A Top Conservation Funder Shifts to Give New Attention to Fisheries and Plastic Trash

The Oak Foundation is moving away from its regional approach on marine conservation funding, recently setting up an endowment as it leaves Belize. It’s part of a shift toward a broader global conservation strategy.

Oak is a big international player in environmental philanthropy, with split focuses on climate and marine conservation. It’s embarking on some major environment program strategic changes starting this year, most recently marked by the announcement of a $10 million endowment the funder is setting up as it transitions away from its work in Belize and the surrounding region. 

The foundation’s refocus is indicative of the huge interest right now in reforming fisheries among the world’s major marine funders, and the rising concern over accumulated plastic pollution, but also Oak’s aspirations for broader presence.

As part of the change, the funder is beginning to wind down its 20-year commitment to marine conservation in Belize, which has previously racked up $46 million in grants to 78 groups. They’ve made a lot of progress in marine protected areas, species protection, and monitoring and management plans, and the foundation is shuttering its Belize offices this summer.  

A funder exiting an arena can be brutal news for groups in the field, but in an effort not to leave the area high and dry, Oak is endowing a fund with $10 million, pending a match of another $15 million. The funder is also setting up large grants to NGOs for the next few years, and providing capacity building support to prop up grantees before they depart. 

The reason behind Oak’s transitioning out of work in Belize has to do with a larger refocus that kicked off this year. The foundation previously set up its marine conservation funding around geographies—North Pacific and the Arctic, Mesoamerica, and Europe. That’s changing, and Oak is transitioning to fewer, more clearly defined approaches with global scope. An evaluation of its environment programs in 2015 identified strengths within its regions, but a weakness when it comes to sharing and transferring knowledge beyond them, advising the foundation to improve its role as a global leader.

The foundation does point out that it will remain committed to many of the regions they've always supported, still giving in Europe, the Arctic, East Asia and Africa. But Oak’s marine work in the next five years will be transitioning to global funding in fisheries and plastic garbage. 

These are notable subjects for a few reasons. First, fisheries are a massive topic in marine conservation right now, involving virtually every major marine funder in some way. Oak has worked in the realm of fisheries management for some time, building unique power in the public policy realm in its select regions. The new focus will keep that going, but with global ambitions.

Related:The Many Foundations and Billionaires Trying to Fix the World’s Fisheries

Plastic pollution, on the other hand, appears to be new territory, with only a few related grants on Oak’s books so far. Plastic pollution is a relatively new oceans crisis, with giant floating garbage patches drawing a lot of public attention. But it’s still not a huge arena for funders, and Oak could emerge as a real leader on the topic.

Of course, with every strategic refocus, there’s usually a lot of the same stuff continuing, so Oak's work will likely continue to be somewhat regional. But we’re learning a lot about the ambitions of this huge marine funder, and the changes on the ground in Belize show how things are taking shape.