S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation: Grants for Conservation

OVERVIEW: S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation is a California-centric funder that devotes one of its two programs to the environment. Giving is split between land and water management. Bechtel has been a huge supporter of parks, both state and national, in recent years.  

IP TAKE: There's going to be some serious grantmaking happening over the next few years as this foundation spends down its assets by 2020, but note that program staff have stopped accepting uninvited inquiries. 

PROFILE: Bechtel Corporation is a huge engineering firm that, since 1898, has worked on big projects like nuke plants, the Hoover Dam, Boston’s Big Dig, oil pipelines, and even Iraq infrastructure contracts. It’s the fourth largest private company based in the United States. 

The S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation is not part of the corporation (and is separate from the company’s Bechtel Group Foundation), but was started by its namesake, grandson of the company founder, who ran the corporation beginning in 1960.

The foundation has historically given primarily to education and the environment, but in recent years has refined these goals as it prepares to spend down its assets by 2020.  

The funder has been ramping up giving, but exactly how much Bechtel will be giving out through 2020 is unclear, as Stephen Bechtel, Jr. is in the process of transferring the bulk of his estate over to the foundation. As a ballpark, it's probably in the hundreds of millions.

The foundation has reworked its guidelines as it spends down, but the things it’s giving to have not actually changed very much—it's more like the foundation has sharpened in direction. 

For example, the funder still puts land and water management high on the list of priorities. In 2013, the foundation gave $20 million to environmental issues, split roughly evenly between land and water.

On the land side, one of the main focuses is on strengthening state and national parks, as well as land trusts. One recent project is the Parks Forward Commission, an initiative to improve the California state parks system, which has been suffering from budget struggles for years. Bechtel is one of a handful of funders supporting a multi-stakeholder assessment of the system. 

The other stated priority related to land conservation involves “aligning incentives for conservation on private and unprotected lands,” but no example of this type of grant is given so far.  

On the water side, Bechtel has two main focuses. The first is supporting research that will guide decision-making, and the signature grant is to the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. Toward the end of 2013, Bechtel gave this program $10 million for its work to better inform management policies in a state struggling with its water needs. 

The other involves “integrated water management solutions” mainly through support and work with the California Water Foundation. The organization was cofounded by Bechtel and the Pisces Foundation, which is the philanthropy of Gap heir Bob Fisher. The outfit is entirely devoted to making the state’s water system more resilient and sustainable, including leading a stakeholder group to advise the governor on groundwater use this past summer.

 

Based on an update from foundation President Lauren Dachs, it sounds like a big part of funding is ensuring long-term viability of current grantees, and maybe participating in funder collaboratives.  Another thing to note is that while the funder has previously welcomed letters of inquiry from potential new grantees, staff are no longer reviewing any proposals or letters of inquiry that are not invited by program staff. So decisions during spend down will be limited to existing recipients or those initiated by program staff. 

The foundation staff can, however be contacted for general information at 415-284-8675 or information@sdbjrfoundation.org.

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