I recently curated a philanthropy panel at Bioneers 2016 entitled Empowering Deeper Change. We looked at how we – in the philanthropic sector – might better bridge the gap between the needs of the planet and our current capacity to address that gap, systemically.
The panel was made up of Directors* from five very different organisations**, each bringing a vast amount of accumulated knowledge from the fields of international grass-roots activism and conservation; human rights; indigenous, youth and gender inequality; and poverty alleviation as well as enormous insight into the perceived (and real) functions and roles of private and institutional philanthropy.
In our preliminary conversations, we all agreed that the most urgent environmental issues we face are all effectively outcomes directly linked and rooted to a Global desire and ideal for material wealth.These issues – Climate Change, destructive Food Systems, Biodiversity Loss and Ecosystem Degradation – are all topics that were addressed at Bioneers. We also agreed that the key is to understand and acknowledge the fact that all of these issues are completely interconnected.
We presented to an environmentally concerned, savvy and inquisitive audience, among them many philanthropists who considered themselves to be partners with the organisations they supported. That said, by the end of the session, an hour and a half later, we had succeeded in getting many in our audience to question the effectiveness of traditional philanthropy within the environmental sector. A considerable number even expressed an appetite for an entire day (or more) around this topic alone. As David Gordon surmised, here’s why:
“We do not have a theory of change when addressing the natural world – each piece is addressed separately – which goes against our very understanding of nature.”
With this as a given, our conversations were thoughtful and wide-ranging. We scrutinized the limitations of top-down, institutionally-minded frameworks, and looked at new models of scalability based on empowering grass-roots practitioners. We talked about movement building, and agreed that the key leaders – those we should amplify and look to – are the environmental defenders on the ground. We discussed whether environmental philanthropists have a moral imperative to not only be the change, but lead the charge. We wondered if we were reaching ‘the unconverted’ and whether or not this was even the right forum for tackling environmental crises.
Then, we looked at it differently: should we shift the focus from growing the overall financial allocation to the environmental sector itself, to one that embeds the environment into all other philanthropy? This way, the environment – or nature – is always in its rightful place as the foundation of everything else. (There are numerous examples from ‘the field’ – take Agroecology.) We brainstormed other models – based on nature (biomimicry), and non-western alternatives – searching for bold, new ideas, that do not shy away from inherent risk and strive for true collaboration and transparency.
Finally, we concluded that it is imperative that philanthropy reinvents itself, in order to address the problems that we have enabled our system to create. Given the enormity of the issues, we all know that we will have to do this together. And, that dear reader, means you too.
*It is important to note that this wasn’t your typical philanthropy panel – the panel did not comprise founders, and was therefore not about the individual philanthropic journey – it was about hearing from practitioners who are each trying to move the dial within their respective frameworks, and organisations.
• David Gordon (Co-Director of Programs, International Rivers; and Former Executive Director, The Goldman Prize)
• Chivy Sok (Executive Director, Tikva Grassroots Empowerment Fund)
• Terry Odendahl (CEO, Global Greengrants Fund)
• Al Noor Ladha (Executive Director, The Rules)
• Justin Winters (Executive Director, Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation)