Placing trust at the heart of environmental philanthropy

Image © André Dib / Instituto Jurua

By |2022-06-21T14:35:48+00:00May 5th, 2022|Approach, Conservation, Environment, Funding, Philanthropy|Comments Off on Placing trust at the heart of environmental philanthropy

With a wave of new pledges of large grants to environmental organisations, as funders, we need to reflect on how our philanthropy can be improved. Building trust between donors and grantees plus reshaping the donor community so it can better support the organisations working on the ground are the foundations of a philosophy and approach gaining momentum in the environment movement: trust-based philanthropy.

Nina Seale reflects on a discussion convened by Reverse the Red discussing the need for environmental philanthropy to evolve and looks at Synchronicity Earth’s relationships with programme partners.

‘Record USD 5 billion donation to protect nature could herald new green era of giving.’ (September 2021)

Governments and private funders announce historic USD 1.7 billion pledge at COP26 in support of Indigenous Peoples and local communities.’ (November 2021)

‘USD 12 billion donor support to halt and reverse forest loss and protect land rights.’ (November 2021)

After the biodiversity and climate Conferences of the Parties (COPs) in 2021, a series of grand headlines appeared, filled with promises of billions of dollars of new funding.

These commitments offer opportunity and optimism, yet despite their impressive size, they are a mere drop in the ocean in terms of what is needed to reverse nature’s decline, and there is no guarantee that the funding they provide will go where it is most needed and most effective. Philanthropy and overseas aid have long fallen short of their missions, often in part due to an unacknowledged power imbalance between donors and their grantees, and funding not reaching those that need it most.

However, with these pledges comes a growing need to acknowledge the importance of centring the voices of Indigenous Peoples and local communities throughout the grant-giving process and place trust at the heart of environmental philanthropy.

Three people standing and smiling in front of a purple banner with a world map the words 'COP 26' and 'UK Government'

For the first time in the history of the United Nations (UN) Framework Convention on Climate Change, twenty-eight indigenous peoples were nominated from each of the seven UN indigenous socio-cultural regions at the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021. Here Synchronicity Earth affiliate Grace Souza meets with Rivelino Verá Popygua, Chief of the Mbya Guarani People, and Barbara Davies Quy, Deputy Director of Size of Wales at COP26.

The future of conservation is local

In a panel discussion held by Reverse the Red about how conservation funding can maximise local action and impact, five speakers from both the donor and grantee communities discussed the barriers to effective funding, and solutions which are seeing success.

Following the commitment of USD 1 billion from the Bezos Earth Fund to the ‘Protecting Our Planet Challenge’ (committed to protecting 30 per cent of land and 30 per cent of oceans by 2030), Andrew Steer, CEO of the Bezos Earth Fund, commented that:

“The most important things in the world that need doing cannot be done by large organisations. They will be done by many, sometimes hundreds, sometimes even thousands of smaller groups.”

This is reflected in the fact that Indigenous Peoples and local communities actively conserve at least 21 per cent of the world’s land surface, according to a 2021 report by the ICCA Consortium, an association of Indigenous and community organisations and their supporters.

However, this is not currently reflected in giving. Despite the importance of the lands under Indigenous stewardship for keeping important stores of carbon from being released into the atmosphere, Indigenous Peoples and local communities receive less than one per cent of the total development aid going to climate change.

A woman stares into the camera leaning against a wooden pole

Living in hard-to-reach areas in tropical regions, often geographical, cultural, and lingual barriers stand between environmental funders and Indigenous Peoples and local communities who are often doing important environmental preservation work with little resources and support. Image © Well Grounded

What are the barriers?

There are many barriers between funders and grassroots or community-led organisations on the ground which prevent important streams of funding from amplifying the impact of vital projects. One of the first steps to creating a more equitable and impactful funding model is to recognise what these barriers are, from language and culture barriers and time-intensive funding applications to short-term funding cycles and top-down funding agreements.

Identifying partners

Often, a funder with a large amount to give away in grants will choose the easier path of making one large grant to a bigger organisation which can accept it, rather than investing in many smaller grants to smaller organisations. Also, finding new partners costs a funder more time and effort, increasing the amount of overhead and therefore detracting from a grant before it can reach its recipient. It is easier and faster to choose organisations that a funder already knows.

“Many funders offer their grants based on relationships,” says Annette Lanjouw, Chief Executive Officer of Arcus Foundation. “They fund based on people who they’ve talked to that have passion that they can identify with and develop trust with. It’s difficult for a funder to have those kinds of relationships with people who don’t speak the same language or who have a very different way of expressing themselves.”

A distant perspective

Most funders are based in the US or Europe and struggle to identify the groups on the ground who are doing the work they want to fund due to barriers such as geographical distance, language, and understanding of the local context. This in turn affects the relationships funders have with local organisations, and this needs to change, says John Kamanga, Co-Founder and Director of South Rift Association of Land Owners (SORALO):

“We need to push for more community-led conservation, rather than community-based conservation. A lot of the time, the funders and conservation gurus do not listen to local communities, but instead tend to come with pre-determined action.”

In a recent piece published in Mongabay, Byron Swift, Senior Advisor for wildlands at Re:wild, wrote “If you have chosen your grantees wisely, they will know a lot more than you will about how to spend the budgeted funds to achieve the mission objectives, especially as circumstances change. Putting the grantee in a straitjacket reduces programme effectiveness.”

A man holds a small crocodile safely on a table.

Synchronicity Earth’s Asian Species Programme has supported the Mabuwaya Foundation in the Philippines since 2014. Image © Chris Scarffe

Long-term relationship building

Another important issue which needs to be addressed in the future of environmental philanthropy is that of unrealistic short-term funding cycles.

“For a lot of the programmes that we run, it probably takes three or four years to actually get the communities on side, yet most of the grants end in two to three years. So, what happens is that only by the time the grant ends are we starting to actually get a meaningful relationship with the community,” adds John Kamanga.

Redressing the balance

Since the foundation of Synchronicity Earth in 2009, we have strived to learn from our partners about how we can best support them. We continue to develop strong, long-term relationships with them and explore how our approach to grant-giving can provide the support they need to prioritise their vital work over obligations to funders which may take up valuable time and resources. It is a continuous process, and we aim to continue to listen and improve as these relationships develop. One simple but important thing we have done is refer to the groups we fund as ‘partners’ rather than ‘grantees’. This change in vocabulary acts to continually reinforce that these groups are our equals, rather than simply recipients of funding.

When it comes to some of the barriers discussed above, we have adapted some of the traditional methods of grant-giving to try to address them.

Developing a team of regional affiliates

Synchronicity Earth’s office is based in London but our main areas of focus are in tropical regions such as Latin America, Central Africa and Southeast Asia. We have developed an affiliate model where our programmes receive important support from regional affiliates with close relationships with local stakeholders and knowledge of local issues. In 2021, affiliates Bihini Won wa Musiti Jean and Merline Touko Tchoko worked with Congo Basin Programme Manager Sophie Grange-Chamfray to hold a Mini-Congress for nature in Kinshasa when many of our Congo Basin partners were unable to attend the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Congress in Marseille due to travel restrictions.

It was a great success, with Merline writing “We presented our work, showcasing our achievements in a range of different contexts throughout the Congo Basin. What a wonderful opportunity to meet all these tireless campaigners