Philanthropy—green philanthropy, especially—has no shortage of contradictions and curious twists of fate. Look no further than prominent environmental funders like Marisla and Rockefeller Brothers, which dole out green grants out of heaps of money derived from oil wealth.
Another case in point is Ross Beaty, who made his fortune as a successful mining executive, and in 2008, shifted his attention to clean energy and environmental philanthropy. While Beaty still keeps one foot safely in the mining industry, he’s become a prominent Canadian philanthropist through personal donations and his family’s Sitka Foundation, increasing grantmaking and dropping some big gifts in recent years.
The latest example is among Sitka’s largest, a $5 million, 10-year commitment to Panthera’s Jaguar Corridor Initiative. Panthera is the only organization focused entirely on the conservation of wild cats, having drawn support over the years from wealthy donors such as Tom Kaplan and Duncan McFarland, and foundations like Bobolink and Liz Claiborne Art Ortenberg.
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The donation from Sitka is the largest so far to the nonprofit’s Jaguar Corridor Initiative, which supports a network of protected areas for jaguars, spanning eight countries in Latin America.
In February, Beaty gave $4 million to the Canadian Museum of Nature, its largest gift ever, for research and collections on species discovery. He’s also given $8 million for a biodiversity-themed museum at the University of British Columbia, and is a big supporter of Vancouver’s David Suzuki Foundation.
But Beaty’s green philanthropy goes beyond such high-profile gifts, as the Sitka Foundation gave $3.4 million across more than 60 grants in 2016. Some Sitka grants hit a million, but most are between $10,000 and $50,000, and annual giving has more than doubled since 2012. The foundation is mainly interested in conservation and biodiversity, making it kind of old school in that sense (although this type of giving does still dominate in green philanthropy). The funder also backs research and education efforts, reflected in the big museum donations.
Sitka’s approach to environmentalism distinguishes nature from humanity, and chalks up the threat to the former as “twin enemies” of human population growth and per-capita consumption. “We are convinced that economic growth cannot persist as it has for the past 200 years without degrading our global environment,” its website states.
That brings us back to contradictions. Beaty is best known for founding and running Pan American Silver, the second-largest silver mining operation in the world, with some 6,500 employees and contractors working in mines in Mexico, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. He’s founded and sold several other mineral companies over his decades in the industry. While Beaty has considered himself an environmentalist since early in life, he made a distinct shift in 2008, when he decided to start a geothermal energy company, which eventually became a modestly successful, multinational renewable energy firm called Alterra.
Even after the move to the clean energy industry, though, Beaty remains the chair of Pan American Silver, and according to a 2016 profile, still held a bunch of mining investments. While his interest in the environment and devotion to curbing consumption appear sincere, he hasn’t turned his back on extractive industry or his free market enthusiasm. And he's been perfectly comfortable talking about this ambiguity in past interviews, criticizing harmful extraction, but also defending responsible mining.
In a 2013 interview with the Globe and Mail, he acknowledged his curious position as an emerging environmental figure: “I’m a chameleon. … I have ultragreen environmental instincts but I don’t want government meddling with my abilities as an entrepreneur. I don’t want them getting in my face and telling me what to do. It is a contradiction and I just have to live with it.”
Beaty does live with it, and presumably, so do his grantees. But it’s an example of a major concern in green philanthropy—whether global capitalism’s practitioners can truly change their stripes and be agents of sustainability. Also, how important is ideological alignment between donor and grantee? Many more grantees will likely face those questions, as Beaty and the Sitka Foundation are only getting started.