As DiCaprio's Foundation Grows, New Grants to Solar, Lions and More

  Photo:  Maggy Meyer /shutterstock

 Photo: Maggy Meyer/shutterstock

The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation has come a long way since its founding in 1998 and its first big conservation grant in 2010. Once a project that worked on environmental awareness and made the occasional big wildlife gift, it’s now a grantmaker with about a dozen staff, a prominent CEO and a suite of defined programs. 

It’s also expanded its scope, as we can see from the funder’s latest and largest round of giving, $20 million announced last week. While its biggest interest is still wildlife and conservation, LDF has been branching into climate, and even started an Indigenous Rights program.

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We like to check in on DiCaprio’s foundation now and then, because the actor’s platform for philanthropy and outreach always draws a fair amount of attention and tends to make some surprising grants. 

In its early days, LDF made mainly large gifts to big environmental groups, usually related to a type of wildlife in crisis, and that’s still in its wheelhouse. About half of this last round of giving went to conservation, either land, marine or wildlife. One of DiCaprio’s big causes lately has been lions, and LDF was a founding donor recently of the Lion Recovery Fund, a project of the Wildlife Conservation Network that channels funding to institutions working on the issue. 

Ocean protection continues to be a big priority, with the funder working in coalitions like Oceans 5, and funding work on establishing marine protected areas and reducing illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. 

Another couple of interesting conservation grants include funding to the Quick Response Biodiversity Fund, a unique rapid response fund started by the Weeden Foundation and other partners, and Fund for Wild Nature, a network of grassroots green groups. 

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One interesting thing about LDF’s funding is that while a lot goes toward these big, global NGOs and partnerships, DiCaprio (and/or his team) have displayed a real affinity for scrappier grassroots activism. 

That streak is present in LDF’s expanding climate funding, with money going to Mark Ruffalo’s community activist-backing Solutions Project, which recently won an NCRP Impact Award for its work at Standing Rock. It’s also reflected in an Indigenous Rights Program, which just granted about $800,000 to recipients that include the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The program is a sign of the growing awareness of underfunding in Native American communities that emerged during the tribe’s resistance movement to the Dakota Access pipeline. LDF has also given past support for the Goldman Prize winners, champions of risky environmental activism. 

A unique climate grant went to Re-volv, a crowdfunding and revolving fund initiative in support of community solar for nonprofit. And another interesting avenue for funding is the Innovation, Media & Technology program, which includes a grab bag of mapping, journalism, and software efforts. 

Of course, the other thing that’s always fascinating about LDF is how the institution is evolving—in other words, we’re learning what, exactly, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation is. As the foundation grows under CEO Terry Tamminen, former state EPA head and policy adviser on climate for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, we’re getting a clearer sense of that.

While its public profile is growing, we’d still like to see more financial transparency from the outfit, given that it’s housed as a donor-advised fund with the California Community Foundation. We know that LDF is fueled by funds that its high-profile celebrity galas and auctions bring in, and presumably funds from Leo himself, who has a substantial net worth. But it’s hard to know what kind of assets it’s working with, where they’re coming from, and where, exactly, they’re going. 

While its DAF status allows a certain level of freedom, it also adds a layer of opacity that can invite suspicion. DiCaprio has already been entangled in one scandal related to the Malaysian 1MDB fund and some extravagant donations and gifts that had to be returned. As the organization becomes more influential and rallies funds from more wealthy and powerful people, it’s going to need to fully embrace transparency or risk sowing distrust. That can be a liability to DiCaprio himself, but also to grantees.