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Reimagining Philanthropy

Private philanthropy has long played a critical role in supporting landscape conservation.

To learn more about the future of the field, the Living Landscape Observer recently spoke with Jessica Brown, Executive Director of the New England Biolabs Foundation and Member, IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas and ICOMOS/IFLA International Scientific Committee on Cultural Landscapes. Brown co-organized a session at the ICOMOS General Assembly on “Reimagining Philanthropy: Supporting the Integration of Culture and Nature.” In this excerpt from the interview (part 1 in a series of excerpts), we explore the session’s inspiration, key takeaways, and reflections on the evolution of philanthropy in conservation.

Living Landscape Observer: I’d like to start by asking about a recent session you helped organize at the ICOMOS General Assembly in Sydney on the topic “Reimagining Philanthropy: Supporting the Integration of Culture and Nature.” Could you share the inspiration for the session?

Jessica Brown: The inspiration was generally an interest and a belief in the importance of approaches to conservation that link nature and culture. And especially when we talk about landscape stewardship, we really need those integrated approaches. Unfortunately, too often our institutions, including philanthropy, can be very siloed and not set up to support that kind of integration.

And then, if we’re talking about on-the-ground integrated approaches that link nature and culture, somebody’s got to fund that kind of work – but how does that take place? What role can private foundations play in ensuring that they are supporting holistic approaches and not just over-emphasizing cultural heritage on the one side or nature conservation on the other? 

Finally, as part of the discussion, are we highlighting community-led approaches? How do we support not only kind of nature/culture approaches, but also those that that are directed by grassroots organizations? And how can grant-makers offer more participatory and inclusive processes for applications, monitoring, and reporting? There is an active conversation within philanthropy on these topics.

Our panel at the 2023 ICOMOS General Assembly (GA) grew out of an earlier session that we convened at the IUCN World Conservation Congress (WCC) in 2021. Since the launch of a “Nature-Culture Journey” at the IUCN WCC in 2016, subsequent global convenings of IUCN and ICOMOS over the years have included a thematic stream devoted to exploring these connections. At the ICOMOS 2023 GA we were delighted to be one of the capstone sessions in the Culture-Nature Journey, which had a very rich and well put-together program.

Living Landscape Observer: And what would you say were the main takeaways from the session?

Jessica Brown: One of the themes that came up repeatedly was a move away from transactional grant-making to more relationship-based grant-making, where there’s an effort to really listen to and respond to the perspectives of those who are doing the work. Most foundations have guidelines as to what they support in line with their missions and strategic priorities, but within those frameworks there can be room for flexibility, too. We have to ensure compliance (with IRS regulations for example), but we can still try to make our procedures as relationship-based as possible.

Another takeaway is that there is a growing cluster of foundations adopting the nature-culture lens in their grant-making. And an additional message that came through loud and clear was the importance of the “5 Rs” of Indigenous philanthropy: respect, responsibility, reciprocity, relationships, and the relatively new addition of redistribution. You can look at the International Funders of Indigenous Peoples (IFIP) website (International Funders for Indigenous Peoples) for an articulation of these principles as part of a new paradigm for giving.

Living Landscape Observer: Can you tell me more about how philanthropy in conservation has changed or evolved in recent years? What new or newer approaches are emerging?

Jessica Brown: One of the challenges broadly in philanthropy over the years has been that grant-making is too often siloed. Historically, foundations and other actors in private philanthropy didn’t always consider the more holistic nature of people and communities and their relationships to the landscape. There was a tendency to lift up one specific aspect of a place or landscape and not take on the whole, especially not to look at how the human activities and human relationships with the landscape sustained the existence of natural systems. Nor how these natural values have, in turn, shaped human cultures and societies.

Another challenge has been an emphasis on very specific, quantitative, and possibly even mechanistic measures of success. Without, again, looking at the more holistic aspects of the work. Or even asking “What do the people who live there think success looks like? What are their metrics? The people who live and work in that place should be in the lead in evaluation processes, whenever possible.

The size of grants is also something to think about. Small grants programs — up to $15,000, let’s say –are a shrinking space in philanthropy. In certain contexts, all over the world, these small grants can be transformational, but there are fewer and fewer foundations or other other kinds of donors that want to make small grants, because it’s an awful lot of work. It’s a lot easier to move a few large grants than it is to move many small grants. So that’s another one of the challenges. And I think one of the responses, if we’re really looking for a diversified mosaic of activity that will result in effective landscape stewardship is to be sure that small grants – including multi-year grants, where possible — continue, especially for grassroots and community-based organizations.

In terms of newer models, an interesting development involves pairing money with other types of support and allyship. In the case of the New England Biolabs Foundation, where I work, we want to support relationships with our grantees in different regions, including providing capacity-building opportunities where possible. We do this through partnerships with other institutions that can provide trainings through in-person virtual workshops. Participation in these workshops is not required, but it’s something that many of our grantees have access to and, in fact, brings them together. And that, in turn, facilitates network building. I got to see this firsthand last month when we brought together 18 of our grantees for a workshop in Peru on Gender and Climate Justice offered by our partner, Creative Action Institute. When you have people who are learning together, and maybe one is a wildlife biologist and somebody else is involved in restoration of wetlands and someone else is promoting ancestral knowledge systems, you get more sharing across disciplines, which is necessary if we are to address complex problems. And that kind of exchange is precisely what is needed to bring us closer to more integrated approaches to conservation.