The Quest for Impact at Scale

By the time that MAVA closes its doors in 2022, it expects to leave behind a solid legacy of conservation impact on prioritized issues and a vibrant conservation community. In support of this vision, MAVA is spearheading a brave transformation process. It has shifted from a portfolio of loosely related projects and partners to 25 strategically aligned partnerships, each delivering on clear and prioritized outcomes captured in an Outcome Action Plan (OAP).

For us at FOS Europe, it has been an enriching experience to be part of MAVA’s transformation process. Our role is to provide support in the realm of adaptive management using the CMP Open Standards. We work hard to build the capacity, processes and tools needed by partners to adaptively plan, measure, and improve their OAPs, making them more responsive to contextual changes and more effective in their response. One of the core challenges in this process has been to get discussions focused on that difficult question that keeps us awake at night: the question of impact. A difficult question indeed because achieving real change is often hard and painfully slow.

Given that the conservation work is urgent, we can’t afford to not discuss the effectiveness of our work. We must understand whether, for example, our awareness-raising campaign is leading to behavioral change. Or if the research in which we have invested is leading to better management, changing the way in which natural resources are used. What if we are wrong? What if the change is not happening?

The single biggest opportunity related to the OAP-approach, in my mind, is to focus on achieving impact at the scale that really matters. For example, we can work to stop the illegal killing of birds across the Mediterranean Basin, versus just in Italy; we can ensure the sustainable management of small pelagic fish along the entire coast of West Africa, and not just in a particular marine protected area off the coast of Senegal. This more ambitious OAP scale requires OAP-level partnerships to jointly implement conservation actions that are relevant at this scale.

By applying the OAP-approach, the MAVA foundation has brought together knowledgeable, well-connected, relevant partners. Some of these partnerships already existed in part or in whole, while others are brand new.  Whatever the case, these partnerships provide a rare opportunity to jointly achieve impact at scale – beyond the scope of control of any individual partner. Partners working on a local level are suddenly part of change processes on the regional level and conversely, partners working on a regional level are suddenly part of processes on the local level. They are challenged to think about their mutual complementarity, outside the boxes of their own organizations, and explore collaboration they could not have imagined a few years ago. The bar is raised as they together pursue a level of change that is not constrained by organizations and their history, but instead has so much more relevance for the ecosystems and species we seek to protect.

This all sounds logical and straightforward, but in practice, the OAP-approach requires a lot of learning and hard work. By now, partners have articulated a common focus, aligned efforts and defined a framework to usefully assess impact. A lot has been invested in defining a common theory of change with clear objectives and a transparent framework (scorecard) in which partners capture evidence of impact.  In 2019 and 2020, the OAPs will have the opportunity to put their framework through the ultimate test and assess collective progress and impact in depth during a mid-term evaluation. The MAVA Foundation has taken a remarkable step by empowering partners to do as much of this reflection as possible among themselves – rather than just bringing in an outside evaluator. In my mind, this is transformational: partners that dare to look at their own reflection in the mirror likely will be able to learn what works and what does not, and hence adapt and innovate – traits that are crucial to achieving impact on a scale that matters.

However difficult, I am convinced that if partners discuss, demonstrate, and communicate impact using a common framework and vocabulary, this will help them form stronger and more strategic partnerships and garner more consistent and reliable funding. I suspect that donors, if given the choice, prefer to invest in solid strategic partnerships committed to sharing insights, learning from successes and failures, and working together towards common goals at a scale that matters. My hopes are high that our lessons learned from MAVA’s OAP-approach will help improve our ability to achieve conservation impact at scale.

About the author(s)

FOS Europe

SDGfunders Helping Philanthropy Engage in the Global Development Agenda

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have become a universal language for discussing how we need to improve the world., a free platform from Foundation Center, tells the story of how philanthropic dollars are being used to achieve these goals on a new dynamically-updated dashboard, and aims to foster better coordination among those working to build a better future for all of us. Launched by the SDG Philanthropy, a partnership of the United Nations Development Programme, Foundation Center, and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors the site features interactive maps and dashboards tracking key funding data, lists of top funders and recipients working on specific SDGs, a collection of literature, including case studies and interviews with global experts, and an online community that will serve as a hub for discussions and knowledge sharing worldwide. Among other benefits, it will enhance opportunities for collaboration across sectors to increase the effectiveness of work that addresses our world’s common social, and economic challenges.

View Resource

Data at the Intersections: Advancing Environmental and Climate Justice Using a Human Rights Lens

In February, in San Francisco, a group of funders gathered for a day-long discussion of funding trends in human rights. The discussion offered opportunities for a deeper dive into funding shifts, what they mean and what we, as funders, can do to advocate for funding growth where it’s needed. Those of us who use a human rights framework to fund environmental and climate justice pondered over the data presented: What does it mean to fund an issue that is highly intersectional, not always defined as human rights-related, and heavily dependent on larger foundations?

A key challenge in the field of environmental and climate justice is to what extent funders apply a human rights lens in their grantmaking or consider themselves human rights funders. The research methodology captures human rights grantmaking even when funders do not explicitly codify their grants that way, which is crucial to providing an accurate picture of real investments. Yet, more could be accomplished if funders could break out of their silos and work deliberately across issues: applying a human rights lens to funding environmental and climate justice promotes systemic change that advances both goals.

Size Matters: Large vs. Small Funders and Their Strategies

Seven percent of all human rights funding from foundations is allocated towards Environmental Justice and Resource Rights (EJ&RR). Though EJ&RR funding increased by 145 percent between 2011 and 2015, it peaked in 2014 and began a downward trend. This drop is due to a handful of major foundations exiting or reducing their work in this area, which illustrates just how delicate the funding landscape is and how important it is that funders remain vigilant and collaborative to ensure a sustained increase in investments. This gap is not made up elsewhere: 8% of the bilateral and multilateral funding that met the definition of human rights grantmaking went towards EJ&RR, but it is unclear how much of this funding meets the needs of vulnerable populations or supports climate justice.

Given that only a small percentage of philanthropic dollars go towards EJ&RR, larger funders have a substantial influence in overall funding trends. Historically, they have tended to fund more established organizations and not smaller, less formal groups, but this is changing. Larger funders have begun working with intermediary funders who can make smaller grants, while some smaller funders have banded together to create funder collaboratives like the Grassroots Climate Solutions Fund. These approaches are reaping results: between 2011 and 2015, the number of EJ&RR grants under $10,000 increased by 59%.

Another trend we’re seeing is that funding for grassroots organizing to promote EJ&RR has risen in recent years, but is still substantially less than other strategies funders are supporting like advocacy and capacity building. In 2015, funding for grassroots organizing amounted to just over $6 million, while funding for advocacy was over $68 million. Granted, grassroots organizing tends to be less expensive, in part because coordinating and relationship building are rarely realistically compensated in budgets. Yet, we believe bigger investments in local movements will lead to greater long-term impacts for EJ&RR. Funders must look beyond short-term victories and keep in mind successful local organizing may take years if not decades.

More Flexible Funding to Grassroots Groups

The downward funding trend for EJ&RR is disproportionate to the growing impacts environmental injustices and climate change are having – especially on vulnerable communities. Indigenous Peoples and human rights defenders (HRDs) are particularly affected; their sovereignty, identities, and livelihoods are at risk of being desecrated and lost. These communities are further marginalized by closing civic spaces and the spread of repressive regimes that support the commodification of land and other natural resources. To mount effective responses and mitigate further harms, funders must support these groups to develop and lead interventions.

Yet, the trends research shows that foundation funding for Indigenous Peoples decreased sharply from $40 million to $15 million within a span of two years, which is consistent with a general decrease in funding for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Lourdes Inga, Executive Director at the International Funders for Indigenous Peoples, explains, “This sharp funding decrease corroborates what Indigenous Peoples are voicing on the lack of funding to support their organizations and communities, even though they are increasingly at the forefront of protecting their territories, water, biodiversity, and environment.” Lourdes stresses that funders must stay abreast of the trends: “Understanding of how shifts in priorities or funding flow impacts partners on the ground is critical.”

Funding Indigenous Peoples, especially women, to develop and lead their own strategies recognizes their agency and respects their right to self-determination. It also shifts traditional climate change discussions toward corrective justice by raising up the voices and priorities of those who are most affected and placing responsibility on carbon emitters and corporate perpetrators. Many funders are already doing this, from supporting indigenous women-led divestment strategies in the United States, to supporting advocacy led by Indigenous Peoples on issues like access to land rights, recognition of cultural rights, and food sovereignty. Funders should listen to and support the strategies Indigenous Peoples are prioritizing, like mapping sacred sites and documenting local ecological knowledge and resource management approaches.

More sustained investment is also needed to protect human rights defenders. This is important across the board, but particularly for those working in environmental and climate justice, due to the increasing trend in state-sanctioned land grabs, resource rights exploitation, and the repression of activists. Funding for human rights defenders increased by 133% between 2011 and 2015 – more than any other population tracked. However, the scope of the funding is still small: in 2015, only 448 grants explicitly mentioned human rights defenders. At the community level, people don’t necessarily define themselves this way – and this is particularly true for Indigenous Peoples. Yet, most human rights defenders in the environmental and climate justice space are Indigenous Peoples, which speaks to the intersectional identities communities hold and the intersectionality of the issues human rights defenders work on.

Recommendations for Funders

Funders must recognize the intersectionality of environmental and climate justice with other human rights issues. This not only reflects the reality of what communities experience on the ground, but can lead to synergies that advance complementary goals.

Funders should incorporate a human rights/justice lens in their grantmaking. This includes investing in communities and ensuring that strategies are community-led. There should be careful investigation of what communities need, as too often funders come in with pre-set frameworks for what they are willing to fund. Funders should also fund long-term, provide flexible funding, and integrate security and wellness in their grants in recognition that this work takes time to achieve, requires agility, and can be dangerous and draining – especially for communities on the front lines. Funders should do more to support Indigenous Peoples and human rights defenders, particularly through funding indigenous women-led initiatives.

The growing impacts of climate change on a number of human rights issues is bringing more attention to the role of human rights funders and donors globally. We must take risks and increase our investments strategically in ways that enhance the power of communities, not undermine them. Funders have a moral responsibility to work with their peers to keep each other accountable, share knowledge, and learn – including about their grantmaking. Most importantly, they must listen to communities and let those communities inform their strategies.

This piece was originally posted to Human Rights Funders Network.

About the author(s)

Senior Program Leader EJCA,
Unitarian Universalist Service Committee

Senior Program Officer,
Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights

Unitarian Universalist Service Committee

When the Big Ideas are “Off Strategy”

How can funders be both strategy-focused and flexible?  How can we be clear and consistent about our goals and priorities, but not risk missing big ideas that may not align perfectly with our assumptions of what the levers are?

Beginning in 2012, I invested some time on an idea that, at first, looked like a clear “no.” Since then, however, it has become an integral piece of how we and our partners spur our region towards a clean energy future.

In 2010, Barr developed a strategic plan for our climate change program that focused on the two largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions: buildings and transportation. Two years into working on this strategy, I received an invitation to hear a presentation about environmental research by Boston University (BU) professors. None of the topics seemed particularly on point to Barr’s new strategy. So, I passed. But as I looked into the presenters and their work, something caught my eye. One of the faculty members, Nathan Phillips, described his work as being focused on “urban metabolism.” It was a new term to me. Nathan defined it as the ebb and flow of greenhouse gas emissions in a city’s atmosphere. It struck me as a novel way to view the system (i.e., climate) we were trying to affect. I sent Nathan a note and asked for a meeting.

Using sophisticated instruments, researchers at Boston University detected thousands of methane leaks in the City of Boston. ©Nathan PhillipsA few weeks later, at Nathan’s lab at BU, he graciously shared his research. One project really made me stop and think. Nathan is a tree physiologist and was concerned about street trees dying off in and around Boston. He wondered if leaking methane might be the cause – as methane starves trees of oxygen. In addition to the risk of explosion, methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that drives climate change at a much faster rate than carbon dioxide. So, Nathan and a former utility gas inspector, Bob Ackley, rigged sensors to a car and did some initial ad hoc exploratory drives in the Boston area testing the air for methane from the underground natural gas pipes where they came across dozens of leaks.

Addressing methane wasn’t explicitly articulated in our strategy at Barr. But, depending on the scale, I thought, this could be a big deal...

Fast forward two years. What started as an off-hand, possibly off-strategy conversation became a major shift of strategy for Barr, and for many of our partners. Most significantly, it also resulted in state-level policy changes with enormous implications for our energy use and emissions.

How did this happen? In hindsight, five steps helped me follow my intuition, and invest in a big opportunity despite its first appearance in unexpected packaging:

First, ask a set of basic questions. Was it in our plan?  In the case of methane, no.  Was the government already doing something about it?  Again, no.  Had thought leaders identified it as a priority?  Not yet. In fact, the conventional wisdom at the time was promoting natural gas as a “bridge fuel” that, while still a fossil fuel, would help us limit our coal and oil consumption. Was it a big problem?  Maybe.  Did the foundation have a role to play? Perhaps.   

Second, check your gut. My gut said yes, this could be a game-changing issue worthy of our attention – or at least serious exploration.  Our president, Jim Canales, often speaks of the importance of philanthropy balancing focus and flexibility, and of being “tight on goals but loose on how to achieve them.”  Holding tightly to our goal of addressing climate change, it felt important to be loose about this potential new pathway.

Third, tap key networks. I asked my grantees and other partners for their input and advice. There was a general sense that methane leaks might be a big contributor to climate change, but not enough data existed to make it a priority.

Fourth, invest in research. One of Barr’s grantees, the Conservation Law Foundation, agreed to work with Nathan to research the extent of the problem and develop a menu of policy solutions. How did it compare to other actions already being taken in the fight against climate change?

Finally, release the findings to those who can use the results. The resulting publication, Into Thin Air, revealed that there were 3,300 leaks in Boston alone. It also estimated that the state lost more gas through leaks than it saved through its nation-leading energy efficiency programs. The Boston Globe and several other newspapers and radio stations covered the story. Soon, a network of organizations launched a grassroots organizing campaign. Some were Barr grantees. Others weren’t. A year later, the State Legislature unanimously passed a law requiring utilities to classify and repair leaks in a timely fashion. And addressing gas infrastructure is now a top priority for climate advocates across the region.

Our collective efforts in daylighting the leaks in the distribution system catalyzed a great deal of grassroots activism that was later channeled toward calling to question the large gas pipeline proposals that would bring fracked gas from Pennsylvania into New York and New England.  Advocates were concerned that the region would become even more dependent on natural gas and jeopardize the region’s ability to reduce GHG emissions – while wasting significant amounts of gas that accelerate climate change. 

At their best, strategies are a set of hypotheses, based on a moment in time, about what will bring about change. But times change. New ideas and partners emerge all the time, and often in unexpected ways. So, it is important to remain humble and open about what the right answers may be. Otherwise, we may miss some of the most powerful opportunities to achieve our goals.

About the author(s)

Co-Director of Climate
Barr Foundation

Comprehensive Capacity Building to Strengthen Regional Marine Conservation Efforts The David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s perspective on the Pescadero Program

You’re an ocean funder and you start to notice some common struggles among your grantees. Unsure of what to do, you turn to philanthropy peers with whom your funding priorities and grantees align. They share similar concerns. Collectively you wonder: are organizational challenges undermining grantee capacity to have an impact on the marine conservation issues we care about? Is there something we could do together to build grantee capacity, so that they stay strong as a sector?

This case study examines what a group of marine conservation funders did when questions like these came up. It shares the David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s perspective on how it joined forces with four other funders – the Marisla Foundation, Sandler Family Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, and The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust – to create the Pescadero Program, a five-year, comprehensive capacity building program for marine conservation NGOs in Northwest Mexico.

The Pescadero Program, started in 2014 and set to finish in 2018, has been a multi-funder collaboration since the beginning. Its theory of change: stronger marine conservation NGOs, with better institutional and technical capacities, lead to better programs and projects, and greater marine conservation impact and improved sustainable use of the Gulf of California’s natural resources. Staff from 27 NGOs in the Northwestern states of Mexico regularly participate through cohort trainings, often combined with follow-up consulting or coaching. Participating NGOs range from community based groups that are local or regional in the Gulf of California, to larger national and international environmental NGOs. Capacity areas addressed include governance, management, and administration; leadership; strategic planning; board development; and communications and fundraising. Each year, middle and high level NGO managers of participating organizations can also apply for the Pescadero Program’s cohort-based, leadership development offering, which builds individual and collective leadership capacities, including emotional awareness, motivating others, decision making and delegation, inspirational presenting, and negotiation and mediation. Institutional knowledge sharing within organizations and potential collaboration with other organizations are added benefits from cohort-based learning on capacity building topics.

What led to the collaborative development of this capacity building approach? For more than a decade before creating the Pescadero Program, the participating funders had been part of the Consultative Group on Biological Diversity’s Gulf of California and Mexico Funders group, a funder affinity group and learning network that has promoted strategic grantmaking among conservation funders in Mexico, particularly in the Northwest. Then in 2012, a subset of funders in the group, in dialogue with grantees, recognized that NGOs in Northwest Mexico were looking for tools and support for greater resiliency to sustain and advance major conservation progress in the region. While each foundation independently felt driven to fund along this agenda, they understood that by working together, they could leverage their individual investments at broader scale and more sustainably.

From the start, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation saw the value of bringing their varied interests and expertise to the capacity building table. “It was unique and powerful that five funders of different types with different priorities and approaches made a long-term capacity building investment that went beyond what any one of us could do going it alone,” says Jamaica Maxwell, program officer for the Organizational Effectiveness program at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. “Every foundation enriched our approach, even those newer to capacity building. For example, one of the foundation partners brought a different level of rigor when it came to evaluation and metrics.”

Beyond bringing complementary expertise, each funder also brought their unique relationships with different organizations and leaders in the region, all which helped to build trust and participation in the program. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s example: “One of our staff, Richard Cudney, program officer for the Gulf of California, brought many years of trusted relationships with the organizations at the table from the get-go,” says Jamaica. “He’s been able to ask grantees things like, ‘what’s keeping you up at night?’ and ‘what’s really the issue preventing you from taking the next step on x, y, or z?’ He and other funders at the table brought those kinds of relationships that helped create a level of honesty and comfort.” The funders also developed strong relationships with each other over time. “The group of funders had a history of travelling together, funding the same people and organizations, collaborating on past projects, attending Gulf of California meetings together, and even sharing wine together,” says Jamaica. “We started to develop the Pescadero Program from a really strong place.”

Even though the Pescadero Program funding partners had deep relationships and experience in the region, they took their time – about two years – to design their collective capacity building approach. “As a group, we wanted to calibrate the design to the readiness and needs of NGOs working on the ground in the Gulf of California,” says Jamaica. “We didn’t come in with a cookie cutter ‘here’s a capacity building program for you’. We asked grantees what their vision for a stronger sector would look like. Then we tried to be responsive to what they hoped for in terms of capacity building to get there.”

During the design phase, the funder partners hired consultants with capacity building expertise to carry out a needs assessment that included interviews with grantees and culminated in a facilitated convening between organizations and funders. “We were asked, what do you need help with?” says Peggy Turk-Boyer, founder and executive director of the Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans. “That helped establish a list of capacity building priorities that the program might address.” With grantee and funder input in hand, the consultants reflected on the information collected and drafted a capacity building program approach.

Effective working collaborations of all kinds require clarity on who’s doing what and how those involved will communicate. In the case of the Pescadero Program, roles and responsibilities of participating funders were clearly established and have evolved. During the design phase, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation took the lead drafting a request for proposals and facilitating the process for selecting an intermediary that would manage the program. Now, several years in, Fonnor, a regional fund, under the supervision of the Mexican Fund for the Conservation of Nature, an independent, nonprofit organization which finances and strengthens strategic actions and projects to conserve Mexico´s natural heritage, serves as the intermediary of the program. With this management structure in place, the funders collaborate with María José Mesén Arias, the Pescadero Program coordinator at Fonnor, as the leader who’s interacting with the program participants regularly. The funders now serve more as coaches and advisors. “Our funder role is one of support – being responsive, listening, bringing knowledge from other projects and sharing what we know is happening on the ground,” says Jamaica. She coordinates regular funder update calls, and she serves as the main point person for Fonnor. “If María José needs an immediate answer on something, she reaches out to me,” says Jamaica. “If there’s a pressing opportunity or issue that she needs our advice on, we correspond via email if we don’t have a call coming up soon.”

What makes the Pescadero program funder communications work? “The funders in the group are responsive,” says Jamaica. “When I reach out on behalf of María José on a question, the other funders call or write back and we move forward.” According to María José: “Their willingness to listen, advise, and give and receive feedback has really helped me with decision making. It’s not just on scheduled calls; they’ve kept the lines of communication open throughout.”

In addition to clearly establishing the funder-intermediary relationship, the Pescadero Program funders agreed that potential Pescadero Program participants needed to know what would be expected of them so they could decide to opt in or out. “Sometimes I get calls from other funders with requests like, ‘I want to get this organization to conduct an internal review, or do a strategic plan,’” says Jamaica. “At the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, we’ve found you can’t force reflection or action if an organization is not ready.” The Pescadero Program funders shared this perspective. Once the program launched, Fonnor sent out invitations that clarified the expected capacity building process. “That meant not everyone said yes,” says Meg Caldwell, deputy director of Ocean funding at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. “But those that committed were clear what they were signing up for.”

To further tailor capacity building to organizational needs, when NGOs joined the Pescadero Program, each was required to take the Institutional Effectiveness Index (IEI), an online organizational assessment tool supported by expert coaching, that helped them more deeply diagnose their capacities and identify areas for improvement. This has helped Fonnor understand organizational needs and common needs across the cohort, as well as which groups need additional support. The IEI was also re-administered at the project mid-point, and has become part of a suite of evaluation approaches to assess the Pescadero Program’s impact.

Having access to assessment data has helped grantees understand how they’ve grown and where they still need to build capacity. Funders too have benefitted, understanding where their efforts have had most impact. Some findings from the Pescadero Program to-date: mid-term IEI scores show participating organizations have become more effective in institutional processes such as administrative and financial management, and strategic planning. Participating executive directors and administration staff now have more knowledge of the administrative, legal and human resource issues that may affect them and have gained abilities to take steps to address them. Comparing baseline and mid-term IEI scores also shows that 68 percent of participating organizations have improved their fundraising strategies, with 71 percent having diversified their donors. 

Pescadero Program participants also note benefits that are harder to quantify. According to Peggy, “One of the Pescadero Program consultants talked a lot about how it’s the responsibility of boards and executive directors to make sure that NGOs have the resources they need – beyond project-related funding – to pursue their missions in dignified ways. While it’s not always easy to secure this kind of funding, just understanding the kind of depth and fundraising capacity we need to bring us to a more mature level as an organization has been eye opening to me and my staff.”

It’s not always easy to convince funders that capacity building is worth the investment. We’ve seen foundations dip their toes into capacity building, but then pull out before they got in too deep. The Pescadero Program shows the value of having a collaborative, multi-year view. “This work takes time, energy, and money,” says Meg. “Especially if you want the capacity built to enhance impact and produce dividends that you can’t even imagine at the beginning.”

This case study was developed as a companion piece to stories shared through Foundation Center’s Funding the Ocean project. Funding the Ocean is a dynamic hub to inform and inspire ocean conservation philanthropy around the world. It includes a mapping application, repository of reports and case studies, and a cloud-based platform for engagement.

About the author(s)

Anna Pond Consulting

Sustainability on the Brain

With Earth Day events and activities last weekend, sustainability is on the brain. Through a recent suite of case studies we released for, I’ve done some digging specifically into how funders are playing critical roles in marine conservation efforts, and the vaquita stole my heart.

The vaquita is the most endangered cetacean in the world. The Marisla Foundation focuses largely on marine conservation, and has been actively leading efforts to save the vaquita since the 1980s, when their population started to rapidly decline. Because vaquita echolocate, they can’t see fishing nets, so they swim into them and drown. And there are other connected threats, such as the illegal fishing of totoaba, a fish that also exists where they live. Through traditional funding and policy advocacy, capacity building, and convening stakeholders on and offline, this is a terrific example of how philanthropy has supported this fight in a way that other sectors might not be able to (read more here). Although the fight to save the vaquita continues to be an uphill battle, Marisla’s example shows the importance of funders taking on multiple roles when faced with critical sustainability challenges.

On another note about a different kind of sustainability: We’re looking for funding to upgrade the platform behind GrantCraft’s website. We’re proud to provide a large library of free resources that share the practical know-how of your peers and elevate diverse perspectives across issues, funder types, and geographies. We’re committed to helping you make change more effectively—in new, innovative ways—and we need a platform that keeps pace with the rapidly evolving content that we provide the sector. We are looking for a $75,000 grant to support this effort, which we will leverage into learning and infrastructure for Foundation Center’s other web properties as well. Will you help us through a grant or co-funding opportunity? Let me know if we can chat further about possibilities. 

Sustainability – with respect to resources in the world and for programs we care about – matters. How is your foundation thinking about and supporting sustainability?

P.S. Check out a podcast from our archive, "Managing a Funder Collaborative: From GrantCraft's Reflection on Practice Series." From GrantCraft's Reflection on Practice series, this podcast looks at how a long-term commitment to sustainable, collaborative efforts can be a powerful lever for change. 

P.P.S. Connect with Foundation Center staff at the upcoming events below, we’d love to say hello and learn more about your work in the sector! 

About the author(s)

Director of Stakeholder Engagement

Small Prize. Big Change.

In the summer of 2014, I read that George Washington University, American University, and The George Washington University Hospital were going to buy 52 megawatts of power every year from a North Carolina solar farm. At the time, it was the largest non-utility solar power purchase in the U.S. and the largest solar project east of the Mississippi River. The icing on the cake was that they were getting fixed pricing for solar energy for 20 years at a lower price than the current market.

In Boston, with its abundance of colleges, hospitals, and large institutions—all major energy users—many wondered, “Could we do something similar here?” The Boston Green Ribbon Commission (GRC), a group of business and civic leaders committed to helping Boston achieve its climate goals (supported by Barr and several local philanthropies) also considered this question. Testing the idea in their networks, they found a lot of interest in joint purchasing, but uncertainty about how it might work. To try converting that interest into action, Barr and the GRC decided to experiment with a prize.

Launched in summer 2015, the goal of the $100,000 Renewable Energy Leadership Prize was to spur local leaders to take renewable energy purchases from concept to reality. On February 25, 2016 the GRC announced the winner: PowerOptions, in partnership with Tufts University and Endicott College. The largest energy-buying consortium in Massachusetts, PowerOptions was already procuring electricity and natural gas supply for 500 nonprofit and public members, but had never solicited a power purchase agreement for offsite renewables. Teaming up with two of its members, Tufts University and Endicott College, the nonprofit proposed to purchase up to 12 megawatts of power from a wind project in New England.

Summit Farms solar farm in North Carolina. © Dominion Resources

Other applications came from Boston University and A Better City, a consortium of Boston institutions and civic leaders. Although A Better City's deal was not completed in time for the prize deadline, the work initiated in response to the prize carried on. Three Boston-area institutions—Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston Medical Center (BMC) and Post Office Square Redevelopment Corporation (POS) teamed on a purchase agreement for a 60 megawatt solar farm in North Carolina.  This is the largest renewable-energy project ever built in the U.S. through an alliance of diverse buyers. A Better City's effort was also documented in a recently-released case study.

Here are five of my key takeaways from supporting the prize:

1. Prizes can spark action and innovation. 

Our initial hope and hypothesis was that a prize would catalyze action and innovation, and that turned out to be right. There was a risk that there would be no takers and we were pleasantly surprised to see such significant interest. The prize spurred the three applicants to devote considerable time and effort to solving the puzzle of buying offsite renewable electricity. The applicants were in different stages of readiness and had different factors motivating their actions, and the prize helped push them to their finish lines by creating deadlines for accomplishing what some had been planning to do for some time.  

2. Identify a strong partner to administer the prize. 

We were fortunate that we had the GRC to partner with on the prize, as we did not have the in-house capacity to administer the prize ourselves. Comprised of key business and civic leaders and co-chaired by Boston’s Mayor and Barr Foundation’s trustee and founder, the GRC is also a highly credible and respected entity, which made it a suitable host of the prize.  The Commission staff handled the entire prize process—researching power purchase strategies, arranging technical assistance and guidance on purchase agreements, issuing the prize proposal requests, assembling a stellar selection committee of experts, and handling logistics and communications. 

3. Collaboration takes time, but multiplies returns. 

The prize placed a high premium on collaborative proposals, with the theory that joint procurement and diversity of organization types (hospitals, higher education, private companies) would yield better results and shared learning.  While this created a barrier to wider participation, it also tested the theory that institutions could collaborate to negotiate stronger green power purchases. The collaborative nature of the projects did take more time, but made for better financial deals in the end, capturing significant financial benefits for the participating institutions.

In fact, the participants’ experiences in crafting and negotiating these deals have provided them with jumping-off points to continue their efforts and to inspire others. For example, A Better City is developing an energy procurement service for its members. The prize participants have also been very enthusiastic about sharing their learnings. To share the lessons learned from the prize, the GRC published a case study, called Solving the Puzzle

4.  Be prepared for unexpected complications. 

While I knew going into this that the world of renewable energy purchasing was complex, I didn’t fully appreciate the range of challenges that the prize applicants encountered. All of our prize applicants went through twists and turns on the way to securing their deals. 

There were huge price variations between technologies and regions. For example, as part of its proposal, A Better City's group initially thought they would use and retire renewable energy credits (a mechanism to incentivize renewable energy) from New England. But, along the way, they discovered they could save money and have a bigger impact on emissions by looking outside of their region. New England’s power grid is largely free of coal. So, a New England solar project (which might displace natural gas in the power grid) will prevent less pollution than a similar project in the coal-heavy Southeast.  In the end, A Better City selected a solar farm in North Carolina. 

Changing state, regional, and federal policies had major implications for the nature and timing of the deals.  Strong energy policies drive progress in clean energy, but can be difficult to understand and navigate.  At the time of the contest, state solar regulations and federal tax credits were both up in the air causing delays.  The applications, and the response from potential suppliers, were affected by this uncertainty.

Funders considering launching prizes need to be prepared for unforeseen events and conditions. But, in the end, all this complexity and persistence on the part of applicants was worthwhile because of the significant financial benefits which were captured by the prize applicants.

5. Long-term sustainability and goal alignment takes the prize.

Applicants for any prize may be motivated by the short-term benefit of the prize money and positive recognition. Yet, what our selection committee was most focused on was long-term commitment to the goals of the effort (in this case clean energy/carbon emissions reductions). Interestingly, all three finalists also demonstrated a strong case for financial sustainability. Even without the prize money or ongoing philanthropic support, the economics of their proposals would work over the long term.  As a result, all three finalist projects went forward – not only the prize-winning proposal.  While this happened in our experience even without specifying sustainability as an application requirement, future prize efforts might benefit from making that an explicit criterion.

Based on this experience, I would strongly encourage other funders to consider launching prizes as a way to unlock action and innovation. The Renewable Energy Leadership Prize was particularly useful here in Boston, where higher education, healthcare, and private companies have the potential to directly purchase renewable energy, and the prize motivated them to commit to such purchases. There is still work to be done to expand interest in renewable energy purchases and to make it easier for institutions to participate. But, the prize offered a major learning opportunity about what it takes for institutions and companies to engage in renewable energy purchases.

This piece was adapted and updated from a May 2016 post on the Barr Foundation's blog. The Barr Foundation is committed to addressing climate change by advancing solutions in clean energy, mobility and resiliency. To read more by Mariella Puerto click here

About the author(s)

Co-Director of Climate
Barr Foundation

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Using Low-Cost Technology to Democratize Data and Protect Public Health: Case Studies in Pittsburgh

Over the past several years, the Environment & Health Program at The Heinz Endowments has prioritized work to help the Pittsburgh region become truly livable. Many metrics can contribute to a definition of a livable city, and Pittsburgh often touts itself as a “most livable” city. But it is hard to imagine how a city with dirty air, a notably toxic built environment, safe drinking water challenges, and other environmental health issues is most livable.

How bad is the problem? Pittsburgh ranks among the worst 12 percent of urban areas monitored in the United States for average annual particle air pollution. Allegheny County ranks in the top two-tenths of 1 percent with respect to cancer risk from power plants and other large industrial sources. The city is presently struggling to come to terms with drinking water quality challenges including lead-containing service lines in old housing infrastructure, sewage overflow from stormwater, and elevated disinfectant byproducts from the fossil fuel industry. These byproducts carry cancer risks, and the health threat is exacerbated by the coal fly ash and natural gas wastes in the city’s source waters.

In response, the Endowments has supported numerous efforts to develop low-cost technologies and data visualization platforms that reveal environmental conditions and can be used by the general public, educators, advocacy groups, and policymakers. Some of these tools and efforts are available through our Breathe Project initiative, such as the Breathe Cam with its live-camera views of the region and pollution maps showing the best estimates of the annual average concentrations of different pollutants in Allegheny County.

The Breathe Cam network technology was used to assist a community experiencing intense smell and health impacts from nearby industrial air pollution. The facility produced metallurgical coke, which is used in making steel. The CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University designed a surveillance system that was installed in homes and businesses owned by private citizens and overlooking the coke works. The system provided continuous video, weather and pollution data that provided evidence of chronic emissions problems to regulatory authorities. This helped put pressure on government and industry to be more accountable to community well-being and public health. With increased scientific scrutiny and empirical evidence, there was more transparency and feedback to ensure that emissions violations would be corrected, and less pollution would burden the community.

Recently, the CREATE Lab launched an app called Smell Pittsburgh. It provides geo-coded, crowd-sourced methods for engaging the public on air quality conditions in the city. Users can share their experiences, map environmental impact, and send formal complaints to regulators in real-time.

Here are four lessons that we’ve learned through our experience investing in the development and use of these tools:

  • Use technically sophisticated and socially-oriented engineering teams who see their mission as helping to support communities and human well-being. Ideally, the team includes outreach persons who have media and communications training.
  • From the start, the technical work as developed and executed should integrate community-based experience; this includes working with community members and advocacy groups.
  • Develop a communications platform that can aggregate and analyze data; translate output into sharable information; and, ideally, support the efforts of advocacy networks.
  • Ensure that the monitoring technologies work well, serve the needs of user groups, and are rigorously tested (ideally by third parties). In the rush to develop and provide low-cost sensor technologies – which can be technically challenging and complex – there is the risk of promoting and launching tools that are inadequate.

When thinking about using low-cost monitoring technologies and data visualization for strategic grantmaking, consider all objectives and design the implementation to meet those needs. We have learned that there is no all-purpose technology; trade-offs are necessary.

Moreover, the data should be relevant and readily usable by all. For example, a question to consider upfront is whether the data should be relevant to legal teams and regulators. Is the information that is gathered intended for educational outlets, such as classrooms? Will the data be publically shared, open-source, proprietary? Will the data have the ability to engage the public in meaningful ways?

Thanks to innovative and creative work to make data relevant and engaging to all, Pittsburgh is starting to experience a transformation toward a more equitable, just, and sustainable city. Individuals, communities and neighborhoods – especially those experiencing disproportionate harm from environmental challenges – are demanding more accountability of their regulatory and political leaders.

The Heinz Endowments is part of the Health & Environmental Funders Network (HEFN) who helped to curate this blog post. HEFN is the "go-to" place for grantmakers interested in environmental health and justice issues and works to mobilize philanthropy around solutions for environmental health and justice. Click here to learn more about their work.

About the author(s)

Environment & Health Program Director
The Heinz Endowments is an online knowledge hub designed to track, inform and inspire ocean conservation philanthropy.

The goal: to centralize and provide access to critical information needed by ocean funders and conservationists grappling with an increasingly complex landscape while working to improve the condition of the ocean, its inhabitants, and the livelihoods that depend on it.

This site provides public access to:

the most current and complete interactive funding map of global ocean conservation efforts
a searchable library of curated event, publications, case studies, affinity groups, news, and data and report repositories on ocean conservation
information on how ocean funders are working toward the Sustainable Development Goals framework
a private online community for sharing knowledge and building relationships
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