Jorgen Thomsen, MacArthur Foundation

TITLE: Director, Conservation & Sustainable Development

FUNDING AREAS: Conservation, environmental sustainability, marine conservation

CONTACT: jthomsen@macfound.org, 312-726-8000

IP TAKE: A lifelong wildlife and wilderness advocate now heading up environmental grant funding at one of the United States’ largest donors to conservation efforts, Thomsen directs funds to protecting habitats from the twin threats of human activity and climate change.

PROFILE: Jorgen Thomsen has spent much of his career at the helms of massive conservation programs, protecting the most vulnerable hotspots of biodiversity around the world. Now at the MacArthur Foundation, he's continuing that work but is expanding it to take on the underlying threats to biodiversity, including climate change.

That's not to say he's giving up marine preserves for carbon caps. But as MacArthur’s director of conservation and sustainable development, he's leading a new strategy that remains location-based while also acknowledging the root causes of the threats. Those root causes encompass the whole globe and, as Thomsen sees it, call for global action to resolve them.

"What excites me about the new strategy is that it follows a history in the foundation of working on these areas," Thomsen said in the video launching the new strategy in 2011. "The focus on the drivers, on these core issues that are really changing the landscape for me is absolutely necessary and very exciting to work on. It's not easy — it's not going to be easy."

MacArthur's conservation grantmaking hones in on a few target locales: the East Africa’s Great Lakes region, Asia’s Greater Mekong area and the Mekong River’s headwaters, and the watersheds of South America’s Andes mountain range. Projects to protect coastal marine areas around the world, and to encourage research and policy changes on issues such as China’s use of natural resources, are also areas of interest for the foundation.

Thomsen has a particular interest in protecting marine habitats and waterways, so the current strategy has a global focus on aquatic life, in addition to their three location-based focuses. "Freshwater and water conservation will really be one of the defining issues over the next couple of decades," he has stated.

It should be noted that the grantees tend to be some pretty big fish themselves. Jorgen’s department recently awarded $450,000 (over three years) to the World Wildlife Fund to protect aquatic and biodiversity in Mozambique's Lake Niassa Reserve; more than $1 million in two grants to the Environmental Defense Fund for coastal conservation work in Cuba; and $300,000 (over three years) to the Global Greengrants Fund to help indigenous communities in the Andes organize conservation and sustainability campaigns. Other large grant awards have gone out to the Carnegie Institution for Science and the United Nations Environment Program, in both cases for policy research.

Wildlife was a focal point of Thomsen’s career from the get-go. He holds an MSc in zoology from the University of Copenhagen, where he also attended law school. After his schooling, he worked for the Danish ministry of environment. And one of his other early jobs was with TRAFFIC, a joint European project of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to monitor trade of plants and animals. Lawyer and zoologist were his initial job capacities within TRAFFIC, but he would go on to become its CEO. 

But the bulk of his career was spent with Conservation International and the joint project Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF). Conservation International is a juggernaut of biodiversity protection, reporting $33 million in grants during 2011, and Thomsen was senior vice president of the organization's Conservation Funding Division. As one of the largest conservation organizations in the world, it boasts 900 employees, 30 global offices, and claims protection of 260 million acres of land and sea. Thomsen served a lead role in the organization for 14 years.

Related to his work at Conservation International, he served as Executive Director of CEPF since it started in 2000, through 2009 when he went to MacArthur. The Partnership Fund was launched to bring together funds from a diverse range of interests in support of local civil society conservation projects. Partners include the government of Japan, the European Union, Conservation International, and—you'll never guess—the MacArthur Foundation.

The move to MacArthur wasn't a huge surprise, given the circles Thomsen traveled in throughout his career. But his appointment to head of conservation grants for one of the largest foundations in the country marked a breaking into new ground with an expanded focus.

As for how to approach Thomsen, given his track record engaging with elite conservation programs, a 2003 interview suggests grant seekers would be well advised to cut the fancy talk. He told his audience the following: "We are all quite well trained at putting things across with certain terminologies that actually do not describe the issue very well. Explain the problem and the contribution that the organization can make to the agenda in the most straightforward way. Don't fall back on jargon."

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