"Change From the Bottom Up." A Funder Looks to Build Support for Watershed Protection

 Alena Haurylik/shutterstock

 Alena Haurylik/shutterstock

A river watershed is a perfect representation of environmentalism as shared responsibility. Everyone lives in one, and each person’s actions have an impact on the watershed’s health, which in turn has an impact on everyone else's water.

Protecting water resources requires huge, collective engagement and decision making, often reaching across several municipalities and governments. 

That need to engage many constituents to protect water quality is at the core of the William Penn Foundation’s work to protect the Delaware River watershed—a vast system of waterways that provides drinking water for around 15 million people. That includes a recently launched initiative that seeks to connect with thousands of people through 23 environmental education centers, with an overall goal of advancing water protections. 

Penn has a deep connection to the city of Philadelphia and the surrounding region, and the watershed, which spans four states, is one of its main priorities. It’s been a tough few years for Penn due to some difficulty retaining leadership, but its water quality and green spaces funding are still extensive and unique. 

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One example of this foundation's forward thinking is that it's placing such a large emphasis on environmental education as a strategy for protecting water quality, one of the biggest problems being tackled by U.S. philanthropy today. Environmental education continues to be a relatively low priority for funders, but it is growing, and can yield real dividends with a little patience. 


In the case of this latest program, which William Penn is backing with $4.6 million, the aim is to educate people about the importance of the watershed via recreational outdoor experiences. Support is spread across an alliance of about two dozen environmental education centers, including state parks, aquariums, gardens and interpretive centers. 

The alliance will provide educational programming to its collected visitors, which total more than 180,000 annually, along with an Environmental Fellowship Program that will focus on engaging with underserved communities. The idea is that those individual connections will build up to a strong base of people willing to take action and support protection of water resources.

Developing this kind of local and sustainable support for conservation efforts is seen as especially important right now, with key environmental protections under assault in Washington, D.C.

“With federal funding for natural resources threatened and key regulations keeping our water clean at risk of being dismantled, we must rally our communities to form a strong base of clean water advocates, creating change from the bottom up,” says Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of National Wildlife Federation, in the announcement.

The number of centers and locations involved is pretty impressive. We’ve seen similar connect-the-dots strategies from Penn before. In fact, this project dovetails with another foundation effort to link up a massive network of individual trails into one set called the Circuit Trails.

    There was another interesting project Penn backed that united several towns behind a cleanup effort of one shared creek. And the foundation made a $100 million commitment for a citywide parks improvement project that targets a number of struggling neighborhoods outside of Philadelphia’s thriving sections. 

    Foundations that home in on a particular region often have to walk this tightrope of exerting their power and wealth to make a difference without undermining the public will. An education campaign that spans such a sweeping shared resource as a watershed, especially if it can connect with a representative cross section of the stakeholders (and that's an important "if"), is one way to steer things from the ground up.