A Growing Pooled-Funding Effort to Support Environmental Defenders

photo: Rich Carey/shutterstock

photo: Rich Carey/shutterstock

In 2016, amid growing concern about the heightened dangers environmental activists were facing globally, a group of funders and NGOs met at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s Pocantico Center meeting space in New York to discuss the issue. They emerged with a framework they hoped could guide a strategic response from the philanthropic sector. 

Just two weeks later, Berta Cáceres—a Honduran activist who had won a Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015 for her work defending a sacred river from the construction of a new dam—was shot and killed in her home. She had received several threats, and a number of arrests have since been made, including of employees at the hydroelectric company behind the dam.  

For years prior, the physical and legal dangers activists and NGOs face in conflicts over land and resources had been a source of concern and anger. Incidents include several high-profile killings of indigenous activists. But Cáceres’s death, in particular, shook the environmental community. The tragedy made it clear to many that more needed to be done, including funders that have come to the cause in the two years since. The funding framework that emerged from that 2016 meeting, for example, has evolved into the Environmental Defenders Fund, a pooled effort to support activists at risk that’s grown from three to 14 backers since starting last year.

“[Cáceres’s death] was an enormous wake-up call, not just for the funder community, but for everyone involved in these issues,” says David Gordon, who was executive director of the Goldman Environmental Prize at the time, and played a part in developing the fund. “It was clearly a watershed moment that helped people recognize the level of threats out there to activists that are literally putting their lives on the line.”


Such threats and violent attacks, in large part on rural and indigenous activists, have been escalating—a record 200 environmental activists were killed in 2016, according to watchdog group Global Witness. But so have legal threats, harassment and intimidation, and restrictive policies as part of a global crackdown on civil society. Human rights groups and their supporters have been responding for some time, but it’s still a very new issue for many in philanthropy, especially those in the environment space. It’s a problem that sort of straddles different worlds, and can be a tough topic to approach.

The Environmental Defenders Fund (not to be confused with EDF, the Environmental Defense Fund) is one mechanism that’s emerged to allow funders of varying sizes and priorities to lend support. Housed at the Biodiversity Funders Group, which largely spearheaded the development of the initiative, the fund moves money in a coordinated and—when necessary—discrete way, offering backers a channel to navigate the challenges of being responsive to activists on the ground. The fund moved $610,000 in its first year and is projecting $800,000 in 2018. 

A Delicate Process

We’ve seen a number of intermediaries between funders and grassroots activists emerge in recent years, and for good reason. As Alison Wright, program director of the Environmental Defenders Fund points out, there are important advantages to mechanisms like these. 

For one, there are often administrative challenges for larger funders to move several of what are typically low-dollar-amount grants in a timely manner, so the simplicity of going through one entity is a plus. The fund sends a lot of money to regranting partners, which are able to make urgent response grants. The fund also backs things like trainings, organizational security measures, strategic litigation, community-based campaigns, and legal redress for victims. 


Current backers include the Leonardo DiCaprio, Marisla, and Overbrook foundations, the Wallace Global Fund, plus a number of others that ask to give anonymously. As important as transparency is in philanthropy, the ability to give discretely is also important in this case, as funders are concerned about placing their grant partners or their own staffs at additional risk. 

When grantees are putting their lives on the line, funding their work can be a delicate matter that requires responses that differ on a case-by-case basis. This can fall outside a funder’s familiarity or expertise, even if the activists’ causes are core to their interests. 

“It’s a really complicated issue, and there’s continued learning for all of us to do on all of the nuances and country-specific challenges, and continuing to work to be more responsive,” says Wright, who previously worked for Global Greengrants Fund, another important player in this space. 

The Environmental Defenders Fund has grown in a short time from just three initial supporters, so it's clearly attracting interest. That said, it doesn't do a lot of fundraising; it’s growing and operating fairly organically at this point, Wright says. Supporters tend to find EDF through communications in affinity groups, and as foundations interact with each other. Grantees are found mostly through regranting partnerships, and Wright’s own research and contacts in the grassroots funding world. 

One example of work the fund supports is in a rural, environmentally important area of coastal South Africa, where residents have resisted plans by Australian company MRC to mine for titanium. The Amadiba Crisis Committee has coordinated human rights lawyers and villagers to stop the mining plan based on locals’ rights under customary law. The dispute has led to violent conflict in the community, including the murder of prominent activist Sikhosiphi Rhadebe in 2016. 

Wright says the Environmental Defenders Fund is providing support for community organizing and engagement around legal proceedings, including funds for community members to make the long trip to be present in court, as well as for some legal expenses.

Future Response

Should the Environmental Defenders Fund continue to grow, it may decide to add some additional structure, Wright says. It's currently establishing a steering committee, and may need to develop some application processes. But she hopes to avoid introducing too much red tape.

“There’s a real commitment on the part of the folks involved to be as flexible and as responsive as it can be, and to really take into account that we’re trying to support people who have more important things to do with their time than deal with burdensome application procedures,” she says.

And beyond facilitating more funding through this particular mechanism, Wright would ultimately like to see more funders generally engaging with the topic, including setting aside their own budgets for risk and security, and breaking down silos across sectors. 

“This is a time when there’s a lot of crackdown happening,” she says. “There’s a real mandate for us in the funding community to dig into that reality more and drive forward conversations with grant partners to make sure that they’re going to be able to continue to do their work.” 

For more information about the Environmental Defenders Fund, contact Alison Wright at alison@biodiversityfunders.org.