Helmsley Charitable Trust: Grants for Marine Conservation

OVERVIEW: The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust has become one of the top foundations in the U.S. It predominately supports medical causes, but has a substantial place-based conservation program with some emphasis on marine work.

IP TAKE: Helmsley's marine conservation grantmaking supports four key places. Most grants are awarded to large, global organizations. However, the trust also supports smaller, local groups based in the target communities. The program protects biodiversity on a few fronts, but predominately supports managing fisheries and marine protected areas. In addition, it discourages inquiries. Please note that Helmsley is winding down its conservation program, and no longer supports new grants in its current locations; however, grantseekers should check the trust's website often, especially in 2018, when the trust plans to "transition [its] Conservation grantmaking into Helmsley's other place-based programs and [the trust] hope[s] to have greater details in 2018." 

PROFILE: The Helmsley Charitable Trust began in 2008, a year after the passing of Leona Helmsley, hotelier and convicted tax evader, whose outsized wealth and personality brought her to fame in the 1980s. Her husband, real estate tycoon Harry Helmsley, passed in 1997 and left Leona his $5.5 billion fortune. The trustees, which consist of two senior advisers to the Helmsleys and two grandchildren, now oversee the trust's grantmaking. The trust aspires to "improve lives by supporting exceptional efforts in the U.S. and around the world in health and select place-based initiatives." The trust now has assets over $4 billion, and giving has climbed, making around 1,000 total grants since it was founded. It maintains programs in conservation, Crohn's disease, Israel, NYC, rural healthcare, Type 1 Diabetes, vulnerable children in Sub-Saharan Africa

Since 2010, Helmsley has maintained a smaller, but significant conservation program. While not an explicit priority, marine protection receives a large portion of funding. For example, Helmsley granted one recent high-profile award for a program that will cover several sensitive ocean ecosystems. One of the main foundation partners in the project, Helmsley committed $3 million to the National Geographic Society for its marine protected areas program. The Pristine Seas campaign recently announced it would extend its efforts, aiming to protect 770,000 square miles of species-rich marine areas (see related: The Funders Behind NatGeo’s Huge Marine Preserve Plan). 

While the NGS program is all over the globe, Helmsley’s giving is typically limited to the following four places:

The Galápagos, Ecuador

The islands have a unique ecosystem important to humanity's understanding of evolution and other biological principles. It remains a crucial place for conservation, with tourism and development threatening its biodiversity. This area focuses, in part, on protecting the National Park and Marine Reserve, stopping invasive species, and land use policies.

Baja California Sur, Mexico

This is one of the more oceans-focused of Helmsley’s programs, funding work in the marine protected area of Cabo Pulmo, and globally important fishery Madagascar Bay. The former faces threat of coastal development, and the latter experiences overfishing and irresponsible fishing practices that harm threatened species.


This island has some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world, but faces a variety of threats closely related to poverty. Community leadership is key to this program, as the funder seeks to build up civil society on the ground and promote environmentally sound economic options and awareness. One of Helmsley's key marine grantees is Blue Ventures, a UK-based nonprofit working to develop sustainable fishing practices in Madagascar. 


Finally, the trust also focuses on Myanmar, a country emerging from decades of isolation under an extremely oppressive political regime. Helmsley is funding large conservation groups and local organizations as the region prepares for an influx of foreign investments and development. Grants for this program so far have not been explicitly focused on marine and rivers conservation, but protection and management of marine areas is on the list of priorities. 

A full list of grantees is available here. This funder tends to support established environmental nonprofits with multi-year, multi-million-dollar grants. However, it also funds local organizations with a strategic emphasis on empowering community groups on the ground. As a result, grant amounts also range significantly from $35,000 to $3.3 million. Most grants range in the mid-six-figures, and grants typically run for three-year increments. 

The Helmsley Trust does not accept unsolicited proposals and discourages inquiries. Despite this, it remains remarkably transparent in its giving priorities and past grants. It is also well staffed. 


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