One Small Funder That's Been a Big Friend to New England’s Coast

Nestled in Buzzards Bay is the tiny town of Marion, Massachusetts, home to 5,000 or so people and a foundation that gives about $3 million a year with a big focus on New England’s coast and wildlife.

These days, the funders getting attention for work in marine conservation and ocean wildlife tend to be juggernauts based in West Coast tech money. But the Island Foundation, with wealth from the family behind Avon Cosmetics, has been a big supporter of such work in the New England coastal region. 

This small family foundation has been operating since 1979, and has been a champion for the right whale and coastal birds for many years. Its funding has also taken some interesting turns lately, focusing on environmental justice, sustainable agriculture, and climate change. 

Island was founded by Mary H. Clark and W. Van Alan Clark, Jr.—an industrialist and grandson of the founder of Avon. The Clarks have had a business and philanthropic presence in the region and beyond for many years, with Van's brother James Clark and his wife Ruth Clark being major benefactors for the nearby Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Their parents founded and ran the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. Today, Island Foundation is still in the family, with the next generation serving on the board.

Island has assets around $60 million and has given about $3 million annually in recent years to a combination of support for nearby New Bedford, education, various special projects, and the environment. 

Marine conservation is a daunting issue for a small family funder to take on, with Island giving around $800,000 to the cause last year and nearly $4 million over the past five years. This funder has done so by giving to decidedly regional topics, but also issues of both national importance and regional relevance, such as sustainable fisheries, nitrogen pollution, and climate resilience in Buzzards Bay.

Related: MacArthur Funds Team Bracing for Climate Change on the East Coast

For example, the foundation has given regularly to protect the North Atlantic Right Whale, through groups like the New England Aquarium, Wildlife Conservation Society, Associated Scientists of Woods Hole, and research universities. Right whales are critically endangered due to collisions with ships, pollution, fishing industry, and ecosystem degradation, and have had a recovery plan in place since 1987. 

Other major causes include conservation of seabirds in the area, other wildlife like gray seals and harbor seals, and general land and marine conservation in New England. 

The family foundation has been in this game for a while now, but one other interesting thing worth noting about the funder is that it’s not been shy about delving into trending and progressive environment issues. 

For example, in recent years, the foundation has supported work in climate and energy, with more than a half-million in the past five years going to related causes such as helping fisheries adapt for climate change, resilience in the face of sea level rise, and promoting clean energy in the region. 

Island has also ventured into sustainable agriculture, and environmental justice work, in line with its funding to support New Bedford communities. And it’s one of the backers of a partnership between the EGA and University of Michigan to bring more diverse leaders to the environmental movement. So Island Foundation continues to be a New England conservation stalwart, but also one to watch for some new twists. 

Related: New Fellowships Take on Lack of Diversity in Environmentalism and Philanthropy