MacArthur Foundation: Grants for Conservation

[Editor's note: MacArthur recently made major changes to its grantmaking priorities. This profile has not yet been updated to reflect those changes. Check back again soon.]

OVERVIEW: The MacArthur Foundation backs a variety of approaches to protecting some of the most environmentally vulnerable regions in the world, and its money penetrates to extremely remote spots. Typical grants are in the low six figures, and funding is spread around pretty widely.


IP TAKE: MacArthur is accessible and is a pretty big grantmaker, but it's not an easy nut to crack for newcomers.


PROFILE: MacArthur is another monster foundation with a wide array of programs, from reproductive health to higher education. It's also one of the largest conservation funders in the country. The foundation is so focused on protecting ecosystems and biodiversity, that it wasn't until 2011 that MacArthur expanded the program to include issues such as climate change. Under the program strategy led by Program Director Jorgen Thomsen, MacArthur seeks to protect marine habitats and key centers of biodiversity around the world while addressing the underlying issues that endanger them — namely the various impacts of human development.


One important point about MacArthur is that its conservation funding is mostly location-based and almost entirely devoted to places outside the United States. Top priorities are the Great Lakes of Africa, the Greater Mekong, the watersheds of the Andes, and coastal marine conservation. The marine program is less fixed on place, although it does focus mostly on the Caribbean, Madagascar, and Melanesia. A fifth priority, Cross-Cutting Global Issues, also is less tied to location. This work is led by Thomsen, who has spent much of his career at the helm of massive conservation programs, protecting the most vulnerable hot spots of biodiversity around the world.


MacArthur recently reviewed its conservation grantmaking strategies and each geographic area has specific conservation related areas of focus: 

  • Great Lakes of East and Central Africa. Grantmaking focuses on "...conserving the region's biodiversity and fresh water supply while addressing regional food security challenges." This program also awards Large Rift Valley Lake watersheds and River Nile Basin conservation grants. 
  • Greater Mekong. MacArthur's grantmaking in both the Upper and Lower Mekong regions focuses on hydropower managing the Basin’s freshwater ecosystems that are "...essential for agricultural production and fisheries."
  • Watersheds of the Andes. Focuses on ecosystem stewardship while addressing the needs of the most vulnerable populations in the region.
  • Coastal Marine. The foundation focuses its grantmaking in this program on coastal ecosystem preservation and improving those ecosystems' resilience to climate change.  

MacArthur also has a Cross Cutting Global Issues grantmaking program with four main areas of focus: 

  • Climate change mitigation and adaptation to climate change
  • Influencing China's natural resource and energy consumption in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Pacific
  • The integration of both environmental and societal considerations in worldwide commodities markets
  • Addressing the illegal use and overexploitation of fisheries

What's striking lately is the wide range of approaches that the foundation supports in pursuit of conservation and sustainable development. For example, MacArthur has helped finance efforts to reform investment practices by development banks and other lenders so that international loans aren't fighting deforestation or other forms of environmental degradation. It's also backed legal advocacy on behalf of indigenous people fighting development, among other approaches to empowering indigenous people. The foundation has also been a big supporter of various efforts to deal with the negative environmental effects of resource extraction in Africa and South America.


In short, MacArthur seems quite open to various ways of protecting some of the most environmentally vulnerable regions of the developing world. MacArthur money, in fact, penetrates to extremely remote spots. Typical grants are in the low six figures, and the money is spread around pretty widely. Clearly, though, this is a foundation with a deep familiarity with what's happening in the field, a strong agenda of its own, and longstanding commitments to a number of grantees. Newcomers may have a tough time getting attention, and if you don't fit with the program's worldview, you probably won't get far.


That said, the MacArthur Foundation is definitely accessible to newcomers, and it grants a ton of money — more than $200 million a year foundation-wide. The website has a helpful guide to applying for funding, along with a simple search tool to explore all of MacArthur's grants.


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