Brainerd Foundation: Grants for Conservation

OVERVIEW: Brainerd strictly funds environmental work in the Pacific Northwest, and tends to focus on citizen engagement strategies, with a mix of work in policy, place-based conservation, and building up the environmental community in the region. One great thing about this funder is the abundance of transparency and accessibility, particularly since it announced plans in 2008 to give away its endowment. 

IP TAKE: This funder aims to spend down its assets by 2020, meaning both core and emerging green leaders--and even other green charities--stand to gain a big final boost during the foundation’s sunset. It's focused on three initiatives: inspiring the next generation of Northwest conservation philanthropists, strengthening the next generation of Northwest conservation leadership, and investing in conservation advocacy.

PROFILE: Paul Brainerd started his career as a journalist, and became wealthy as the founder (and eventual seller) of the software company behind PageMaker, a very early desktop publishing platform that set the stage for the programs designers use today. The sale of the company made Brainerd moderately wealthy, allowing him to focus mostly on philanthropy by launching his foundation in 1995. Since then, Brainerd has focused on environmental stewardship in the place he calls home, the Northwest. 

That’s to say that the only organizations to receive funding from Brainerd are located in, or focused on, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho, Alaska and parts of Canada. The large majority of grants go toward conservation. And the foundation has a tendency for building broad public support for conservation, and strengthening the community, including by working with other funders. Although they will wind down in the next few years, Brainerd has three core areas of giving:

First, it funds conservation policy work, backing a few groups in each state that work toward effective, long-term policy at the state and province level. Like many foundations, it won’t earmark funds solely for lobbying, although it will support groups and projects that involve a combination of lobbying and non-lobbying expenses. Some of the key examples of grantees in this program are the Oregon League of Conservation Voters and the Washington Environmental Council, both of which have received multiple grants as high as $150,000. 

Brainerd’s place-based conservation program emphasizes treasured locales and engaging local and regional communities in efforts to protect them. One recent grantee in this realm is Salmon Valley Stewardship, a nonprofit that deals in conservation in the region of British Columbia.

Third, the conservation capacity program is all about building organizational strength of conservation nonprofits. This means bolstering leadership in nonprofits, scaling up capacity, or stabilizing funding for grantees. An example of giving from this program is a recent grant for the Idaho Conservation League, to allow them review their online communication strategy.  

Aside from the three main programs, there are two other funds, one that supports small, grassroots organizations and another for timely opportunities. 

Finally, it’s impossible to discuss Brainerd’s giving without getting into its sunset strategy. In 2008, Paul Brainerd announced the foundation would spend down its endowment (now around $25 million) by the year 2020. Since then, giving bumped up, but has hovered at or a bit below $3 million a year. 

It’s also important to note that the foundation is winding down in a very open and engaged way. It’s doing its best to leave ongoing grantees in good funding shape, while gradually shifting to its sunset priorities—developing other funders in the area, boosting emerging leaders, and strengthening the core of the movement. Through 2016, the funder will de-prioritize giving that doesn’t head in that direction. 

So the bad news is that an important regional funder is on the way out. The good news is that it’s doing so in a way that is pretty accessible, without clamping down on the spigot or dumping its funds into a couple of monster groups’ pockets. In fact, one of the best things about Brainerd is that it gives to a decent spread of groups, having funded more than 300 organizations over time. They’ve backed some big guys, but the key word here is local and regional.  

The foundation's apparent commitment to the stability of the movement in the region means that well-established groups and fledgling nonprofits shouldn't hesitate to try and win the attention of this funder during its waning days.


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