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Environmental funders must focus on impact (not just cute species)

Funders spend almost as much on water vole conservation as holding the global oil industry to account

This is a guest post by Jon Cracknell,  a member of the Environmental Funders Network (EFN) steering group and manager of the Goldsmith family’s philanthropy, and Nick Perks, co-ordinator of EFN. 

The fifth edition of Where the green grants went, published in January 2012 by the Environmental Funders Network (EFN), shows that environmental issues continue to receive just three per cent of overall UK philanthropy. The research also shows that, over the three financial years from 2007 to 2010, funding from the 147 trusts covered by the report has plateaued at around £75 million per year.

Behind these figures, some of the news is good; grants supporting climate change work have increased as a proportion of environmental grants, from less than nine per cent in 2006-07 to more than 21 per cent in the new research.  They amounted to just under £48 million between 2007 and 2010, which sounds impressive until compared to patterns of wider philanthropic giving. For example, the National Galleries in London and Edinburgh raised £50 million over four months in 2009-10 to purchase a single painting.

Funding priorities
Drilling down into the distribution of philanthropic grants between different thematic environmental issues around the world (see table below)  there are evident ‘Cinderella’ issues like ‘transport’, ‘trade and finance’, and ‘consumption and waste’, which receive very small shares of environmental philanthropy, despite their importance in terms of systemic change.

The new data reinforces the observation made in the fourth edition of Where the green grants went, that many philanthropic grants seem to be guided by discourses of environmentalism based on conservation, regulation, and incremental shifts in behaviour, whether by business or consumers, rather than by more radical paradigm changes.

UK trusts and foundations spent more than nine times as much on bats, butterflies and moths between 2007-08 and 2009-10 as they did on aviation policy, while funding for work targeting the global oil industry over that period (£1.2 million), was only marginally more than that spent on protecting water voles.

When money is short, effectiveness matters
In an era of swingeing cuts to statutory funding, which on average accounts for 29 per cent of the income of the environmental groups profiled in the report, the need for effective targeting of philanthropic resources becomes ever more important.  It is clear that philanthropists are not going to be able to cover all the gaps left by declining public funding. Given the potential for philanthropic capital to support work that government and corporate funders are less likely to fund, ie risky projects, innovation and challenges to the status quo, it is questionable whether this would be a good thing even if it were possible.

As finances are squeezed the need for better information about the environmental sector becomes more pressing.  EFN’s research provides a clear analysis of what trusts and foundations are funding, but much less information is available about the allocation of other resources across the ecosystem of environmental NGOs. Data on gaps in capacity could be very valuable for funders as it would help to identify opportunities where philanthropic funds can be used to maximum effect.  Geoff Mulgan has compared philanthropic grants to acupuncture needles: small in terms of the body politic, but powerful when inserted in the right places.

Analysing the gaps
Research by colleagues in the United States (The broader US environmental movement: composition and funding insights, Environmental Grantmakers Association, June 2011) has looked at the income of the whole US environmental movement, a massive $11.3 billion in 2008, and at its geographic distribution across the country.

It revealed that funding is heavily concentrated on the coasts, and that one third of the sector’s total revenue funds work in Washington DC, primarily on national issues.  This distribution of resources has political consequences.

EFN believes that more analysis of this kind would help both environmental NGOs and their philanthropic supporters.  Having coded more than 11,000 environmental grants it is hard to avoid the sense that there is significant duplication within the UK environmental community, with over-funded activities and approaches sitting alongside significant gaps in capacity.  Perhaps the time has come to ask some hard questions about which bits of NGO infrastructure are most vital in an era of declining funding.

Data-gathering and information visualisation tools are becoming more sophisticated, and the time burden on busy NGOs can be reduced by making smart use of these tools.  Recently the Green 10 group of NGOs based in Brussels carried out a simple audit of the thematic issues that its policy and communications staff are working on, and the results immediately provided a fresh perspective on gaps in capacity.

Factors for success
Thinking more broadly, is it the case that increased numbers of environmental organisations (and environmentalists) necessarily lead to better environmental policy outcomes?  Despite the $11.3 billion of income for US environmental groups the country ranks 61st in the world in the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) compiled by Yale & Columbia Universities.  Some of the other countries that score well in the EPI and on other similar indicators do not appear to have particularly well-resourced environmental sectors.  What then accounts for their success?  What are the niches, organisational types, and skill sets within the NGO ecosystem that are most important in accelerating change, and how do these interact with the cultural DNA and differing political and economic systems around the world?

Given the need to accelerate progress towards sustainability these are vital questions to address, the more so when resources are under pressure. Where the green grants went 5 is one effort by foundations to try and identify the gaps and limits in their practice, and to become better informed.  EFN hopes that the UK’s leading environmental NGOs will bring their insights to the table to complement this analysis.  EFN would welcome comments on the research, or examples of NGO capacity mapping that we can share with our membership.

A version of this article was first published in the latest edition of Green Alliance’s quarterly magazine, Inside Track.

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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