Empowering Indigenous Voices

Wirestock-Exclusives / AdobeStock
5 October 2023

How Jessica Sweidan imagines revolutionising conservation philanthropy

As a long-time philanthropist in her own right and co-founder of Synchronicity Earth, a collaborative, research-driven conservation organisation that works in biodiversity hotspots across the world, Jessica Sweidan has learnt first-hand the value of what the philanthropic world is just waking up to: listening and learning. To this end, Synchronicity Earth, together with its sister organisation Flourishing Diversity, created “listening sessions” where the invited audience simply bears witness and lets Indigenous communities speak. Western leaders and celebrities – ranging from King Charles to Benedict Cumberbatch – are asked to donate their platform, and their voices, and then ask one question at the end.

“But really,” says Jessica, “this isn’t about them”. Rather it’s about acknowledging that the Indigenous and local communities closest to biodiversity are often the best resources for regenerative methods and practices, including where and to whom funding must be urgently deployed. In a wide-ranging interview, Jessica talks to Unearthodox about why operational and funding models need to be completely reimagined in order to solve the biodiversity crisis and why philanthropy should be fundamentally a joyful act. What follows are edited excerpts.

Does philanthropy need to change? And if so, why and how?

It does. I think the accumulation of wealth is something that we have to address and redress. We are living in an interesting and very important time. Without question, unchecked free market capitalism has perpetuated a voracious cycle of consumerism resulting in the continued destruction of the natural world. And so what I am interested in is the mindset, culture and shared values embedded in the systems we have agreed and continue to exist in. If rendered differently, utilised and taxed well, I have to believe there are other ways of putting our current global financial system to work, where it doesn't only have to have a negative global impact but could lead to much more localised, positive flow. But it's all about balance, and we are not in balance. If anything, we are in a readjustment period: major historical legacies like colonisation, wealth disparity, the refugee crisis and the resulting need for accountability from the Global North to the Global South (who are already facing the very short end of the climate stick), are finally getting attention at the Climate and Biodiversity COPs and beyond, alerting us to the major imbalances. Much has to be addressed and changed within our larger, overarching governance of the global commons. And philanthropy has a role to play in that.

Philanthropy also has a role to play by going into the more complicated spaces that require different kinds of funding. Philanthropy is a very magical energy when used well. At the moment, there's more philanthropy coming in, but it’s a bit confused about what energetic attributes it has. I often get really frustrated by the philanthropic industrial complex for creating a culture of philanthropy beholden to being safe and following business-like protocols. Why does it have to be run like a business? Business is killing us; it doesn't necessarily need to follow those rules of engagement. Philanthropy can be the flow that helps shift us away from business-as-usual and be the instigator in other emergent spaces. So, for me, philanthropy needs to get much more playful, creative and dynamic and be much more okay with taking measured risks and learning from failure.

Of course, it is critical to acknowledge that most philanthropy exists as the result of the accumulation of vast wealth, and certainly, in the case of environmental issues, the sources of these funds can be hugely problematic. So, while philanthropy has a major role to play in supporting the regeneration and protection of species, ecosystems and the communities who often coexist in these biodiverse regions, how philanthropy does this has never been more important. Reconciliation and healing have to be a part of the process. 

Who do you then see as the key enabling actors in reaching the future that you hope for?

For me, it’s about Indigenous and local communities and youth. Of course, the partners that we work with on the ground and across the world are phenomenal. We work with about 100 organisations – some small, some slightly larger – and many individuals. We can't compete with local knowledge and expertise, we just can't. Beyond funding, our job is to listen to them. We make ourselves available for consultation and offer acumen as desired – things like finance, safeguarding or communication training. But really, I feel our job is to help create the enabling conditions so that our partners can thrive. And sometimes that means getting out of the way. 

Ironically, I tend to live this ‘getting out of the way’ by helping others challenge the sector we coexist in when I get asked for advice. For example, there are many brilliant young people finding their way in the environmental space, setting up organisations and often modelling them on the traditional organisations that they're frustrated by. So, I ask, ‘Why are you creating just the thing that you're fighting against?’ And they respond, ‘Well, how else can we do it?’. We don't have new models; we don't have new approaches and ways of doing. We don’t always create the conditions for doing things differently. The next questions are typically about foundations. ‘How do we meet philanthropists? Why do I need to fill in such an onerous application for such a small grant?’ The wider point is this: systems are created to perpetuate themselves. If we don’t tweak or evolve them regularly, especially when we know they are no longer serving us, even the very youth activists who are challenging our systems get usurped by the dominant approaches. 

There's just something about stripping them way back to the essential question – forget about what you've been taught. What do you dream of doing? What do you need? I think there's something around asking the right questions. So, in terms of those enablers, it's giving them the sort of freedom to not be bound by what we've already known, but to really be dreaming into a future that is likely entirely different in terms of how it functions than the one that we've seen. It’s an interesting form of mentoring because you're mentoring for something that you can only lead to with your heart and with your intention. 

More people and organisations are recognising Indigenous peoples, local communities and youth as really being at the forefront of deploying this wealth. But we’ve heard this rhetoric before so what's going to be different this time? 

First of all, it has to be different this time. There are many, many more actors now than there were 20 years ago. A lot of the previous scenarios were sitting under the auspices of larger Western organisational frameworks, so I don't think it could have happened in the way it might have intended to. Also, I just don't think that there was the complementary local infrastructure. I think that technology plays a significant role in what can shift right now in terms of how we can actually get funding to people in diverse geographic contexts, through their phones, or whatever it might be. There's also much more live knowledge and insight right now than there was 20 years ago, in terms of what is happening on the ground. Coupled with what we know does and doesn’t work in terms of practice and strategies, and the relationality between actors, we have much more to work with. The key issue then becomes about how foundations’ funds are structured and how funding reaches a vast array of people and projects on the ground across the globe.

I feel like the primary difference now is – and this is reflective of the conservation and philanthropy communities more widely – that organisations are finally recognising that there's just no way that any one of these organisations can solve these problems on their own. I think funders and businesses will all have to adjust. The appetite for doing better has changed dramatically in the last 20 years for the good, even if much of it has been begrudgingly nudged out of the necessity and primacy of wanting to ‘have a future’ business, life, organisation, whatever. And I think the trust piece, the really just-letting-go-of-it piece, is the key critical aspect to this. We are getting out of the way of ourselves a bit. It is shifting, and yes, it still needs to shift quite substantially.

What question about the future of philanthropy for biodiversity have we not asked that we should be asking?

What formats could we utilise as philanthropists to support global biodiversity at scale? That's the question that I'm grappling with. The difference in the way that I hold that question as to how most people might think or perceive it is when I talk about scale, I'm not talking about bigger, I'm talking about wider. I think that there's an imagination and design question or problem at the heart of this. For me, that question is around collaboration at a level that we've never seen before. And so maybe the overarching question is: how can philanthropists mirror what they are seeking from their grantees, and better collaborate towards resolving the biodiversity and climate crisis? And what does that look like? Or put another way, how do we make sure nature and people are centred in the solutions we are seeking? And, are we prepared to play the long game?

So how do you think philanthropists could collaborate to solve the biodiversity crisis better?

I think there could be more of a trusted marketplace in terms of the exchange of ideas and understanding of what's available to them. There is likely a need for more available case studies to understand what is actually working. I also think we should be sharing our granting and procedural processes to alleviate duplication and embed a culture of trust across philanthropic organisations. There is certainly a need for centring diverse solutions and approaches. I also think philanthropy still needs a bit more unschooling; this can no longer be about getting family foundations to pick one big idea, as has often been the approach of wealth advisors. They all have great intentions, but ultimately, they've been appealing to ego and legacy instead of community and stewardship. The environment touches everything. Everything. So ultimately, no matter your primary interest, I believe philanthropists owe it to our collective future to allocate some portion of their portfolio to the environment. 

When you start to differentiate what you give to and when you disperse your funds in different kinds of ways, you start to see what else is possible. Collaborating more, in pooled funds and shared-learning platforms might at first seem to be against the grain, but in my experience, the knowledge gleaned is powerful. You start to see how others fund and how others think. While incredible in so many ways, things like giving pledges don't always take us far enough, because they're a pledge, they're not addressing the how. How do we realign, work together and really use our collective expertise to get more funding to the people and into the places, however culturally or geopolitically complex that might seem? How do we shift our practices to be better funders? How do we align our organisations to support this process? How we move from here is really the critical piece.

How can the shared learning process speak to that second question, which is how to get philanthropists to look into the mirror and see who they are and recognise where they come from and actually want to do that?  

It feels psychological. This is all fear-based, and I’m not a psychologist but I understand that many people are afraid of letting go, of not understanding the reality of the world around them. Many philanthropists are making tremendous shifts, but many are still holding onto the reins of the world that’s familiar to them, that’s protected and safe and they have control of. And meanwhile, other populations of people are just trying to get through the day. There is an exceptional disconnect. Empathy without critical change, without looking in the mirror and recognising that we are a part of the problem and a part of the solution, is no longer enough. Philanthropy is, in many ways, uniquely poised to address the systemic drivers. 

Again, this is where that reconciliation piece is so important. As is transparency. To be better at philanthropy, we need to be invited to step into the process of reconciliation, and to create open dialogues about where (our) wealth comes from. I think these invitations are just beginning to surface, more confidently, but it is going to take time for this to happen in earnest. Personally, I have thrown myself into the process – eyes wide open, literally leaping off the cliff. I didn’t know how else to do it! Often, it has been very scary – to really be called to attention, and to let the legacy of history land inside, in ways that I have never needed to by virtue of my privilege and given existence. But all in, it has been utterly transformational. None of this can be taken lightly. Many Indigenous communities are hanging on for dear life, tired and exhausted by centuries of abuse and negligence, and yet many still persevere – because they must, because they are literally holding onto so much pertinent knowledge about how to be in relation with the natural world, life on Earth, the Land. And here we are – or at least – here some of us are, finally recognising that most intact biodiversity exists within Indigenous territories. And now suddenly, eager for the knowledge, we expect to be trusted? 

More and more, Indigenous activists, especially those from front-line communities facing immediate threats, are taking a stand and presencing themselves in global forums. But they’re still in the container of global forums – a very distinct bubble, with very distinct operating formats. I often wonder if wider reconciliation requires us to literally flip the entire modality we’re used to operating in. I am not convinced that having a seat at the table is enough. I think we need to address the shape, structure and composition of the tables, and chairs for that matter. And maybe remove them all together. That is what philanthropy can help do.  

Are there any other thoughts about philanthropy that you wish to share?

I actually think that one of the fundamental ways in which we need to approach the future is through the sheer concept of joy. When you are truly being philanthropic, when you're acting in that spirit of just giving, there is literally nothing more joyous than that. Philanthropy should not be a burden. It has a responsibility, but responsibility isn't only onerous. Responsibility can be a beautiful, beautiful thing to engage in. And it can bring a ton of joy. I believe that within the joy, you find the way forward. That's what's missing from a lot of the philanthropic narrative.

Learn more about this initiative: The Future of Philanthropy for Biodiversity

Further reading

Milka Chepkorir on how philanthropists can be better allies to Indigenous Peoples
Kenyan activist Milka Chepkorir on why well-intentioned pledges to support their rights have yet to turn into meaningful action. 

Ndidi Nwuneli on pushing for a more local approach and ownership of philanthropy
Serial entrepreneur Ndidi Nwuneli on why philanthropic resources in Africa must empower local models and partners.

Unearthodox key innovation themes in 2023
A look at the key themes that Unearthodox is exploring. 

Want to get in touch?

Email the project team at
Copyright  © 
 Unearthodox. All Rights Reserved.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram