How we’re helping to seed new philanthropy

A few years ago, we had an idea that we thought could raise new dollars for environmental causes. It was about cultivating, inspiring, educating, and “leading from behind,” so that newer philanthropists can find their way toward giving their time and money to conservation.

Environmental nonprofits tell us frequently that they compete for scarce resources, that they need more flexible funding and more freedom to grow and change with the times. So, we thought, if only we could inspire new philanthropists to invest in and understand the complexity of environmental issues, we could leave a legacy of more money for good work. Here’s the story of how we’ve experimented and found success growing the philanthropic base around environmental issues in Seattle and the Northwest.

When Paul Brainerd decided to sunset the Brainerd Foundation — choosing not to continue its work in perpetuity as most foundations historically do — one reason was his belief in the importance of passing the baton to a new generation of conservationists and philanthropists. As our foundation moves toward its close, our board has wanted to foster fresh philanthropic activity, specifically in the field of conservation. They imagined philanthropic leadership that would buttress the current investments of existing Northwest environmental funders, as well as spawn new ideas for the challenges ahead.

Now, three years down the road, we have graduated “alumni” from a philanthropic training program that has spurred new funding for climate equity and justice, democracy reform, regional energy policy, environmentally focused art, and socio-economic and cultural diversity in the outdoors, along with significant new dollars for regional environmental protection and advocacy.

It all began six years ago when we provided seed funding to Social Venture Partners (SVP) so it could explore the feasibility of a new program that might develop and catalyze new conservation philanthropy in the Northwest. SVP, founded by a group of Seattle business leaders, was uniquely suited to tackle the challenge we put before them. (SVP is a network of engaged donors; its goals are to help individuals realize greater impact with their giving, strengthen nonprofits, and enrich the social sector, creating fertile soil for positive change.) We also asked colleague funders to invest through grants and staff time, and the Wilburforce, Harder, Campion, Bullitt, and Seattle foundations jumped on board.

Our goal was to support newer philanthropists who wanted to learn more about investing their time, money, and influence in the environmental field. SVP started with a needs assessment, interviews with current philanthropists, and focus groups with would-be candidates for the new program.

Eventually, the SVP team designed a curriculum that focused on leadership around core values; exploratory expeditions to see successes and challenges in action; mentorship alongside people who were already finding success; and longer-term post-training opportunities.

What became the Northwest Conservation Philanthropy Fellowship is now going strong and moving into its fourth year. Six to twelve fellows are selected annually, and the program incorporates self-study, mentorship, peer learning, expert instruction and advice, and field trips. The sessions (or modules) focus on developing one’s own vision, working to influence policy change, putting the pieces together, and moving to action and implementation.

Each fellow pays half of the cost of his or her participation in the program and is encouraged to make a substantial grant to an environmental group at its completion. And, upon graduation, the fellows become part of an alumni cohort that continues to learn together and network through a follow-on program.

In the interest of fine-tuning and improving the fellowship, we evaluate it each year. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. In fact, in one recent survey, all respondents said they felt more empowered to launch into their roles as environmental philanthropists; and all said they would be more effective as a result of the fellowship. One recent fellow called the experience, “an MBA program in environmental philanthropy.”

So, what have we learned in these four years?

When we started, we wanted these newer philanthropists to be comfortable with the often-contentious world of environmental protection and to understand the full range of tools required to make progress, from policy and legal enforcement, to land purchase and environmental education. That said, we have learned that we need to let go of expectations we might have regarding what particular issues and organizations these new philanthropists will ultimately support. Whatever they fund, our goal is for them to have the savvy and the knowledge to choose wisely.

While our foundation’s particular environmental focus areas may or may not overlap with those of the fellows, we continue to fund this program because it creates an expanding network of philanthropic colleagues to collaborate with over time, and because good policy and a strong base of support for environmental causes are important for everyone, regardless of what inspired them or where they come from.

Want to learn more about the Northwest Conservation Philanthropy Fellowship and how it continues to advance environmental outcomes? You can read more here.

This isn’t the only thing we’re doing differently as we steer the Brainerd Foundation toward its sunset. We’re also trying to strengthen the bench of new talent for the conservation movement, make space for conservation advocates to experiment and innovate, and share what we’re learning as we go. We hope you will follow us and join the conversation.

We want to hear from you. What programs have you heard about that bring new donors to the table? Do you have other ideas for new ways to leverage smart and creative philanthropy?