Environmental philanthropy: Maintaining focus through a crisis

The world has 6 months to avert a climate crisis according to Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA). The IEA are urging governments to put green policies at the heart of the post-pandemic recovery plans: philanthropists have a critical role to play in supporting this.

When thinking about the humanitarian disaster wreaked by COVID, environmental issues have been somewhat eclipsed, despite the myriad ways in which the pandemic and the degradation of the environment are connected. To take just a couple such connections: our destruction of habitat globally and the illegal wildlife trade directly contribute to the rise of zoonotic diseases like COVID, as species are crammed into more and more crowded spaces and people come into more contact with them; and air pollution has been shown not only to make people more vulnerable to the worst effects of COVID but to help spread it.

Philanthropists who have been contributing to the global environmental effort for a number of years have been forced to examine where their priorities lie given the humanitarian crisis unfolding around them. For many, this has led to a recommitment to the cause they care most about, as the pandemic has only served to reinforce their belief that a healthy environment underpins everything.

Many of these committed philanthropists are members of the Environmental Funders Network, a UK-based network of foundations, family offices and individual donors supporting environmental causes. Their aim is to increase the amount of financial support for environmental causes and to improve its overall effectiveness through collaboration and sharing.

Their members agree that it is more important now than ever to protect and conserve the environment, and that our emergence from the Covid crisis gives a unique opportunity to put the environment and our health at the centre of bail-out and economic stimulus negotiations.

Over 40 foundations have signed the UK Funder Commitment on Climate Change facilitated by the Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF). It is based on the recognition that climate change poses a serious risk to the pursuit of the charitable aims of all foundations, whatever their mission and field of expertise. Signatories commit to six pledges, which enable them to play a part in addressing the causes of climate change and supporting adaptation to its effects.

The commitment states that “Climate change is a health issue, an equality issue, an educational issue, an economic issue, a cultural issue, a scientific issue, a security issue and a local community issue, as well as an environmental issue. There is a special responsibility on foundations, whose assets are held for the public good, to use their resources and independence to rise to the challenge.”

ACF acknowledge that this pledge is the first step for action and not the end goal, but a collaboration is necessary to work towards common goals.

There are many strands of environmental action and they are all needed together for a fairer and more sustainable future. With the same passion at heart, members of the Environmental Funders Network and others tackle the issues from different angles.

Trained as a lawyer Bianca Pitt harnessed her own legal expertise in her philanthropy. Funding environmental causes for over eight years with her husband, one of their focuses has been not-for-profit environmental law firm ClientEarth. Engaging with ClientEarth as a funder and as a member of the Development Board for the last six years, Bianca believes:

“There are three challenges that we need to tackle today: global heating and climate change, loss of biodiversity (plants and animals), and finally the problem of pollution and waste. While they are all interlinked, they are in certain ways distinct.”

Convinced that education is key and that the business community was critical to change Bianca and her husband James also endowed the first Chair for Environmental Sustainability at INSEAD, the leading international business school.

“Only a healthy planet can provide a base for healthy people, and, as a result, a healthy economy. Funding work for the protection of the environment is ultimately an investment into public health and a well-functioning economy. We hope that this becomes clearer with this Covid crisis. We are seeking to increase our funding to the environmental sector as a result, to increase resilience in this respect and secure a sustainable future for our children,” she says.

Bianca Pitt
Antoinette Vermilye

Antoinette Vermilye, co-founder of the Gallifrey Foundationhas focussed her environmental efforts on mitigating continued destruction of the marine ecosystem. She sees that diversion of funds (especially government funds) to other needs perceived to be more immediate coupled with lockdown measures have put a halt to marine conservation and clean-up activities. Some ocean conservation efforts have been put back years. For instance, last month a Marine Protected Area in the Dominican Republic was decimated by only five fishermen who swooped in the moment scientists and rangers were in lockdown. Ten years’ worth of work rebuilding a delicate ecosystem vanished overnight.

The ocean covers nearly four fifths of the planet but it has received under 1% of philanthropic funding since 2009. Expecting that marine funding will shrink further in the post-COVID recovery phase, the Gallifrey Foundation, as venture philanthropists, is focusing on identifying opportunities for assisting marine conservation organisations. This includes, for example, helping to identify greater areas of synergy by streamlining their existing operations, or aligning with others for more efficiency and effectiveness of resources.

Investing for the future, Antoinette is also actively exploring ways to create clearer paths for young environmentalists to enter the workforce by identifying the most effective areas in the next few years (environmental law, and financial and insurance institutions, for example) as well as identifying new types of job creation in non-traditional areas that may emerge post-COVID.

Julia Davies, founder of We Have the POWER, is also a passionate environmentalist and supporter of many environmental causes. She worries about environmental charities losing fundraising revenue from events cancelled due to lockdown – potentially another chain in the emerging environmental catastrophe.

“Just when we need our environmental and conservation groups to achieve the most, they are struggling to cover their core costs,” she says.

One of the many organisations Julia supports is Greenpeace. She feels that it is vital that green groups cooperate in calling for a green stimulus and that Greenpeace is the best organisation to lead this call. Greenpeace and other organisations, including business groups and unions, are collaborating to call for a green stimulus response. Such a response would tackle the climate and ecological crises alongside the pandemic, and push for a just transition for those losing jobs in high-carbon declining industries by providing good quality, well-paid jobs that help conserve the environment and care for the community.

Julia is also supporting the development of new funding mechanisms for nature restoration. A recent donation to The Wildlife Trusts is helping them to establish new structures to enable investors big and small to lend money to fund exciting programmes to bring about nature’s recovery at the scale and pace needed to bring our UK wildlife back and effect a green recovery.

Julia Davies
Julie Hoegh

Julie Hoegh is another supporter of ClientEarth and a member of the Development Board.

“What appealed the most was ClientEarth’s creative, imaginative ways of using the law to protect the environment, their tangible results and collaborative approach, seeking to help governments and companies improve their environmental record. I have never looked back,” she says.

Taking the positives (cleaner skies for now) and negatives (the potential effects of air pollution on Covid patients), Julie thinks “there’s still an enormous amount of work to be done and the battle is far from won. The need to convert more minds and channel more money into environmental causes is acute.”

She advocates for a long-term view and puts her money where her mouth is with her philanthropy in the form of both capital and time.

A staunch supporter of the Environmental Funders Network, Devika Waney Mokhtarzadeh is a trustee of Savitri Waney Charitable Trust. Traditionally funding sight treatments and clean drinking water in India, Savitri also believes that environmental causes underpin all of their developmental work.

“Our family had a wakeup moment that human health depends on a healthy environment for us to live in and share with all living beings and that the moment to act is now. I hope more philanthropists who are interested in health open their eyes to this fact and put their efforts, energies and money into the environmental sector,” says Devika.