A California-based philanthropic startup, the Pisces Foundation, is beginning its national grantmaking in earnest, carving out unique niches in freshwater and climate change work. Executive Director David Beckman talked to Inside Philanthropy about building a foundation from scratch, and how he’s hoping it will be the funder he always wanted in his years as an advocate.
After working for the National Resources Defense Council for 17 years, including as a California water advocate and then as cofounder and director of the organization’s first national water program, Beckman was ready for something new. He and Bob Fisher, a longtime NRDC board member and something of a mentor to him, started discussing something very new—building a foundation from the ground up.
So in late 2012, Beckman packed up and moved to San Francisco, setting up shop in an office that was empty other than a desk, a few boxes, and a laptop he bought the weekend before. Three years later, the Pisces Foundation has entered the national environmental philanthropy fray, with a staff that includes a former water policymaker for the Obama administration, a small D.C. satellite office, and grantmaking that is steadily climbing toward an anticipated $17 million next year.
“We’ve really transitioned from a phase where we were building a core staff and doing heavy strategic planning to a phase in which we’re now doing the work, as opposed to plotting the work,” Beckman said in an interview with Inside Philanthropy. “The foundation is fully stepping into its fields of endeavor and hopefully joining with other important and impactful players to help make a difference.”
Pisces derives its wealth from Bob and Randi Fisher, the former an heir to the Gap clothing empire. While it’s existed in name for several years, Pisces is now staffed and formalizing the couple’s philanthropy, which had been self-directed before then.
“They were interested in taking a step in their philanthropy, in moving from important institutional roles, board roles, to more strategic philanthropy.”
Beckman was the natural choice to help them build out a foundation. For years prior, the Fishers funded environmental issues, with NRDC a frequent beneficiary. As a board member, Bob Fisher collaborated with Beckman to launch the 45-year-old nonprofit’s first national water program, reflecting a core interest for both.
“I had seen so directly the important role philanthropy plays, as a program director at NRDC. It was enticing to think about playing that role as a foundation director and helping to build something.”
Beckman now sits on the three-person board with the Fishers, who are taking a pay-as-you-go approach rather than seeding an endowment. This year, they’re on track to grant $13.7 million, up about 50 percent from last year, and have a 2016 grants budget of $16.8 million. But there's plenty of money where that came from: Forbes estimates Bob Fisher's net worth at $1.5 billion.
Finding a Niche in a Formidable Field
The Fishers’ giving has placed some emphasis on California in the past, but as philanthropy ramps up at the foundation, they are seeking to have more of a national, and even international impact.
As a medium-sized foundation looking to have an influence in the midst of some of the largest funders and most daunting problems in the country, staff faced the task of finding where, exactly, they would fit in.
They settled on three areas: water resources, a gimme, considering the founders’ interests and backgrounds; climate and energy, the elephant in our collective room; and environmental education, which they see as a long bet on the future.
“If there’s one thing that might cut through our programs that is distinguishing, it is that we’ve in some sense consciously picked issues that many people think are relatively underfunded,” Beckman said.
While oceans are a massive philanthropic issue, freshwater is less flush, particularly integrated, systems-based approaches to water resources like the one Pisces is taking. But Beckman considers water, quantity and quality combined, to be not far behind climate as the issue of our times, and the brutal drought in Pisces' backyard supports the notion. (Read more about the foundation's water program here.)
When it comes to that generational issue of climate change (which we’re pretty firmly on record as saying is desperately underfunded in the grand scheme), Pisces chose a component that it felt had been overlooked—a category of non-CO2 pollutants such as methane and black carbon.
“This is up to 40 percent of the current warming problem, and yet it isn’t getting the attention that it deserves,” he said. “So we think we can have an outsized impact on an important issue.”
The third issue—all three are funded in about equal measure—is environmental education, a field that sometimes falls in the crack between the environment and education.
“It’s the long game. It’s creating a populace that is able to understand environmental issues better and make decisions based on the facts of the systems that support life on Earth.”
Aside from those three areas, one of the things Beckman likes most about the foundation’s work so far is that it is really all over the place—still backing the big greens, but also small grassroots groups and others just getting off the ground, anticipating about 100 grantees this year.
The Other Side of the Desk
The other big task when engineering a new philanthropy is not just finding the issues to support, but figuring out how to support them. Pisces had to decide what kind of foundation it wanted to be.
The thing that’s been the most challenging for Beckman, now that he’s sitting on the funding side of things, has been the exposure to how much great work is out there, and having to say no to so much of it.
At this point, due to small staff, Pisces doesn't accept unsolicited proposals, but it wants to experiment with ways to invite new ideas into the mix, including a lot of outreach and the possibility of issuing requests for proposals.
“We want to create a model where we are open to the community and we give people who are doing great work, who we don’t know, a chance to find us,” rather than repeatedly funding the same groups. “Nobody wants to do that, and certainly, as a young foundation, we want to be experimental and thoughtful about how we can be open to these large fields.”
That requires a certain amount of humility, trying to learn from other funders and shrugging off the we know best attitude that sometimes lives upstream.
“I wouldn’t be so bold to say that we’re doing things different or better,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is take the best of what the foundation world does. We’re trying to be very strategic; we’re trying to be very transparent about what our goals are. We’re trying to be very respectful of our grantees… We don’t view ourselves as in some ivory tower or in some position of knowing more than others.”
Not long out of the grantee world, that means Beckman is trying to strike the elusive balance between offering direction and being a pain in the ass (my words). After all, he does have his years of expertise to offer as a resource, plus program staff like former EPA water policymaker Nancy Stoner and Jennifer Kurz, who hails from the Gates Foundation and U.S. Climate Action Network.
“I would like us to be the funder I always wanted when I was trying to fund my work as an advocate,” he said, acknowledging that he always valued input from great program officers he worked with.
“But at the end of the day, I wasn’t looking for someone who was going to be on the phone with me every month asking me about the big-picture metrics that might take months or years to create… I hope that we’ll be successful in striking that balance, of providing knowledge where we have it, but recognizing that we’re working with highly talented, motivated people, and they need space to do their work.”