Wilburforce Foundation: Grants for Conservation

OVERVIEW: Wilburforce is all about conservation in Western North America. It supports work in a dozen priority regions, with programs in conservation science, law and policy, and organizational capacity building. With wealth originating from the very early days of Microsoft, this Seattle-based funder gives around $10 million annually. 

IP TAKE: The foundation tends to give long-term support and stay in close contact with existing grantees, which means there aren’t a ton of openings for new partners. But it does welcome organizations that have a strong overlap to contact program staff directly.

PROFILE: Rose Letwin, formerly married to one of the original 11 Microsoft employees, is the driving force behind the Seattle-based conservation funder Wilburforce Foundation. As you can imagine, being an original employee of Microsoft has its financial benefits, and while they were still married, Rose and Gordon Letwin jointly invested cash and company stock in the foundation. Rose Letwin was always the primary decision-maker, but since they divorced, she has been the sole donor and president of Wilburforce.

The most important thing to know about Wilburforce’s giving is that, aside from a well-defined strategic framework, its grants are focused on specific regions in the North American West. There is no funding in California, but aside from that, grants address ecosystems and biodiversity starting in Northern Mexico, going up through Arizona, Nevada, and Utah, into the Pacific Northwest, and all the way to Canada and parts of Alaska.

Its core goal is preserving the West’s ecological importance, with a “hopeful vision” that wild places and human communities can coexist. Potential grantees, as always, should carefully examine its approach, but some guiding principles are sound science, good policy, and community action. As Executive Director Tim Greyhavens told us via email, “we seek out organizations whose work is grounded in science, and that engage in communities to increase the social and political relevance of conservation.”

Here’s a look at the three programs that strategy breaks down into:

Conservation Science — One of Wilburforce’s core tenets is that it funds work driven by science. This involves--in some cases--original research, but more commonly, putting existing knowledge of conservation to work. That could mean communicating science to the public and policymakers, or just making it easier for groups working in conservation to exchange data. There’s also a sub-focus on climate change adaptation science. Within this program, the foundation also just launched a fellowship program, in cooperation with nonprofit COMPASS. 

Capacity Building — This program is the channel through which Wilburforce provides long-term organizational boosts to groups it already funds. So if it is currently funding a conservation nonprofit, that organization could receive an additional capacity building grant. Examples include funding for tech upgrades, leadership training, strategic planning, and additional communications or messaging work.  

Conservation Law & Policy — This program supports work in the halls of power, as Wilburforce acknowledges that conservation is often political. That means the foundation supports efforts to protect and execute existing federal environmental legislation, such as the Endangered Species Act and the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act, but also to educate government officials and staff to the importance of such laws. It’s worth noting that the foundation’s Executive Director Tim Greyhavens is the lead on this program. 

Grants from Wilburforce all tend to be under the $1 million mark, and they average around $50,000. The foundation does, however, give a lot of continuing funding to its grantees, with its most frequent beneficiary, the Tides Foundation, having received 30 grants over the years. The number of grants per group drops off a bit after Tides, but there are still dozens of groups that have received between five and 10 grants each.  

There are some heavyweights in the portfolio, including the Wilderness Society, another one of the most frequent grantees, as well as Trout Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy. 

Another huge investment is a project called Training Resources for the Environmental Community, which Wilburforce first funded through Rockefeller Philanthropic Advisors and then directly to the nonprofit. In the spirit of the foundation’s interest in movement building and improving effectiveness in conservation, the project was established as a bank of resources, research and assistance for the greater environmental community. The funder has given nearly $5 million to the cause. To access its grantee database of past grantees, click here.

It’s also worth noting some things that Wilburforce does not fund. It is pretty strictly conservation-focused. That means--in most cases--it doesn't fund energy work, sustainable development, market-based projects, air quality, or environmental justice, for example. 

As far as its approach to new grant seekers, Greyhavens tells us that the foundation typically makes long-term commitments to groups in the regions it is focusing on, and indeed give to a lot of local groups. That does mean it is limited in the number of new grantees it takes on. When it completes one stretch of work in a region, it either moves to a new place, or expands existing campaigns.

It does, however, invite groups that believe they are closely aligned with the funder to contact program officers directly. 


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