Alan Holt, Margaret A. Cargill Foundation

TITLE: Program Director, Environment

FUNDING AREAS: Marine conservation, Great Bear of the Tongass Coast Conservation, local environmental sustainability and biodiversity

CONTACT: aholt@macfoundation.org, 952-540-4053

IP TAKE: A key supporter in conservation and biodiversity efforts from Pacific Island landscapes to the deep forests of Alaska, Holt likes to give his grantees the freedom to change and adapt their work as needed, not requiring them to stick hard and fast to their original proposals.  

PROFILE: If you've spent a vacation alternately sipping Mai Tais and marveling at the untouched natural beauty of the Hawaiian Islands, you can thank Alan Holt. Not for the Mai Tais; but dating back to the early 1980s, Holt has played a major role in Hawaiian conservation efforts, contributing to many of the partnerships that have developed to protect land and species in the treasured region. He has since built on his success in Hawaii by going on to oversee a region for The Nature Conservancy, and then global initiatives in his current role with the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation.  

As Program Director for the Environment arm of this fairly new but deep-pocketed Minnesota funder, Holt now manages a huge conservation portfolio that reaches the Pacific islands, tropical forests, and the temperate rainforests of Alaska and British Columbia.

Holt's role at Cargill started when the foundation really began gearing up in 2009, and Holt has said his work developing conservation programs still strongly influences his thoughts on what makes a good funder. For example, he thinks back to his early work in Hawaii, and how a project funded by MacArthur in the 1980s morphed into the broad collaboration Hawai'i Conservation Alliance, because he strayed from the proposal.

"You get more when you give grantees the room to adapt and innovate toward important goals, not by trying to tightly manage them to an original work plan," he told an annual HCA conference in his 2012 keynote speech. Allowing leeway instead of holding grantees to a set of boxes to check off yields far greater results, he said. "Great science and great researchers aren't necessarily attracted to having their agenda orchestrated," Holt added. "Fancy that."

He’s now in a position to extend that same room to innovate to others, in a big way. Since its namesake's passing in 2006, the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation has been ramping up, with its first big year in grantmaking in 2011 (featuring $141 million in giving). The foundation's endowment has grown to one of the largest in the country, and a good chunk of its funding is in conservation.

Holt has overseen dozens of environment grants, many in the six-figures, to anything from the Grand Canyon to a botanical garden. But the foundation's conservation giving is focused in a few areas:

  • Great Bear and Tongass Coast
  • Micronesia Challenge
  • Tropical Forests REDD+
  • Sunda-Banda Seascape
  • Environment Education – Youth Camping

You can see Holt's apparent influence in the focus on Pacific islands, tropical forests and work in Alaska. Before taking the job at Cargill, he spent the bulk of his career at The Nature Conservancy, where in his most recent role he was regional director overseeing Alaska, Canada, Washington, Oregon, California, and Hawaii. But having spent nearly 30 years at the Conservancy, Holt was also involved in international decisions and strategy. 

His legacy will likely remain his work in Hawaii. During his time at The Nature Conservancy, he designed and created its Hawaii conservation programs from 1982 to 1999. He was one of the founders of what would become the Hawaii Conservation Alliance, a coalition of nonprofits, educational institutions and government agencies collectively responsible for managing Hawaii’s land and waters. Prior to that project, he worked as a field biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service. He also holds a master's in botany from the University of Hawaii, and is an expert in invasive species.

Holt still cites his successful work on the island as the basis for what he thinks makes for successful conservation work. As he said in his 2012 keynote speech, Hawaii has been at the leading edge of what's happening now in conservation, which is a respect for culture and a fusion of community interests.

What we're doing now could be called not so much biodiversity conservation, but bio-cultural conservation, bio-cultural diversity. Where Hawaiian perspective is not a special topic or a visiting speaker, but a gift from our ancestors that can bring us beyond what we can do through science alone.

The foundation does not accept unsolicited requests.

VIDEO:

HCC 2012 Distinguished Keynote: Alan Holt from Hawaii Conservation Alliance on Vimeo.