Robertson Foundation: Grants for Marine & Rivers

OVERVIEW: The Robertson Foundation was founded by a retired hedge-fund manager, and it brings an investment-like approach to environmental action. It's interested in fighting climate change on a policy and public education level. It looks for grant seekers with the resources and capacity to achieve the greatest possible results with funding they receive.

IP TAKE: The Robertson Foundation is invite-only, but proactively and constantly seeks out partners to work with. It is also interested in conservation efforts, so if your program is large and well-established, and works in either conservation or climate change, you might want to try to introduce yourself via networking. However, it keeps very close tabs on its grantees, so expect a high level of scrutiny and accountability if you do end up with a grant.

PROFILE: After a lifetime of amassing fortunes as a New York City hedge-fund manager and investor, Julian Robertson decided to start investing in social causes. With his late wife, Josie Robertson, he established the Robertson Foundation in 1996, and now it's a means for directing “high-impact grants” to three areas of interest, one of which is the environment (education and medical research are the others). The foundation directs tens of millions of dollars each year—and sometimes as much as $104 million—toward nonprofit organizations.

The foundation is looking for organizations that are taking action to minimize climate change-related disruptions to the world's ecosystems--specifically ones that take efforts that:

  • Lead to comprehensive federal regulation of greenhouse gases
  • Improve public understanding of human-caused climate change
  • Reduce near-term emissions from coal

Very large, recurring, general support grants are this foundation’s usual modus operandi. Many of its grants run several million dollars each. And grantees that win one can usually look forward to more. Robertson is a foundation that likes to form ongoing partnerships.

Clearly, receiving a grant from Robertson is an enviable achievement. It’s also a very tricky one. Visit Robertson’s website, and the first page will tell you that this foundation makes “high-impact” grants and operates with a “targeted, businesslike, results-oriented approach.” Robertson and his colleagues are investors, and they think like investors when they are deciding what to fund. Foundation staffers are known to conduct data-intensive studies on applicants to quantify how much social and environmental good a grant to that applicant will achieve.

And once the money goes out, the team monitors the grantee’s project to see if it is delivering the expected results. So if you pursue a Robertson grant, expect a lot of scrutiny before, during, and after the decision.

So what kinds of grant seekers tend to meet Robertson’s criteria? Large, well-established ones, for the most part. Robertson doles out big awards to grantees that can carry out big endeavors with them. They include groups such as the Marine Stewardship Council, a UK nonprofit that works with fisheries and food distributors around the world to set standards for sustainable seafood production and certify those fisheries that live up to them. It nabbed $2.5 million in grants from Robertson over a two-year time span.

Robertson also gave $2 million over the course of three years to Oceana, the largest ocean-conservation and ocean-advocacy organization on the planet. This is another nonprofit that has operations spanning the globe. 

Other large Robertson grants have gone out to the National Wildlife Federation, the Nature Conservancy, and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Right now, the foundation is not taking unsolicited applications or even unsolicited inquiries. According to the website, the foundation “proactively seeks out organizations with which to partner.” Not to be too discouraging, but the groups with a shot at breaking in with this funder will very likely need to be large, national or international, and with a strong track record and connections in the field. 

Your best bet will be to network your way into Robertson’s circle. The foundation’s tendency to form ongoing partnerships suggests staff have built a network of people they like and trust in conservation work. And keep in mind the person you’re ultimately trying to get a seat at the table with is going to be program officer and climate and energy policy analyst Sarah Brennan, who is point on environmental giving.