A Family Foundation's Crusade on Biodiversity—And Its Controversies

Whose side are green funders on? Humans or non-humans? It's actually an interesting question, one that we've been thinking about since coming across the Weeden Foundation, a funder that previously hadn't been on our radar. 

Earlier this month, we wrote about a new emergency fund set up to accelerate land acquisition opportunities for biodiversity conservation. The Weeden Foundation is behind that effort, along with the business group 1% for the Planet. Recently, I spoke with Don Weeden, the foundation's executive director, to get a better sense of what this funder is up. 

Don Weeden is not your typical environmentalist. In fact, when presented with the label, he very gently distances himself from the movement, preferring instead to dub himself a conservationist. And while conservationism and environmentalism have been historically considered two competing philosophies, Weeden’s hesitation has less to do with historical definitions and more to do with current priorities. 

To him, safeguarding the environment means ensuring that all species have the resources they need to survive sustainably. But Weeden feels the mainstream environmental movement has become less concerned with protecting biodiversity and more concerned with protecting human interests as they relate to the environment.

A trend we see in the environmental philanthropic community somewhat, and within the environmental movement overall, has been a slow movement away from protecting biodiversity for its own sake and a bit toward conservation that has human ends. 

We take it a step further, recognizing that we could be sustainable as a species, but have biodiversity continue to decline. We see sustainability as leaving ample space for the range of species that are non-human.

The facts are, indeed, alarming. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, we are losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day, and as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century. Elizabeth Kolbert wrote about this shift in her book last year, The Sixth Extinction.

The Weeden Foundation, which has only two full-time staffers, has been quietly making an impact for over 40 years. The earliest pioneer of the debt-for-nature land swap tactic still favored among conservationists today, the foundation has funded hundreds of small environmental organizations and preserved over 6,000,000 acres of critical habitat worldwide.

Founded in 1963 by investment banker Frank Weeden, and managed till this day by several members of the Weeden clan, the foundation has taken a business-savvy and decidedly hands-on approach to its grantmaking and programming strategies, hoping to appeal to a broader community of people who care about the planetbut don’t necessarily align themselves with the mainstream environmental movement. 

That's a sizeable group, actually. And it includes a lot of people in the business world, a constituency that the Weeden Foundation is keen on mobilizing behind the cause of biodiversity—which is among the goals of the Quick Response Biodiversity Fund we wrote about earlier in the month. 

When we came together with 1% for the Planet, we loved their model, but felt that they needed to be a bit more proactive in terms of offering philanthropic opportunities for the companies they work with. We thought companies would understand the idea of a fund, and a fund that was very opportunistic. The QRBF was born out of that, and so far, we’ve had a lot of interest.

With a narrow focus and an eye for innovative programming, the Weeden Foundation is careful to match its giving philosophy with its personal philosophy—namely, that the greatest challenge to a sustainable future lies in our insatiable consumption habits and rapidly growing global population. 

So how is Weeden addressing these issues?

On the consumption front, the Weeden Foundation has been investing in efforts to find an alternative to wood as a paper source. Through one of its grantees, Canopy, it's been working to develop a wheat straw-based paper with promising buy-in from a Washington-based manufacturer interested in producing the product—which, if successful, could revolutionize the paper industry and take significant pressure off our forests. 

When it comes to their work on population stabilization, things get a lot more controversial. The Weedens have been strongly criticized for their view that limiting immigration to the U.S., along with population growth, is a key to conserving natural habitats and species. 

Critics of Weeden claim the group has been stealthily injecting anti-immigration sentiment into its conservation work for years. And a number of the Weeden family members have links to conservative population stabilization advocacy organizations like NumbersUSA, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, and Californians for Population Stabilization. 

To get a bit of perspective, let’s revisit the 1960s for a minute. A popular platform among the environmental movement at the time was that immigration was driving unsustainable population growth, depleting resources and harming the environment. Major environmental groups including the Sierra Club, which led the charge toward a hardline domestic immigration policy throughout the 1970s and 1980s, generally accepted this theory. But by the 1990s, the environmental movement did a complete 180, adopting a more liberal and pro-immigration stance.

The Weedens, by contrast, have remained steadfast in their original views. Don Weeden says:

We’re certainly sensitive to some of the criticism that we’ve gotten, but we as a family have decided that it is important to stick with your convictions.

We recognize that 80 percent of population growth is due to our immigration policies, so it makes sense to address immigration. Do we want to grow to a country of 600 million, doubling our population by the end of the century? I think environmentally, no we don’t.

Taking hits from the left, you might think the Weeden Foundation has found a place for its brand of environmentalism on the right. Well, you’d be wrong.  

Before taking on the role of executive director, Don Weeden made a name for himself in the global population and economic development world. With a 25-year long career holding various field and management positions with the International Planned Parenthood Federation and Columbia University, Weeden has been able to translate his expertise in the space into an integral part of the foundation's giving agenda.

A key program the foundation has championed over the past 15 years has been liberalization of abortion laws in Latin America. Through funding to the global organization Ipas, Weeden is hoping to ensure access to safe abortion services and working to decriminalize women, pharmacists, and abortion providers. Domestically, the foundation has contributed funding to organizations and programs advocating for increased federal funding of high-quality, low-cost family services for low-income women and men.

So how does a giving program with priorities falling on politically opposite ends of the spectrum impact Weeden’s ability to get work done? Apparently not very much.

Despite diverging approaches on the social complexities associated with conservation, the foundation's ability to stay focused and effective has helped the Weeden family earn its place among the environmental elite. Weeden family members have served on the boards of numerous environmental organizations including the Audubon Society, Sierra Club Foundation, California Wilderness Coalition, Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy, the American Bird Conservancy, the Environmental Grantmakers Association, and the Consultative Group on Biological Diversity. 

The future of the Weeden Foundation, according to Don, lies in its advocacy work. While the foundation will continue to fund groups on the cutting edge of biodiversity and sustainability solutions, a key priority will be promoting experts, research and communications initiatives that both educate the public and establish a greater sense of urgency among influencers and policymakers about biodiversity. 

We think there’s a danger that we’re going to have less and less funding for actually protecting endangered species and habitat that doesn’t further human needs, but furthers the need that other species have.

Our situation globally is urgent enough that we need to be working on all fronts. We need to be finding much more efficient ways to utilize natural resources. We need to see a lowering of consumption in developed countries, and we also need to bring down global population growth rates as soon as possible.

Related: Need Quick Money to Protect Land and Biodiversity? Talk To This Outfit