Meet One More Big Funder That's Freaking Out About Watersheds

The Richard King Mellon Foundation is a major philanthropic player in Southwestern Pennsylvania, and gave out nearly $90 million last year to improve the area's economy, schools, and social safety net. But RKMF also gave out $14 million last year for conservation, which is decent money in this field. Conservation is a broad term that can cover a wide variety of projects. So what sort of conservation is the foundation actually funding?

Well, one thing is for sure: RKMF cares about protecting watersheds and inland waterways, an increasingly hot area for many funders. 

First, some backstory. Richard King Mellon was a nephew of Andrew Mellon and among the heirs to the great Mellon fortune. He and his wife, Constance, were committed to the conservation of wildlife habitats, scenic vistas, and historic battlefields. His foundation has built upon its founders’ dedication to the environment by purchasing land with the help of conservation agencies and local governments. To date, over 2 million acres have been protected throughout the United States.  

Land acquisition remains a core component of the foundation’s conservation strategy. In 2013, the foundation supported several grants for land acquisition, including grants beyond Pennsylvania—most notably a land buy in New Hampshire around Success Pond. (see IP’s Post).

But in addition to land acquisition, the foundation cares a great deal about water quality and watershed conservation. In 2013, one-fourth of the thirty grants given were for watershed conservation. These grants ranged in size from the fairly small ($650 to the Carnegie Institute for a restoration forum) to the fairly substantial ($750,000 to The Chesapeake Bay Foundation for the Pennsylvania Watershed Restoration Program). In 2012 the foundation gave nearly half of its grants to either watershed conservation, water management (in river ecosystems), or water quality monitoring and improvement.

RKMF's focus on watersheds and river ecosystems is no surprise. A lot of funders are coming to see just how urgent it is to protect the source of drinking water in different parts of the United States, and the watersheds in the mid-Atlantic region are under obvious pressure. Which is why the William Penn Foundation is making a big push on this front in regard to the Delaware River watershed, as we discussed recently. Indeed, as we write here, water philanthropy overall—which has historically focused on bringing safe drinking water to developing countries—increasingly extends to protecting reliable water in the United States. 

One other thing about RKMF: Although the vast majority of its grants have been going towards land acquisition and water related programs, a grantee with a good idea could get funded for something outside these categories, and outside Pennsylvania. In 2013, for example, the foundation gave $480,000 to the National Wildlife Federation to "develop resources for parents to motivate children to connect with the outdoors." It also gave $400,000 to the Health Effects Institute to explore the impact of fracking. Closer to home, it gave $100,000 to the Pennsylvania Institute for Conservation Education to support a leadership academy. The foundation also gave $150,000 to the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum Trust to build a green roof on top of their hall.

Ultimately, the foundation is looking for established organizations that will partner with other donors to create effective change. The foundation uses the Common Grant Application Format available through the Grantmakers of Western Pennsylvania.