are deeply place-based.

One example of conservation and social goals converging is the Ford Foundation’s work on the land and resource rights of indigenous peoples and local communities in the global south. As Kevin Currey of the Ford Foundation stated, one of the most important trends is the recognition that secure land rights improve the ability of local communities to protect and manage their forests and other natural resources, and contribute to global efforts to stop climate change.

Such systems approaches tackle multiple environmental and social issues at once, as well as the donors’ desires to get the best value out of their funding by leveraging grant dollars. Foundations are starting to partner more with each other to maximize their impact, explained Currey. For grantees, that means a trend towards funding organizations that work within an ecosystem of partners or an entire vertical of an issue.

Other environmental issues continue to be folded into the land conservation discussion, especially as reports — like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent study on climate change and land — highlight growing land use conflicts between development, agriculture and natural systems.

Efforts to move beyond conservation frequently include examples like regenerative farming or urban sustainability, explained Gregory Lopez, a professional in the philanthropic climate and wildlife field. Some philanthropic giving and emerging collaborative programs now look to integrate water resource conservation into land conservation, as well. For example, the Walton Foundation approaches their focus on oceans and rivers through their work with landholders that address land conservation issues that affect water.  

As the scope of conservation funding expands, another major and growing trend is blended finance projects between foundations, their own investing arms, and other impact investing actors. The track record for this is starting to become clear, Currey said. A major example is the Nature Conservancy’s NatureVest Cumberland Forest Project in Central Appalachia. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF) provided a $20 million program-related investment that attracted additional private investment, charitable giving, and public dollars into the project. The project acquired 253,000 acres of working forest, and also aims to assist local rural economies through sustainable forestry.

Conservation Versus Climate?

Within the biodiversity and land conservation field, it can often seem that climate change strategies are pulling focus from that work. While a focus on one doesn’t necessarily preclude work on the other, the tension between limiting climate change and conservation remains, for many reasons, a major trend with environmentalists.

There are two major approaches, however, that link conservation and climate efforts within philanthropy. The first lies in the understanding that work on climate change also looks to prevent the collapse of the habitats and animals that land conservation efforts aim to protect. Without addressing a changing climate and the range of issues it will cause — from food web and range disruptions to natural disaster disturbances — there could be little left to protect.

While many overarching philanthropic strategies have shifted to focus on climate change, many foundations have worked to integrate land conservation efforts into their evolving climate change strategies.

Another approach is to integrate traditional conservation goals into climate strategies by showing the carbon removal and ecosystem services value, as well as the climate-resilience potential, of land conservation efforts. This is the work that the DDCF has done as they have a history of giving towards the conservation of habitats.

As Sacha Spector, the program director for the environment at DDCF, told CFN in an interview, land protection plays a major role in climate solutions, including saving critical places that are climate resilient or have high carbon values. DDCF has historically worked on traditional habitat conservation with funding for direct land acquisition. While the organization remains focused on land conservation efforts, it has begun to change the way it approaches financing and partnerships, bringing in new stakeholders with a new set of values. These new partners include groups like NatureVest that can provide the financial expertise to explore blended finance options, or those that can help DDCF access carbon finance solutions.

Spector is optimistic that philanthropic dollars will continue to move towards climate-supporting land conservation as methods to quantify the value of ecosystem services improve, climate funders begin to see land as a critical mitigation investment, and understanding grows of the link between conservation and human health outcomes.

While many overarching philanthropic strategies have shifted to focus on climate change, many foundations have worked to integrate land conservation efforts into their evolving climate change strategies. In September 2018, nine major foundations, including the MacArthur Foundation and DDCF, pledged $459 million over four years towards land-use-related climate efforts. The commitments focus on the global protection, restoration and expansion of forests, including forest agriculture. They also include a recognition of the need to support indigenous land stewardship.

In a way, the 2018 announcement reflects much of what philanthropic land conservation looks like now: an emphasis on foundation collaboration, climate, agriculture, local and indigenous land stewardship, and the need to trigger additional capital. These shifts reflect the complexity of the links between social and environmental fields, and such philanthropic commitments pave a path forward to address issues together through systems approaches.

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