The Donors Behind a Major New Coral Reef Initiative

The California Academy of Sciences just announced an $8.5 million commitment to coral reef conservation, research, and education, and the donors bankrolling it include a few familiar, if elusive, faces.

Marine conservation is one of the hottest subjects in philanthropy right now, particularly among West Coast tech billionaires like Paul Allen, Gordon and Betty Moore, and Eric and Wendy Schmidt, who have been known to send huge sums to oceans work.

The latest such initiative comes out of San Francisco, where the museum and research center California Academy of Sciences is launching a program to reverse degradation of coral reefs. More of a group effort, the program is funded by eight wealthy backers that include a number of Bay Area-based board members, but also a couple of big, notable funders like Ray Dalio. 

Related: The Many Foundations and Billionaires Trying to Fix the World’s Fisheries

The Academy has the fundraising advantage of its Bay Area location, where billionaires and almost-billionaires abound, having drawn major backing in the past from nearby funders like the Moore Foundation, the Bernard Osher Foundation, and the San Francisco Foundation. Its work also has broad appeal, offering a mix of beloved science education programming, but also a large amount of research and conservation. 

Its Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability employs more than 100 researchers, and the Academy has launched recent initiatives that seek to use science-based solutions to protect threatened ecosystems such as coral reefs and rainforests.  

The new, $8.5 million initiative is just the first phase of a larger coral reef effort that will involve 20 expeditions to remote reefs. Coral reefs are a particularly critical area of marine conservation, with the WWF citing a quarter of the world's reefs damaged beyond repair, and another two-thirds under serious threat due to factors like overfishing, pollution, and climate change. 

The group of donors behind the Academy’s new program is an interesting bunch.

The biggest name, hands down, is Ray Dalio. We’ve written quite a bit about this eccentric hedge fund guy’s rapidly expanding philanthropy—his Dalio Foundation gave $115 million in 2014. Dalio is based in Connecticut, but oceans and conservation are some of his biggest causes. He’s given big to outfits like Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and the National Geographic Society. Some of his major conservation grants run through a mechanism he calls the Dalio Explore Fund, and he charters his Alucia mega-yacht for scientific and media expeditions. 

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The funding for the Academy program came from Dalio Ocean Initiative, of which there is very little information, other than that it’s a thing. That’s the other running theme in Dalio’s philanthropy—it’s difficult to pin down, especially for its size; it doesn't offer up much in the way of public information.

Other funders involved include the William K. Bowes, Jr. Foundation, another large philanthropy that shies away from publicity. The San Francisco-based venture capitalist's fund gave around $50 million in 2014, but there’s also very little public information about this mostly self-directed giving.

Related: William K. Bowes, Jr. Foundation: Grants for Science Research

Another Bay Area funder, the Hellman Foundation, based in private equity and investment management wealth, is supporting the initiative. Hellman’s a smaller funder, but its giving grew from $5 million to $9 million in 2014, in a variety of health, education, and community causes.

Beyond that, we’re looking at a handful of other Bay Area residents, mostly board members at the Academy. But as the project extends into future phases, and the institute develops a higher profile in conservation, we’re likely to see some more West Coast players jump on board.