There has been a lot of discussion in the media of late about the value and role of philanthropy. Is it well-directed? Can it have impact? If a key purpose of philanthropy is to find solutions for some of the most complicated problems of our time, will it ever be enough?
Conversations – similar to ones that have occurred cyclically throughout history – are re-emerging about changing levels of taxation. It is suggested that philanthropy is no longer serving us and proposed that taxing the billionaires is the only way forward if we want to get serious about addressing global existential risks like climate change and biodiversity loss.
While that may very likely be true (and helpful), we believe there is still a critical place for philanthropy.
The Value of Philanthropic Funding
Philanthropic currency has rare value. It is money, and energy, that can help germinate new ideas. At its best, it is fluid and not risk adverse – it can fund and support visions, at whatever stage they are: from the seed of a good idea through to a fully-grown initiative. At its best, philanthropic currency is distinctly altruistic. What’s more, it creates a virtuous circle, you do receive when you give. Interestingly, at its root, being philanthropic, even though it may seem so, isn’t distinctly related to wealth, but to being a human being.
When it comes to addressing enormous issues like climate change and the loss of biodiversity, despite what some might think, philanthropy can play a key role – it is the catalyst that can ignite the groundswell that shifts our culture. The proportion of philanthropic funding that goes to the environment is below 5% in the UK. Why does the fundamental question of the health of our planet and the wellbeing of future generations to come – of people and other species – inspire such apathy among philanthropists? Perhaps part of the problem is that these huge, systemic issues can seem intractable: how can we hope to have an impact on such ‘wicked’, deeply-rooted problems?
Committing funds to conserving the natural world helps attach a societal and cultural value to nature, providing distinct validation for it – whether for a particular species or a place. For example, five years ago the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), received EUR 20 Million from the German government through the KfW Development Bank to increase the number of tigers in the wild, and improve the livelihoods of the local communities. Brilliant. It makes a huge amount of sense for a big government to fund big cats. But what government is going to make a big splash about amphibians, or freshwater fish – species that are both in sharp decline, and arguably as critical to those same ecosystems, and the viability of our whole planet as tigers? This is where philanthropy can play a pivotal role. Environmental philanthropy creates cultural value where it might not otherwise emerge. The act of ‘giving to frogs’ for instance, imbues them with value, making them relevant to more people (recognising their intrinsic value – which we do – is of little use if their march towards extinction continues apace). Even if a government decides to tackle these issues in a serious way, either by existing expenditure or new taxes, it will still need, and rely on the expertise and infrastructure of NGOs, and the experts who created them. And, importantly, many of those NGOs would likely not exist without philanthropy.
Governments respond to popular will. By backing the work of NGOs and people who are looking at the evidence, and addressing the critical gaps, well-targeted, long-term environmental philanthropy can help shine a light on emergent thinking, and strategies, whose time has come. Once there is enough of a groundswell, and more people begin to care, then politicians can respond.
If in doubt about the role cultural narratives can play in shaping government and corporate responses, look no further than the current focus on ocean plastics. Though it is true that many responses seem to be addressing the symptoms of the problem, rather than the causes, zeitgeist shifts can occur rapidly and have a profound impact on the thinking of governments and industries alike. Blue Planet II was a tipping point, yet for many years before that, countless NGOs – large and small – had been working on the issue, creating momentum and contributing to shifts in public awareness, many of them funded by philanthropy.
Innovation, climate change adaptation, and mitigation have to work hand in hand, and at the same time as, protecting and restoring biodiversity – which not only presents options for climate adaptation but also makes up our precious fabric of life. Enlightened funders are beginning to realise that they can play a key role in protecting Earth’s natural heritage – our life support system – for future generations to come. Are you ready to join them?