Eva Rehse is the Director of Strategy and Global Collaboration at the Global Greengrants Fund. With a background in human rights, civil society development, and environmental justice, she has held prominent positions such as International Project Advisor at Amnesty International, and worked with organisations such as CIVICUS and the Scottish Biodiversity Forum. In an interview with Unearthodox, as part of the Future of Conservation NGOs project, Eva sheds light on the role of philanthropists in shaping the future of conservation funding and stresses the importance of recognising interconnections and embracing complexities in philanthropy for effective biodiversity conservation.
Q1. What does philanthropy mean to you?
I really struggle with the idea of philanthropy. On one hand, I believe that giving and sharing is a natural human instinct. However, as it exists today, philanthropy can inadvertently reinforce oppressive systems such as capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, and white supremacy, especially if it goes unchallenged and if there is no critical discussion around it.
I serve as the co-chair of the board of the “EDGE Funders Alliance” (Engaged Donors for Global Equity), which is a global network of progressive foundations aiming to reform philanthropy and support movements working towards systemic change. Many people criticise philanthropy and call for its abolition; I do not agree. I believe it can be a powerful force when grounded in the values of giving and sharing. When it is not simply a form of charity or is reinforcing existing oppressive systems. This is what the EDGE Funders Alliance and organisations like Global Greengrants Fund are working to address.
Q2. In essence, are you saying philanthropy requires transformation? If so, can you elaborate on the need for transformation in philanthropy and the steps that can be taken to bring about this change?
Yes, I think change is necessary. While philanthropy is crucial for human progress and for social change, it must scrutinise and reform oppressive systems and prioritise root-cause solutions. Currently, most foundations allocate only 10% of their funds for grant-making, while the remaining 90% is invested for financial gain, often in sectors that sustain the very systems they are trying to change. To create meaningful change, philanthropy must divest those investments from harmful sectors to more mission-driven initiatives. For me, the investment aspect of philanthropy holds immense potential for real change.
I’d say that increasingly the younger generations of philanthropists are becoming more aware of the inadequacies of tax policies, are raising the right questions, and pushing for reforms. While donating money is commendable, it's also crucial to prioritise paying taxes properly for a more effective philanthropic system.
Additionally, philanthropy must prioritise long-term funding, unrestricted funding, work in a more trust-based manner, and directly support activism and grassroots efforts, as called for by communities and the civil society.
Q3. What regulatory, environmental, and generational factors could potentially influence a shift in philanthropic giving, and what steps could be taken to facilitate change in philanthropic investments?
Shifts occur when individuals feel the pressure or urgency of an issue, such as the climate crisis. The growing focus on climate change has led to a reexamination of investments, with larger climate funders becoming more aware of the disconnect between their investments and charitable giving. The divestment movement is gaining momentum, demonstrating that foundations can still generate profits without undermining the goals of the civil society organisations they support.
I have noticed a generational shift in philanthropy, with differences in approach and perception between those who have earned wealth and those who have inherited wealth. Younger generations of philanthropists are advocating for reforms, such as signing the giving pledge and leading campaigns on taxation, despite the fact that they would otherwise benefit from not paying taxes.
This change in perspective will ultimately transform philanthropy. While activists and campaigners may call for increased taxation of the wealthy, change happens more rapidly and profoundly when it comes from within. This is also helped by the rising trend among progressive philanthropy to better organise, network, and collaborate to drive meaningful change.
Q4. What changes have you observed in the philanthropic community with better organisation? Are discussions about funding for biodiversity conservation and climate change on equal footing, or is there a disparity?
Despite the assumption that environmental funders are resourcing climate causes at scale, mapping shows that there is limited funding in this area. However, this is changing with larger players entering the climate philanthropy scene but this seems to come at the expense of funding for biodiversity conservation. To address this, the philanthropic community needs to understand the interconnectedness of various issues, such as education, health, gender equality, biodiversity etc. with climate change.
Many of the projects funded usually address multiple causes but siloed funding strategies by funders lead to siloed work by civil society actors, hindering impact and creating challenges in delivery. To overcome this, philanthropy needs to analyse and understand these connections and fund causes in a more integrated way.
I believe that partnerships between funders of different causes, such as climate and biodiversity, are crucial to better understand these connections and enable new funding models. This will break down the current scarcity mindset and enable prioritising issues, as they are all important and require simultaneous solutions. For real impact, philanthropy needs to stop thinking short-term and adopt more interconnected and collaborative strategies, instead of frequently switching strategies and moving funds from one cause to another.
Q5. Does this mean that funders, by their actions, can also bridge the silos they may have caused in the work of civil society?
Definitely! Funders can bring these silos together by shifting their funding strategies. Civil society organisations understand the interconnectedness of various issues. However they often have to present their projects in a fragmented way to meet the funding requirements of individual funders, which limits the impact of their work.
It is human nature to simplify complex problems and divide them into manageable parts. But to truly understand the interconnectedness of issues, one has to get comfortable with the complexities and appreciate the interplay between the different issues. This also requires collaboration with others and the willingness to learn and adapt as we gain new insights. Philanthropists should be open to listening and adapting, instead of making decisions solely based on their own analysis.
Predicting tipping points is difficult, but funders should support all possible pathways for change. This is difficult for those with a return-on-investment mindset and as a consequence it impacts those without resources, as they are accountable to donors about change and outcomes.
In recent years, there has been a positive shift in conversations. Increasingly people are more interested in the learnings over the achievements thus encouraging a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of change. An example is Global Greengrants’ almost decade long partnership with women's funds and women’s rights actors. We focus on the lived experiences of the people to understand the relationship between gender, women's rights, and the environment. This ongoing journey highlights the complexities of reality and how we can better understand and respond to it as funders. It's really an intentional journey. To work in partnership with others who are coming with different perspectives and for it to be led by the lived experience of the communities that we support is crucial but also challenging.
Q6. What particular challenges do you face when it comes to imagining and innovating in the philanthropy funding space (cognitive and emotional)?
Adrienne Maree Brown (writer, activist, and social justice facilitator) speaks of ‘historical imagination’. She says, “most of the constructs that oppress us feel like fact, are taught to us as fact – but they are actually evidence of historical imagination.” Someone came up with these systems, imagined them. These constructs can be reimagined. For me, that is the starting point. It is realising that these seemingly complex systems were once imagined and can be reimagined again.
I personally think that to reinvent philanthropy it is also necessary to reimagine its underlying systems such as the economic system, patriarchy, and white supremacy. Occasionally, you come across individuals like MacKenzie Scott (a philanthropist, author, and major shareholder of Amazon) who make a significant impact by redirecting funds to underfunded, crucial causes that address these issues. This inspires others to follow suit and sparks innovation in philanthropy. This is what I would call “field building”, where the philanthropic community works together to build something different. It is not just about advising or influencing certain donors. It's about building something collectively.
Collaboration is key in finding solutions to complex issues, and while a constructive dialogue is important, we also need to be willing to challenge the status quo. This requires an examination of power structures, especially since philanthropy is still largely centred in the Global North. However, this is starting to change as we are witnessing the emergence of more Global South and activist-led philanthropic organisations, who have a different understanding of power and privilege compared to those based in the North. I am also mindful of my own position as a white person from the Global North and the power I hold in telling these stories. This leads to the broader conversation around diversity, equity, and inclusion in philanthropy and understanding the ways in which it is dominated by white and male voices from the Global North and how that has perpetuated existing power structures. This is a learning curve that the philanthropic community is currently working through.
This ties back to the issue of complexity as well. When we incorporate different voices, unique perspectives, and lived experiences into the discussion, the complexities become clearer and more manageable. This is where diversity, equity, justice and inclusion become a strategic advantage. This is an absolute must in philanthropy, and there is a significant movement towards it happening. There are foundations that have adapted their practices and changed who they work with and how they make decisions, both nationally and internationally. This is a long-term process, but it is essential to transforming the system of philanthropy.
Now more than ever, philanthropy requires a paradigm shift to effectively address the world's complex problems with sustainable solutions. Our initiative the "Future of Philanthropy” is exploring the possible futures of philanthropy for societal and biodiversity resilience and regeneration. Click here to learn more.