Brett Howell, program manager at Coca-Cola in Atlanta, found a way to use his small family trust to solve big-impact environmental problems.
He was one of the leaders of a 2019 project to clean up Henderson Island, an atoll in the South Pacific with the world’s highest concentration of plastic pollution. The island, a United Nations World Historic Site, is uninhabited but is in the middle of a current that carries sea debris.
Mr. Howell also began working with other organizations to find out how to prevent the plastic from filling the beach again.
“I came up with it because I know a lot about it and I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t,” he said. “Plastic pollution in the ocean is a visual picture of climate change.”
The issue of climate change seems too overwhelming for an individual to have much impact. Sure, people can recycle, maybe call back the thermostat to save heat. But even governments with unlimited resources struggle to take meaningful steps.
However, some smaller foundations, like the Howell Conservation Fund, are trying to challenge this narrative and focus their energies and resources on a small area of the environment in the hopes that it will have a significant impact.
“Philanthropy is so much more than money,” said Henry Berman, executive director of Exponent Philanthropy, who works with small foundations. “Relationships, expertise, bringing people together – these are all pieces of the puzzle to make things work. You don’t have to be Bill Gates or Mike Bloomberg for it to work. “
Howell contributed just 10 percent of the $ 300,000 operation 2019 – the return trip that year was canceled. But he brought together people with more money and different levels of expertise.
“If you’re hyper-focused, you can hit over your weight,” he said.
Several principles combine these small foundations in their efforts to slow climate change or make a difference in a local ecosystem.
It’s not surprising to believe in and talk about the science behind climate change. However, these smaller foundations have often found that they have a role to play in bringing together other interested groups of all sizes.
The Campbell Foundation, based in Baltimore, has focused on the ill health of Chesapeake Bay for over 20 years. Last year around 200 organizations received $ 18 million in grants, but it also regularly brings together diverse interests related to the waterway, including farmers, fishermen and conservationists. A big problem was the drainage of chicken waste into the water.
“I go around meeting people,” said Sarah Campbell, president of the foundation her father founded. “That kind of effort to hear all sides really matters.
“I say it’s not just about conservation,” she added. “It’s about the benefits of a healthy environment for people.”
As the only American on the expedition to Henderson Island, Mr. Howell had to do something similar. “You have to bring very different groups together,” he said.
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Other members of the expedition team focused on research to understand where the plastic came from and how some of it can be recycled. And some focused on figuring out how plastic overwhelmed an untouched island.
Some smaller environmental organizations are also trying to educate people outside of environmental circles. Ms. Campbell admits that her group’s efforts did not necessarily improve the Chesapeake Bay areas, but she shows that it could have been much worse without an educational effort.
“There are a lot of stressors in the bay,” she said. “But it would be worse if we hadn’t been there. It’s not an empty area in Chesapeake Bay. It’s a vibrant region with lots of people. “
And foundations that are very knowledgeable about and caring about a particular topic can raise it with local and state government officials. The Virginia Environmental Endowment grew out of a legal settlement over a pollutant that was illegally dumped into the James River in the 1970s. This pollutant stopped fishing on the river for over a decade.
Joseph H. Maroon, the foundation’s executive director, said she used her grants to highlight what other nonprofit groups were doing. It also uses its resources to campaign for environmental issues in the state, especially for the waterways.
“We weren’t afraid to deal with public policy issues,” said Maroon.
Foundations can also push for change at large publicly traded companies by investing assets and then filing applications to become a company shareholder.
“Small foundations are often the featured shareholders on shareholder advocacy proposals,” said Sada Geuss, investment manager at Trillium Asset Management, which has a shareholder advocacy department that works with clients to prepare these motions.
Ms. Geuss said typical areas are filings aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and updating the types of chemicals a company uses. The Trillium Foundation’s customers were named a few years ago in response to requests to urge Home Depot to sell more sustainable wood and stop using plants associated with the decline of bee colonies on crops, she said .
“For some of these smaller organizations you can talk to your donors about this commitment,” said Ms. Geuss. “You can hang your hat on it. We saw them talk about how they can make their impact on fundraisers. “
If the shareholder promotions are successful, they can have a significant impact – think how much wood and how many plants Home Depot is selling. The money that is used in such campaigns could otherwise have been in a foundation.
Even foundations that do not want to be part of a shareholder motion can take steps to ensure that their investments are in line with their values. These steps can be as direct as investing in clean energy companies, or more indirect, like investing in companies that make products that help other companies become more efficient.
Foundations can be selective in the types of fixed income investments they buy, paying special attention to what the proceeds from the sale of those bonds are used for.
“Our fossil fuel analyst always reminds us that the transition will be financed through debt,” said Ms. Geuss. “We can focus more and more on green bonds and sustainable bonds to increase impact.”
Beth Renner, director of philanthropic services at Wells Fargo Private Bank, said her group reached out to clients to discuss these options before clients asked about them. One thing a foundation of any size can do is make the most of “5 and 95,” Ms. Renner said. Foundations must grant at least 5 percent of their assets each year, but they can just as strategically think about the 95 percent of their invested assets.
“How do the assets that are in investment help fuel the mission and focus?” She said. “It’s more popular in philanthropy right now.”
The Edwards Mother Earth Foundation in Seattle has followed this strategy for years. With a net worth of $ 35 million, grants totaling approximately $ 2 million annually. However, the foundation, which is focused on slowing climate change, has a portfolio of public and private investments in areas such as clean technology and sustainable agriculture.
“There are 150 family members who are committed to impact investing,” said Bruce Reed, the foundation’s operations director. “We’ve placed bets on some early-stage clean tech companies that we won’t know for a decade or 15 years if they’ll work.”
Mr Howell said he could work inside Coca-Cola to push for the use of a trash trap that collects plastic waste before it gets into the ocean. One was installed in a river in Atlanta last fall.
“I went to my boss at Coca-Cola and they let me run with it,” he said. The lesson was: “Don’t be afraid to start something new.”