The Future of Philanthropy and Biodiversity:
perspectives and pathways

Over the course of a year (2022-2023), this exploration gathered diverse perspectives on key questions that get to the heart of how philanthropy impacts biodiversity and how new paradigms and alternative approaches could generate the best outcomes for nature, including people.

By Melanie Ryan, CEO of Unearthodox

Over the last 20 years I have worked across all kinds of sectors: government, private, not-for-profit/volunteer, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), as well as academia. They all have their trade-offs, strengths and weaknesses. With over a decade working in NGOs, I’ve become familiar with the ins and outs, ups and downs of the relationship between myself, the work, and the organisations that I’ve been part of.

Melanie Ryan

I’ve spent many a weekend, evening or special holiday not with my loved ones but, rather, in front of a computer crafting a grant proposal, finishing a slide deck, or answering a set of questions from a donor. Never resenting the extra time because I knew that if the funds and support and partnership were to come through, then there would be more resources for so many people and their work on sustainability, nature, people, innovation, change, equity, and the possibility that the world might be a different place. 

As you can imagine, as I became more and more curious, experienced and self-aware. As I dug deeper into the 'why' of the world, I could start to see that the relationship between philanthropy, NGOs, nature, people and everything in between was a lot more complex. Deeply rooted, intimately connected, and historically contested, sometimes empowering and inspiring, and sometimes perverse. My ‘donor proposals’, were the naive tip of the systemic iceberg, so to speak.

The 21st century has seen a pivot in sentiment towards both conservation and philanthropy, which are no longer the ‘feel good’ domains they might have once been. If I then worked for a conservation organisation funded by philanthropy - where did that leave me? Fortunately, I have not been alone on this journey, which has included the philanthropists I have been privileged to work with. Unearthodox would not exist if this was not the case. We, ourselves, benefit from a more progressive view of the relationship between nature, society, philanthropy and NGOs. More widely, and across many different actors, these kinds of conversations have started to emerge, as has active change in how philanthropy is implemented - often critical, but with the spirit of looking for change and redesigning how the world works in the future, especially around issues of equity, justice, inclusion and power.  

At Unearthodox, we believe self-reflection must be a critical component at every stage of our value chain. As we transitioned to becoming a new entity over the past year, and in the context of our exploration of the Future of Conservation NGOs, we thought it both deeply relevant and timely to examine questions that apply as much to ourselves as to every other stakeholder in the biodiversity and philanthropic sectors. This exploration, as well as all the interviews and insight pieces for the Future of Philanthropy for Biodiversity, is a companion to this work. 

We embarked on the Future of Philanthropy for Biodiversity project realising that there is an especially deep connection between philanthropy and ‘conservation’ - whether new or old. There are shared tensions and places to be opened up again and rethought, especially at the intersection of these fields. Discourse related to power, justice, governance, geopolitics, NGOs, and the wider mobilisation of funding and resources, spares no criticism and the roots of both sectors are exposed. At Unearthodox, we are playing our part in taking another look. Not with the hope of pointing fingers and assigning blame, but with the idea that, if we can re-examine the root problems, then we can see the future differently, as well as the pathways to get there. We are not alone. There are already many voices spurring momentum in this direction. 

Systems change is hard but not impossible. We recognise that this discussion is an entry point to wider discussions around systems change as well as other kinds of financial and resource flows for nature and people. However, we hope that this exploration offers another place to be curious, that it gives some hint as to how we got to where we are, provides visibility for the kinds of conversations that people are having, and offers different views of the topic.

The work is framed by six questions that, we believe, are useful in themselves for prompting new journeys and innovation. This is not your standard ‘report’. It is a range of voices set against a snap-shot of history, each telling their own piece of the story, while illustrating the many different lived realities that exist right now at the intersection of conservation and philanthropy. 


Over the course of a year, the Future of Philanthropy for Biodiversity team conducted more than 70 interviews with funders, academics, activists, donors and leadership in both the philanthropic and biodiversity sectors.

By one estimate, it will cost US$ 722–967 billion per year to save nature. In 2019, the world spent less than a quarter of that amount on biodiversity conservation, the bulk coming from government budgets. Philanthropy and conservation NGOs (which rely on individual donors and foundations for a significant chunk of their income) provided just 2% of the funds. 

Considering that nature also includes the human species, the figures above suggest that the amount needed to save nature is probably available. They also show, however, that philanthropy and philanthropists aren’t nearly as important to our collective fate as headlines would lead us to believe. On the other hand, the sources of their collective fortunes and the systems that enable those vast accumulations (monetary, influence and otherwise) are integral to the problem. This conundrum – of philanthropy’s relatively insignificant contributions to biodiversity conservation versus the potential positive impact of increased spending – came up repeatedly when we interviewed 70+ people for this project. 

In speaking to funders, academics, activists, donors and leadership in both the philanthropic and biodiversity sectors, two sentiments became quickly apparent: a vain hope that we would one day inhabit a world where philanthropy wouldn’t need to exist at all, and a second hope that, in the meantime, philanthropy as it exists today would quickly devolve power and ramp up funding to Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IP&LC) who bear the brunt of the impacts of a fast-degrading natural world.  Heirs to a persistent legacy of inequality and exclusion IP&LC are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and natural hazards. Although there is growing scientific evidence that IP&LC are better stewards of nature than even well-protected national parks managed by the state, Indigenous Peoples, make up for 19% of the extreme poor while accounting for only 6% of the global population and conserving 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity1

Many interviewees said that while mainstream philanthropy, in its modern, heavily North American and Euro-influenced form, needs to be significantly challenged and re-thought, it nevertheless exists in an intricate ecosystem of actors, with a unique ability to jumpstart the kind of change that cannot be easily dismissed. Still missing from many of these discussions is the rising role of philanthropy outside Europe and North America. At its best, several interviewees hailed philanthropy as being a convener, conduit, catalyst and accelerant of positive change, able to leapfrog and leverage financial and social clout to get things done quickly and at scale – in other words, the opposite of government. In this version, many pointed out, the philanthropist should be incidental to the impact. 

What emerged from a year of dialogue, interviews and desk research is a series of tension points that philanthropy, of all origins, must urgently confront if it is to embody the role described in the previous paragraph. For many we spoke to, the pathways to getting there are relatively clear. However, the will to change systems that prop up philanthropy’s most damaging aspects is still overwhelmingly absent. Even with record-breaking pledges and global governance treaties that seek to crystallise some of the good intentions into tangible on-the-ground action, there exists a widespread sense of this being futile without confronting the destructive impacts of extractive capitalism and industrial development, which a recent study shows threatens more than 60% of Indigenous Peoples’ land. While it would be simplistic to apportion the blame to philanthropists alone, this exploration aims to surface the areas where the sector should most urgently focus its self-reflection and transformation.

At a time when both philanthropy and conservation are critically reflecting on their past and present practices, we’ve framed these tension points as questions, with context by philanthropy historian Benjamin Soskis and answers and perspectives by a variety of actors in the biodiversity and philanthropic sectors. Nonette Royo and her team from The Tenure Facility provided many of the invaluable perspectives from IP&LC, whose collective rights, knowledge and relationship to nature are central to shifting philanthropy closer to the original meaning and intent of the word (“love of humanity”).

1Indigenous Peoples World Bank. Available at:

1. How can philanthropy effectively support biodiversity conservation when the wealth underpinning philanthropy is often generated from practices that harm the planet?

In contrast with the early years of this century, when public discourse tended primarily to celebrate philanthropy, the last decade has been a period of surging critique.

Mainstream institutions and publications now put forward critical views regarding the ways in which philanthropy serves as a cover for the interests of the wealthy. Such views had previously been largely restricted to academia. Examples include responses to the global recession in 2008 and the role of philanthropy in developing and distributing the COVID-19 vaccine1. An increasing number of people look today at philanthropy as a form of taking, allowing the wealthy to bolster their reputations and promote their personal interests.

There has also been increased scrutiny directed towards the source of the wealth that provides the basis for philanthropy, and towards the relationship between the means of accumulation and of philanthropic redistribution2. Such considerations take on particular significance when dealing with living donors. For conservation philanthropy, this has meant a greater willingness to call out funders who contribute to the support of biodiversity while at the same time generating their wealth from practices that cause the harms philanthropy is called on to address.

In a striking recent example, FRIDA, the Young Feminist Fund, announced that it had received a US$ 10 million donation from MacKenzie Scott, the former spouse of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, while also acknowledging the source of Scott’s wealth “and its association with one of the most exploitative companies in the world.” FRIDA went on to state that it and other radical feminist funds were “interrogating the question of how to absorb philanthropic dollars from violent systems of capitalism as a means of reparations.”

Calls have mounted from within philanthropy to focus on the structural roots of these problems. Ford Foundation president, Darren Walker, termed it ‘moving from generosity to justice’ – the title of his 2019 book. Philanthropy, he insisted, must face up to its inherent paradox and work to dismantle the undemocratic and unjust systems that helped to produce its wealth in the first place. “[F]or all our efforts, the combined wealth of all the world’s foundations, donors, and philanthropists hasn’t done enough to change the underlying systems that make our work necessary.”

1Anand Giridharadas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World (New York: Vintage, 2019); Linsey McGoe, No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy (London: Verso, 2015); Edgar Villanueva, Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divide and Restore Balance (Oakland, Ca.: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2018); Tim Schwab, “Is the Shine Starting to Come Off Bill Gates’s Halo?” The Nation, May 7, 2021,

2Benjamin Soskis, “Philanthropy’s Failed Covid Test,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, May 10, 2021,; Johnson Center for Philanthropy. (2020). Increasing Critiques of (Big) Philanthropy. [online] Available at:; Soskis, B. (2014). The Importance of Criticising Philanthropy. The Atlantic. Available at:

Jessie Bluedorn, Director of the Carmack Collective

I've been thinking about best practices and new norms for philanthropic practice to engage in more radical or anti-capitalist ways, and about the idea of redistribution versus charity. I think charity is imbued with the sense of: “It's my money, I have the right to it. And out of the goodness of my heart, I am giving it to others,” versus redistribution, which is rooted in this more fundamental idea that wealth inequality is a stain on our society, and it really shouldn't have all been my money in the first place. And so I'm simply just sending it back into society where it should have remained. 

I also think a lot about the idea of addressing root causes rather than symptoms. I know so many people are talking about this. But I think in philanthropy this means having to challenge various systems that philanthropists themselves have benefited from. So, if I want to effectively fund movement strategies, I have to understand and embrace that I'm hopefully destroying the mechanisms by which I could stay very wealthy.

Jessica Sweidan, co-founder of Synchronicity Earth and philanthropist

Many philanthropists are making tremendous shifts but many are still holding onto the reins of a world that’s familiar to them, that’s protected and safe and they have control of. There is an exceptional disconnect. Empathy without critical change, without looking in the mirror and recognising that we are a part of the solution and a part of the problem, is no longer enough. Philanthropy is, in many ways, uniquely poised to address the systemic drivers. 

This is where the 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, 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. 

More and more, Indigenous activists, especially those from frontline 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 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 the chairs for that matter. And maybe remove them all together. That is what philanthropy can help do.

Nonette Royo, Executive Director, Tenure Facility

Few donor programmes for biodiversity protection take a human-rights lens, let alone one that respects Indigenous Peoples’ internationally recognised rights to self-determination, free and prior informed consent, and territory. On the contrary, significant donor resources have supported fortress conservation strategies that have forcibly removed Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IP&LC) from their lands, creating animosity towards conservation and increasing pressure on natural resources. Donors may overvalue financial contributions and undervalue the contributions of knowledge, governance, vigilance, and defence that IP&LC invest in biodiversity conservation, leading to partnerships that feel imbalanced. Funding must not only respect these rights but should strengthen the ability of IP&LC to exercise them, to protect territories from threats, and to increase the economic and social opportunities for them to remain in their territories.

The generation of scientific and technical knowledge about nature, the establishment and management of protection and conservation areas, and the promotion of policies to encourage resource preservation and reduce pressures are important solutions but they have not been sufficient to reverse the tide of nature and habitat loss. What has been missing from many conservation philanthropic approaches has been an engagement in creating durable, long-term social change, including societal shifts in behaviour, movement building, and systemic reform to tackle inequity and injustice. This work is undoubtedly more complex.

"If I could address a room of philanthropists, I would tell them, if your resources are going to be used to disenfranchise the rights of communities and Indigenous Peoples, either by practice or by law, or by a paradigm that has been left in those regions by colonialism; if your money is going to contribute to harm and exclusion, and dehumanising Indigenous Peoples just because of their nature and their economic situations; if your money is just going to contribute to inhumanity; then please don't give it. It is not enough to just give to institutions, to governments that will make people suffer. It only becomes enough when you, as a human being, reflect on what your interventions will bring to another human being."

Milka Chepkorir is a member of the Sengwer Indigenous Peoples of Cherang’any Hills in Kenya. She is currently the Policy and Advocacy Co-Coordinator for Africa at the ICCA Consortium

2. How can philanthropy rebalance its power structures to enable IP&LC-led biodiversity conservation?

One of the key axes of philanthropic power dynamics involves shifting power (and not just resources) from the “Global North to the Global South”.

Such a binary classification does not capture the full complexity of international resource flows. Nevertheless, it points to a long history within the realms of development, foreign aid and philanthropy, overlaid on the even longer history of colonialism, in which funding purportedly meant to assist Global South nations was in actuality directed to Global North non-governmental organisations or global intermediaries headquartered in the North, thus perpetuating existing power imbalances between the regions. Although within the last two decades many prominent funders, both private and governmental, have pledged to address this inequity, it persists.

In Africa, for example, a recent report from the Bridgespan Group and African Philanthropy Forum found that only about 14% of the total philanthropic funding from outside the region is directed to African organisations, with the vast majority flowing to international organisations. A journalistic investigation of 30,000 grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation over the past two decades found that “more than 88 percent of the donations—$63 billion—have gone to recipients in the wealthiest, whitest nations, including the United States, Canada, Australia, and European countries.”

The decolonisation of philanthropy is not merely about seeking to play a modest, reparative role in reversing the centuries-long process of wealth extraction from South to North. Rather, philanthropy must actively attend to the ways in which it continues to exacerbate inequities rooted in that history. The future of global philanthropy will likely bring increased efforts to monitor and hold funders accountable for the ways in which it does so, including the possibility of more active, coordinated protest if it fails.

As Bhekinkosi Moyo, the director of the Centre on African Philanthropy and Social Investment, has pointed out1, addressing the power imbalances between the Global North and Global South will not merely require redirecting funding, but interrogating the applicability of modes and processes of grant-making developed in the West to other regions. It also will require paying closer attention to the existing capacities of civil society in the Global South and identifying which are able to absorb resources meant to ‘shift power.’ “I don’t think you can ever build from external resources without taking into account your internal resources,” says Moyo. “And I doubt whether that conversation is happening enough [in African philanthropy].

1Bhekinkosi Moyo was interviewed by Benjamin Soskis in the course of researching the current report.

Nonette Royo, Executive Director, Tenure Facility

The work Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IP&LC) do to protect and promote the world’s remaining biodiversity remains woefully unsupported. In 2021, in an effort to better resource forest defenders for climate-change mitigation, 17 government and philanthropic donors announced a landmark pledge to invest US$340 million per year over five years (2021–2025) for a total of US$ 1.7 billion. The money was intended to support IP&LC to protect biodiverse tropical forests. A transparent progress report published in 2022 noted that only 7% of the pledge disbursements to date had gone directly to IP&LC.

There are many reasons why it is difficult for donors to directly fund IP&LC. Some are structural: donors and communities are often remote from one another, don’t know about each other, don’t speak the same languages, and don’t have the time or resources to build relationships. IP&LC organisations often have structures that are different from professionalised NGOs. There is a large cultural divide between IP&LC and their community organisations and the philanthropists themselves. Many IP&LC organisations are concerned that they are being ‘tokenised’ so donors can meet their climate and conservation objectives, with little real concern and respect for community welfare, culture or rights. The intermediaries that communities deal with generally do little more than reinforce these concerns.

Most grantmaking intermediaries have boards, directors, and staff that are predominantly non-Indigenous and not from local communities, although this is slowly beginning to change. There is also an emerging new generation of Indigenous and community-managed intermediaries such as Fundo Podáalii (Brazil), Fondo Territorial Mesoamericano and the Nusantara Fund (Indonesia). But these are still incipient and not well known by donors beyond the core supporters that have sustained Indigenous networks for decades.

Fred Nelson, Roshan Paul, Jimm Chick and Emmanuel Sulle

Recent years have seen rapid growth in philanthropic investments to address climate change and biodiversity loss. This is being driven by the growing public urgency around these environmental crises, their implications for human economies, and the recognition that nature conservation is a critical element in addressing climate change because of the importance of forests and other ecosystems to global carbon absorption and emissions.

At the same time, there is a growing consensus around the importance of locally rooted, community-driven approaches to conservation grounded in the customs and land-use practices of IP&LC. Scientific evidence is accumulating – and increasingly being incorporated into global and national policies – that such local communities are better stewards of nature than even well-protected national parks managed by the state.

But these local conservation efforts are chronically under-resourced and are marginalised within existing philanthropic funding. Research published in 2021 by the Rainforest Foundation Norway found that less than 1% of all climate funding went directly to Indigenous groups. In Africa, local organisations get only 5–10% of all international aid and foundation grants to Africa, with the vast majority being captured by organisations based outside the region.

Even when funding reaches local organisations, the way that it is designed and structured creates additional barriers that impede its impact potential. In our recent report focusing on African conservation funding, we found that 92% of surveyed African organisations struggle with a lack of core organisational funding, and the same percentage say that more unrestricted funding would improve their ability to deliver long-term outcomes. For 71%, the prevalence of short-term project funding is perceived as a constraint and over half identify “onerous reporting requirements” as a barrier. In interviews with 37 leading African organisations working in 15 countries, we repeatedly heard the same critiques: talented local organisations are limited by short-term, restrictive funding structures and are further burdened by the high costs of sourcing funders and adhering to proposal and reporting requirements. We also heard a growing chorus of concern around lopsided power dynamics and inequitable resource allocations in the partnerships between international organisations and their African civil-society counterparts, as well as the perception of racial bias in African organisations’ abilities to access philanthropic funding.

Conservation efforts in Africa and around the world urgently need to improve the way that talented and committed organisations working at the community level are financed and supported. Improving funding practices and policies, with more long-term and core funding being prioritised, is an obvious yet critical priority. Reforming the way partnerships between international organisations and African organisations are structured is another key to strengthening the field. Pooled funds represent a promising opportunity to get more enabling funding to the point of impact; they help address funders’ own capacity constraints around staff time and/or the transaction costs associated with funding smaller organisations.

As the world increases its investments in climate-change mitigation and adaptation and biodiversity conservation, improving funding practices so that this increased funding reaches local communities and the organisations that support them must become a greater priority to ensure that we build a more sustainable world for all living beings.

Adapted from Maliasili and Synchronicity Earth, Greening the Grassroots: Rethinking African Conservation Funding, July 2022

“I remember my first relationship with one of the donors with whom we created Pawanka Fund, who gave us a gift and said ‘Here are some resources, you decide how to use them.’ And this somehow put us at the donor table, because overnight we became donors and in a more equal relationship with other donors. We began arriving at the table and bringing our own knowledge systems and feeling empowered. That kind of collaboration or support from donors is not linked to projects, conditions or reports, but depends on having confidence that Indigenous Peoples can manage those resources and be transparent.”

Dr Myrna Cunningham, indigenous Miskitu from Nicaragua, co-founder of the Pawanka Fund and Board Chair of Tenure Facility

3. Is there space for philanthropy to engage with civil society in ways that benefit biodiversity?

An increased focus on efforts to influence government policy is one outcome of the call on philanthropy to address unjust systems.

The last two decades have seen a definite trend in which more funders have embraced policy advocacy. Here philanthropy again finds itself confronted by a paradox: to maximise its impact and to make use of levers that might allow it to address the structural causes of social ills, philanthropy increasingly pursues avenues for social change that underscore the fundamentally undemocratic and unaccountable nature of its power, as concentrated wealth is able to have disproportionate influence on government. The future of global philanthropy will likely be shaped by the promise of this policy work, as well as by mounting resistance to it.

Some of the most virulent attacks on philanthropy in recent years have been part of a broader assault from authoritarian regimes on civil society. As the forces of authoritarianism show little sign of weakening, these attacks will very likely characterise the coming decade as well. To parry these attacks, it is essential that funders and their allies address legitimate critiques about the ways in which philanthropy can warp civil society, while at the same time aggressively combatting conspiracy theories and gross caricatures about the demonic threats posed by philanthropic power.

Increased support of grassroots movements is another outcome of philanthropy’s efforts to focus on underlying causes. But to promote structural change, philanthropy may need to give up some of the privileges related to a technocratic philanthropic framework and instead support frontline, movement-based work. Such work may require the adoption of more confrontational methods and a more open-ended, patient approach.

Milka Chepkorir is a member of the Sengwer Indigenous Peoples of Cherang’any Hills in Kenya. She is currently the Policy and Advocacy Co-Coordinator for Africa at the ICCA Consortium.

Can philanthropic money be used to hold governments accountable? Definitely. That is why people who are giving this money should be informed and inform themselves more on what this money is being used for, because then you're able to hold the government accountable. Say no, we cannot allow governments to use the money that we are putting into conservation interventions to deny people's rights. Philanthropists have to hold governments accountable.

You cannot come around giving money to protect trees, to protect whatever biodiversity that you want to protect, and forget that there are people who have been doing this for ages, and who most likely will be kicked out by the initiatives financed by your money. You cannot accept, as a philanthropist, that the government then comes back to you and tells you, “You know, we used your money to protect this and that and now we have fenced this place and that place.” Ask, then, where are the people? Ask yourself, were there people before you fenced it? Where did they go? 

Why are we even making a distinction between people and biodiversity? We are nature, we are biodiversity, and excluding ourselves is insane. And saying that nobody is excluding anybody is a lie. The philanthropic world needs to hear this. And people need to know it's often not about them. If you can use the power of your money to hold governments accountable, then do it! We have to end this form of segregation and be human in everything we do.

Clara Bosco and Elisa Novoa, CIVICUS

Big philanthropic actors have to acknowledge that funding decisions are political – always about more than just efficiency and effectiveness – and accept that one of the roles of civil society is to ask difficult questions and to challenge power. They then need to ask themselves, are they enabling that role? Also, they have to make sure that accessing their funding and resources is not disproportionately burdensome for the local partners and does not restrict the causes and agendas of the groups supported.

This requires deep mindset shifts, moving away from the risk-averse, linear, quick-fix and transactional approaches, and embracing bolder, patient, trust-based and relational behaviours that value and support the autonomy and agency of the groups funded. Some of the gaps we keep on hearing from frontline groups where philanthropy could play a trailblazing role are:

  • Creating and/or resourcing local and trans-local spaces where meaningful relationships among different actors can be built and solutions can flourish;
  • Humanising activism and helping mitigate the risks and stigma that often come with it;
  • Including, as an important unit of impact, the holistic well-being of activists and defenders (mental, physical, social, financial).

If funders meet these needs, they could go a long way not just in countering the emerging threats to civil society, but in helping to foster a stronger, more resilient civil society for the future.

Nonette Royo, Executive Director, Tenure Facility

Economic growth and the creation of wealth often generate more pressure to extract natural resources. Over the last decade, threats to Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IP&LC) defending land and biodiversity have been on the rise, with murders, criminalisation and attacks increasing year on year. In a report on killings of environmental and land defenders, Global Witness reported that, in 2020, over a third of all fatal attacks targeted Indigenous people, even though Indigenous communities make up only 5% of the world’s population. Pressures from external groups interested in grabbing land, forests, minerals or carbon rights are only increasing, including new pressures from seemingly aligned agendas like energy-transition-related mining.

Communities have few sources of cash to defend themselves and thus often engage with philanthropy and intermediaries, despite misgivings. In some countries, accepting funding from foreign donors can leave IP&LC organisations vulnerable to legal and administrative harassment and criminalisation, or can be used politically to publicly discredit them as advancing the agendas of foreign interests.

4. How can philanthropy better embrace participatory approaches when supporting biodiversity?

Philanthropic power is being contested and reshaped through what has been termed a ‘trust-based’ approach to philanthropy, which involves restructuring grantor–grantee relationships in ways that reflect a trusting and non-paternalistic framework.

Trust-based philanthropy can involve the reduction of onerous reporting requirements, the provision of more flexible, longer-term core and general-operating support, and the embrace of participatory approaches to grant-making1. One of the most high-profile examples of trust-based philanthropy is the recent spate of giving from MacKenzie Scott, whose powerful model has been praised – though not yet adopted – by other philanthropists2.

There is a danger, however, that a focus on Scott’s approach will obscure the full scope of the trust-based movement. As a 2022 letter to Alliance Magazine pointed out, “[i]n addition to advocating for flexible funding and streamlined paperwork, a trust-based approach centres relationship-building, mutual learning, and transparency between funders and nonprofits.” It’s an approach that could transform nearly every element of the grantor–grantee relationship and force funders to look internally to their own governance and grant-making systems.

Participatory approaches represent one of the most significant elements of trust-based philanthropy, where those who philanthropy is meant to assist assume active roles within the philanthropic process. What had been a more peripheral practice among radical funders is now increasingly gaining interest more generally as a global movement. Participatory philanthropy exists on a spectrum, from modest consultation of those impacted by funding up to fully joint decision-making regarding grant details. 

Nowhere is this spectrum more evident than in the acquisition and ownership of habitat critical to biodiversity. Today, a relatively small number of billionaires are some of the largest private landowners in the world, procuring vast tracts of critical habitat from the Amazon’s rainforests to Scotland’s peatlands, ostensibly for the purpose of protecting it. With greatly varying and inconsistent approaches to governance, tenure and stewardship structures, these land acquisitions lay bare philanthropy’s reliance on the choices of individual donors rather than on consultative, transparent and accountable approaches. Even with progressive and much-commended outliers like Doug and Kristine Tompkins, who set the model for how private–public partnerships can enable creation of new protected areas in Chile and Argentina, the philanthropist’s role in protecting critical habitat by purchasing it will continue to raise critique about the compatibility of private interest with community ownership and stewardship.

1Emily Finchum-Mason, “Some Funders are Embracing "Trust-Based Philanthropy’ by Giving Money Without Lots of Obligations,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, May 10, 2022,; Kathy Reich, “How this Crisis May Upend Grantmaking for Good,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, March 31, 2020,

2See, for instance, Nicholas Kulish and Rebecca R. Ruiz, “The Fortunes of MacKenzie Scott,” The New York Times, April 10, 2022,; “MacKenzie Scott is giving away more money, faster, than anyone has before,” The Economist, November 18, 2021,

Nonette Royo, Executive Director, Tenure Facility

How can philanthropy shift the proposition to complement the contributions communities provide for conservation while reinforcing community well-being? What allyship can be provided for land rights and negotiations, for integration of local knowledge with complementary techniques in education and health?

Grant money is one important resource donors can bring to the table, but philanthropy can bring other values to the table, too. Funders can use their power, access and resources to create equally important possibilities. Convening, offering platforms for Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IP&LC) to speak to new audiences, examining and realigning investments, creating the political will, inviting IP&LC into strategy and philanthropic decision-making are just some of the ways in which donors are starting to address the need for rebalancing of wealth, land and power.

Many thriving IP&LC are independent, continuing to live without reliance on or support from governments or other entities outside their existing ecosystem. But the threats they face come from beyond this self-elected containment, and they must wrestle with whether or how to use external resources to potentially redirect excess profit shared through philanthropy to combat these threats. Approaches from philanthropy that are rooted in building trust may still place demands or counter good intentions with muddled or problematic origins.

While most IP&LC lack the financial resources to adequately defend their territories, they also want to know that their own contributions to protecting biodiversity are even more important. IP&LC actively steward ecosystems and possess traditional knowledge as well as cultural and governance institutions that have ensured that these ecosystems still exist today. They invest considerable time in the active management, monitoring and restoration of ecosystems. Many have also resisted powerful government, paramilitary and corporate efforts – often involving coercion and violence – to dispossess them of their lands and resources.

Dominique Bikaba, Director and Founding Member, Strong Roots

Colonial conservation/modern conservation, suggests that humans are enemies of nature. To do conservation, you kick out humans from the forest so that the forest is protected. Modern conservation seems like it’s working, but in reality, it's not working. It cannot work because, in a country like the Democratic Republic of Congo, which invests zero government funds in protected areas, all protected areas are managed with donor funding. What happens when the donors go away?

Strong Roots has been working with 21 Indigenous communities on securing recognition of their community forests and creating a corridor that connects two protected areas. This work has secured 600,000 ha of community forest and mobilised communities to plant 2.7 million trees to restore degraded habitat.

We are pushing a narrative that people are the difference between protected areas and conserved areas. It's a process with a lot of steps. First, securing the free prior and informed consent of people, assuring that you build trust between communities themselves and with other stakeholders, mapping of each of the 21 community forests, ensuring that you set up a strong mechanism of conflict resolution and good governance. If we fail to set up strong local structures, then we fail at everything.

Make communities responsible for conservation programmes, make communities actors in conservation programmes, and not just beneficiaries. Communities need to be actors in forest governance and forest management structures. If we want to preserve the Congo Basin Forest, we need to ensure that we are making local communities and Indigenous Peoples the actors of conservation programmes, not just the beneficiaries.

(Strong Roots Congo or Strong Roots, is an NGO in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that works to secure land rights and Indigenous community-conserved corridors. Dominique Bikaba is from the Bashi tribe, a community whose traditional territory was designated as a national park, displacing his family.)

Masego Madzwamuse, Director of Environment Programme, Oak Foundation

Philanthropy needs to centre justice and equity in a meaningful way – by truly supporting and delivering outcomes for people on the margins. This will help philanthropy align intentions with resources. We also need to have diversity in our philanthropy organisations. For example, we need diversity in staffing, and diversity in terms of thoughts, ideas, and mental models that inform the philanthropy space.

We need to change how we understand philanthropy. I hope that the future global map of philanthropy will demonstrate the value of African philanthropy in the broader landscape. The continent needs to be seen as an equal player, because African forms of giving are just as valuable. And, if we documented, monitored, and reported on African philanthropy, it would change the power dynamic to enable groups to negotiate as true partners and agents of change, and not as passive recipients of support. This would happen because we recognise the existing resources, the ideas we are building on, and the value of solutions that are driven from different spaces.

“​​Right now, what is going to be critically important for philanthropy to enable is participation. Get people to participate in solutions, get them exploring solutions at the local and on the national level, provincial level, state level, whatever level. And recognise that the solutions to emerge that will be successful are those that emerge through co-creation and not those that are cooked up by some brilliant person somewhere and everybody is told ‘that's what you need to do’.”
Kumi Naidoo, activist
5. How does the increased prevalence of engaged living donors impact biodiversity conservation?

The recent surge in large-scale giving comes primarily from living donors, who have come to dominate the global philanthropic landscape.

These living donors now often surpass the place occupied for decades by legacy foundations, especially in countries where philanthropic foundations have only recently developed. The interplay between individual donors and legacy foundations represents one of the more important dynamics today.

The personal engagement of living donors has introduced a range of distinctive approaches and attitudes into the practice of philanthropy, reflecting donors’ identities and histories. To cite just one example, there is a growing number of women mega-philanthropists, many of whom have made giving to women and girls a priority, and who have increased the prominence and visibility of feminist, women’s and girls’ funds.

The fact that many living donors made their fortunes at an earlier age than had past generations of philanthropists, and so engage in philanthropy even earlier in their own lives has consequences for attitudes to giving. Younger donors, and especially those who have inherited their wealth, for instance, often share their generation’s more conflicted attitude towards capitalism or the climate catastrophe. The inheritance, in the next decade, by millennials of trillions of dollars will amplify the importance of those distinctive attitudes to philanthropy. However, these is speculation that, as younger wealth-holders grow older, their attitudes towards capitalism and philanthropy will come to more closely resemble current attitudes of older generations. It is yet to be seen. 

It may be that forms of limited-life philanthropy, with donors committing to giving a significant portion of their wealth during their own lifetime, will increasingly become the norm. However, considering the spending this would unleash, if the scale and scope of philanthropic power is expanded in the future, so too will be the accompanying concerns about the dangers that power represents.

Jessie Bluedorn, Director of the Carmack Collective

I graduated from college in 2016. Living in New York, I was one of the many young people who got increasingly politicised by the things we saw around us. Around that same period, on a more personal level, I was set to inherit a substantial amount of money. At that point, I was searching for some personal answers around how I could live in alignment with my values. I encountered Resource Generation in 2018. I now primarily work at the intersection of wealth inequality and climate justice and am establishing a more formalised, redistributive vehicle for family and inherited wealth.

Frankly, I don't necessarily think that philanthropy is a net-good and necessary institution. I would describe the process of change I hope to see as moving from this trend of philanthro-capitalism to more of a social justice or community-based philanthropy, to then hopefully, maybe within the course of my lifetime, creating a world in which we don't need philanthropy as an entire industry. 

A lot of my work right now is focusing on engaging younger radical donors with funding frontline climate justice movements. And I think a lot of the approach that resonates with me and my peers is this idea that what leaders have been doing has clearly not been working. This has only gotten worse. So, I'm sorry to say, I do not think that big technocratic philanthropy is addressing this issue. I think the data is really clear that grassroots, frontline solutions have absolutely been the most effective. I think a lot about investing in a just transition and tapping back into the wisdom that has always been there with frontline folks and combatting this Eurocentric colonialist mindset that Americans and white Europeans have to reinvent every idea for it to work. 

There have been leaders of all generations spearheading this work, but I definitely think it is gaining momentum because of the influx of energy from the younger generation picking up the mantle that older, usually frontline folks of colour, have been carrying for years.

Jessica Sweidan, co-founder of Synchronicity Earth and philanthropist

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 to 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, we don't know how else to 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: cycles 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.

“It’s not about the philanthropist. We shouldn't be putting philanthropists on podiums; the problem should be on a podium or, even better, the people trying to solve it. When there's a big problem that you're passionate about, it's understandable that you want to yell about it and mobilise support. But I hope philanthropy in five years is a little bit more humble. I hope that funders will recognise that philanthropy can be a sort of values-driven investment; driven by opportunity rather than need. This will lead to more sustainable flows of capital towards agents of public good, and repositions the philanthropist as a supporter of public work rather than its designer. But I don't think that's going to happen. I am afraid that the capitalistic view of scale, and the techno-optimism that has influenced today’s definition of success, have paved the way for large, persona-driven foundations. A billion-dollar budget is going to be small-fry in five years, because individuals will continue to use philanthropy to pave over the holes in a broken system rather than to change the system."

Frederic Hoffmann, President of the Unearthodox Board of Directors

6. Does philanthropy’s adoption of market-based approaches offer greater promise of successful outcomes for biodiversity?

The last two decades have seen the emergence of a critique that sees capitalism not as a root cause producing ills that philanthropy must address, but instead as the font of nearly unlimited resources that should be tapped to promote the public good.

This critique, premised on traditional philanthropy’s inadequacy, developed into an affirmative ethic that has often been referred to as philanthro-capitalism. It posits that market-based approaches are the most powerful means of doing good in the world. Now a fully global movement – leveraging instruments like impact investing, social bonds, blended finance, micro-finance, carbon/nature credits, etc – it is connected to explicit theories of the relative value and priority that should be placed on the private sector, the public sector and the philanthropic sector.

The institutional landscape for philanthropy has thus been reshaped by a blurring of the boundaries between for-profit and charitable activities. For example, funders in the US that choose to be structured as a limited liability company are allowed not just to make grants to non-profit organisations, but also to make for-profit investments, as well as political contributions.  

Even as enthusiasm for market-based philanthropic approaches has grown globally, countervailing suspicions have surged, as well. These range from a sense of disillusionment that the transformative promise of philanthro-capitalism has not been fulfilled, to fears that the promise itself might serve as a means of diverting attention from more structural reforms or from the harms perpetrated by capitalism itself. Other concerns question whether market-based approaches might be nothing more than money-making schemes and highlight the lack of accountability mechanisms. There is also a critique from the right that rejects the very premise of tethering businesses to social ends besides profit-maximisation.

Conservation’s embrace of market-driven forces to value nature is strongly intertwined with historical efforts to regulate and profit from the international trade in flora and fauna. In a heavily politicised conversation, there are some who posit that the overlapping best interests of biodiversity and the local communities living close to it demand an approach that seeks to derive maximum economic benefit from nature. Through the decades, this idea has become entrenched in environmental policy decision-making and developed into various overarching concepts, such as ecosystem services, community-based natural resource management, and green capitalism. The adoption of pro-market practices at the expense of more holistic values-driven appraisals of nature brings with it many related pitfalls and limitations. As the authors of Beyond 2%: From Climate Philanthropy to Climate Justice Philanthropy point out, the danger in glorifying “the ‘Silicon Valley experience’ and a ‘win-win-win’ narrative built on the idea that technological and market innovation will not just benefit the economy, but society and the climate”, is that “environmental protection becomes (only) a management issue and does not require radical changes”1.

Both conservation and philanthropy operate within the framework of capitalism and often use interchangeably words like value, finance and resources. They do it without acknowledging that it only makes sense if one accepts as inevitable the narrow focus of extractive capitalism on profit, efficiency and competition. Embracing acritically this unilateral approach, both conservation and philanthropy run the risk of missing innovations characterised by more ‘hybrid’ or ‘pluralistic’ ideas of value. These alternative approaches look beyond the sole financial value and try to incorporate a broader range of ecological, social, and cultural values into conservation and philanthropic efforts.

1The latter quote is referenced to: Stephan, Benjamin. 2011. “The Power in Carbon. A Neo-Gramscian Explanation for the EU’s Adoption of Emissions Trading.” Global Transformations Towards A Low Carbon Society Working Paper Series, 4. Hamburg: University of Hamburg/KlimaCampus.

Nonette Royo, Executive Director, Tenure Facility

Most funding still does little to address human rights-based approaches to biodiversity and conservation. Many community conservation projects start from an assumption that poverty in rural communities makes communities themselves threats to nature, and that this can only be solved through creating more sustainable economic development options. While economic alternatives are critical, they often ignore root causes of the problem. 

Rural poverty is often intertwined with loss of land, resources and displacement, usually as a result of policies that encourage industrial economic development, and food and energy systems that benefit external markets. In 2020, the Naso Tjër Di people of Panama overcame significant opposition, including that of some conservation organisations, to gain title to their 160,000 ha territory, or comarca, which includes part of La Amistad International Park and the Palo Seco Forest Reserve. Conservationists feared that the Naso Tjër Di would cut down the forest, but instead they have involved their entire population in designing and implementing a management plan for the comarca and Naso youth regularly patrol the forest to keep out illegal loggers, poachers and encroachment. This is one of many examples of the significant opportunities to fund community rights to territory and resources and strengthen community-oriented systems and institutions for food and energy sovereignty, health and the organising of communities.

Dr. Tita Alvira, Global Director of Thriving Futures at Legado

(Legado is a women-led, global non-profit that works alongside Indigenous Peoples and local communities in Kenya, Mozambique and Peru to ensure they have the tools, resources and partnerships they need to create and lead solutions that benefit both their communities and landscapes, an outcome they call Thriving Futures.)

Much of the recent dialogue on market-based approaches – like carbon credits – has been missing a key piece of the conversation about who gets to decide how local communities use these benefits and, even before that, whether communities want to participate in these approaches. There is another discussion to be had about whether these benefits are real, effective or the outcome of good global practice – and that is a critically important discussion. 

Alongside that discussion, these benefits are already manifesting in some places, which means we also need to be looking at how this should be done to be truly inclusive. For instance, as a starting point, we need to look closely at the following question: What do we mean when we say that the communities are ‘benefitting from’ and ‘participating in’ these programmes? These opportunities come with restrictive strings attached without an understanding that territory is life and more than carbon, more than biodiversity, and that there is an inextricable link between people and nature and also how they value and take care of it. People should be able to define how they want to benefit versus having it be defined for them. And to define how they want to invest those benefits to take care of the forest or the rivers, and also to define other dimensions of well-being such as education, human health, livelihood activities and governance.

From the point of view of Legado, we believe that to understand the full socio-ecological system, we need to understand and respect people with an open heart and open mind and respect the way our Indigenous Peoples and local communities’ (IP&LC) partners define how they want to live well and what all that entails across the tapestry of their biocultural life. That requires switching the coin – for example, when people talk about lifting people out of poverty, what is poverty for the people who are the subject of this goal? Who gets to define poverty?

It could be defined from the outside as people who live on less than US$ 1 a day. But what happens when you go to a place like the Amazon – how do you quantify what people are getting from the forest, from the river, from their systems of reciprocity (which is one of the very important things here – people share resources and labour, which builds social network and cohesion)? All of this is how people ‘make a living’ and how they decide what ‘living well’ means.

If you want to have a point of entry, of collaborating, take the pulse of where the communities are at, learn and value their incredible assets and strengths, the challenges and the interconnection and intersectionality of the different dimensions of well-being! And to truly do this, we have to create spaces that give opportunities for those who have not always been heard from before. We create spaces for women, for youth, for elders, because in assemblies often only typical leaders speak. This means that when these cash payments come, whole and inclusive communities are often not having a say in how they are dispersed. We need to invest in the process of making the decisions at the local level.

When we’ve been able to co-create these spaces, any incentives, like carbon credits, could come in a more equitable way because the decision was made here on how the communities want to distribute them and what they need.

Download the PDF

The core ideas on the evolution of global philanthropy in this exploration, on which the six key questions are based, are drawn from research by philanthropy historian Benjamin Soskis

The Tenure Facility provided invaluable input based on its work alongside Indigenous Peoples and local communities to advance their community land rights while sharing the knowledge, innovations and tools that emerge.

Unearthodox is grateful to everyone who has participated in the Future of Philanthropy for Biodiversity project, especially those who provided contributions for this publication:

Dr Tita Alvira, Global Director of Thriving Futures at Legado
Dominique Bikaba, Director and Founding Member, Strong Roots
Jessie Bluedorn, Director of the Carmack Collective
Clara Bosco and Elisa Novoa, CIVICUS
Milka Chepkorir, member of the Sengwer Indigenous Peoples of Cherang’any Hills in Kenya 
Frederic Hoffmann, President of the Unearthodox Board of Directors
Masego Madzwamuse, Director of Environment Programme, Oak Foundation
Kumi Naidoo, activist
Fred Nelson, Roshan Paul, Jimm Chick and Emmanuel Sulle, Maliasili and Synchronicity Earth 
Nonette Royo, Executive Director, Tenure Facility
Jessica Sweidan, co-founder of Synchronicity Earth and philanthropist

Project team
Christy Carter, Jessica Villat, Nayantara Kilachand, Paul West.

Eoghan O’Sullivan, Nayantara Kilachand, Fabio Pianini.

Want to get in touch?

Email the project team at
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 Unearthodox. All Rights Reserved.
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