Why This Young Foundation Sees Environmental Education as a "Game Changer"

Education is generally one of philanthropy’s top priorities. The environment, while a little further down, lands a substantial and growing chunk of funding. 

But the field where the two explicitly overlap, environmental education, finds itself historically in the shadows of both, receiving a relatively low amount of support, even from philanthropists who care about the larger issues. 

One 2012 study found that environmental education received only about 5 percent of overall environment funding. The EGA’s latest assessment of green philanthropy found it to be one of the least-funded strategies among members, although it’s seen an increase in recent years.

Those are inviting stats for the Pisces Foundation, a recently established West Coast environment funder that’s carving out a role by targeting important issues others are overlooking. Based in Gap clothing empire money from trustees Bob and Randi Fisher, Pisces is building out three programs—one on water management, another on a potent type of climate pollutants, and now, on environmental education. 

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The funder is budgeting $17.5 million in total grantmaking in 2017, up from $14 million in 2015, with environmental education grants planned at nearly $5 million this fiscal year. 

While the issues they choose are niche, they’re definitely not small problems, and environmental education is no exception. The Pisces team sees environmental education as an issue with profound implications for children and society’s ability to collectively make decisions. And beyond backing individual outdoor programs, Pisces President David Beckman and Senior Program Officer Jason Morris are hoping to connect a patchwork of success into more widespread implementation. 

Inside Philanthropy spoke to Beckman and Morris about why they’re funding the topic, and what they hope to achieve.

The Long Game

While STEM education gets more philanthropic attention, it has some things in common with its cousin, environmental education. For one, people who devote their lives to both science and environmental issues, or at least take a lifelong interest in them, often recall early experiences that inspired them.

For Senior Program Officer Jason Morris, that began while growing up on a farm in Colorado. He gained a strong appreciation for the land and humanity’s role within it, which was amplified in outdoor camps he attended in the summers. 

“Throughout life, I would always hearken back to those experiences in the summer, and I wondered why they were isolated to the summer,” says Morris, who most recently held top positions at NatureBridge, which runs environmental science education programs at national parks. 

“I wanted those experiential opportunities to be part of every child’s learning, not just the ones who got sent to summer camp, and not just in summer.”

Morris had witnessed success at the programmatic level, but found himself drawn to tackling systemic improvements that could bring environmental education into the mainstream—a “need to have,” not a “nice to have.”

Around this time, he met David Beckman, who was ramping up the Pisces Foundation, which had operated for years through the self-directed giving of the Fishers. Part of what drives the environmental education program is the fact that Trustee Randi Fisher has a passion for the topic. 

“There’s a through-line at the foundation, where personal experiences, the kinds of personal experiences that we hope to ... enable others to have, we’ve had as a staff and as a leadership group,” Beckman says. 

Motivation isn’t just about personal interests, though, as there’s also a body of research that shows several benefits of outdoor education experiences, beyond the knowledge gained, including social skills and civic engagement. Environmental education also has a way of bridging components of learning that often happen in silos, Morris says.

Gaining environmental knowledge is also crucial, however, as these issues have become increasingly complex and varied, from climate change to city water infrastructure. Of course, they’ve also become politically charged, with climate in particular cleaving a sharp divide between liberals and conservatives. In that sense, environmental education serves as a long game of instilling fact-based environmental literacy in future generations. 

Beckman is quick to point out, however, that these programs aren’t intended to determine the future decisions of young people, only to ensure those decisions are well informed.

“Environmental education is really part of a sustainability strategy, not because it demands a particular policy. It doesn’t,” he says. “But it does equip … those kids who receive good, balanced environmental education to be better participants in the civic decisions, and in the community challenges that they will face over the course of their lives.”

Connecting the Dots

The average young person, Morris says, may have two or three environmental education experiences outside of the classroom total, maybe at a museum or a park, or with a community project in high school. 

There was a time when outdoor education programs were a lot more standard and accessible to students, but began to decline since the 1970s, he says. Now many such programs have transitioned to relying on nonprofits and fundraising, while charging participants to attend. 

It will come as no surprise, then, that wealthier communities tend to have more environmental education opportunities than lower- and middle-income communities. Equity is a major challenge in this field, complicated by the fact that the ideal environmental education experience will vary a lot based on where kids live. 

“The best environmental education is relevant to the students, and it’s not generic,” Morris says. “You’re not learning about some utopian, large landscape somewhere and how great it is. You’re confronting the realities on the ground, where you live, and you’re talking about the opportunities to make a difference.”

That means it’s a tall order to provide standard environmental education in schools across the country. There are many outstanding local programs out there, but they tend to work in isolation, and aren't widely distributed. 

“The strength of environmental education and what it’s really done great is at the programmatic level, in communities and parks and rivers, all across the country,” Morris says. 

Pisces is funding some providers of these programs, including San Francisco-based Education Outside, a nonprofit that provides environmental education in public schools through school gardens. Another grantee, Outdoor Afro, is a national network that focuses on reconnecting people, particularly African Americans, with the natural world, in part through educational programming. 

But Pisces is also trying to connect up those individual success stories, in part by funding “backbone organizations” that provide infrastructure for those looking to fund or implement environmental education. 

One example is grantee Blue Sky Funders Forum, which serves as a hub for funders who support environmental literacy. Pisces is also supporting two of the main organizations that support environmental education nationwide—the North American Association for Environmental Education, and the Children and Nature Network. The latter is working to provide resources to support the green schoolyard trend.

The tricky part with the goal of widespread environmental education is that solutions are not one-size-fits-all. That's because of the students being served, their outdoor environments, but also the intricacies of state education systems. In that sense, it’s a ripe subject for philanthropy, which can back a mix of players while trying to establish networks between them. And if Pisces has its way, that will eventually create a whole that’s much greater than the sum of its summer camps. 

RelatedThe Long Game: Why More Funders Are Keen on Environmental Education