Philanthropy’s Part in a Flurry of Global Ocean Protection Commitments

In the past two years, we've written often about all the action around saving the oceans, including the many new billionaire philanthropists who've joined this cause.

One place where this action comes together is the Our Ocean conference, which has become a focal point for sweeping new marine initiatives by governments, nonprofits, and foundations alike. In the third such event held last week in D.C., participants announced 136 initiatives to protect ocean areas, manage fisheries, clean up pollution, and pursue other priorities, collectively valued at more than $5.2 billion (that's all commitments, with philanthropy just one piece). That's more than the dollar value assigned to the first two years combined, bringing the total to $9.2 billion worth of commitments. 

Of course, a lot of the impact is in government ocean protections, and while philanthropy doesn’t have the sheer power of the nations involved, funders played a big part in the initiatives announced this year. First, there’s the fact that many of the nonprofits leading the protection efforts, such as the Nature Conservancy and Oceana, draw huge support from foundations. But a bundle of funding announcements were made too. Here are some of the takeaways. 

Massive Funders Re-up Support

Some of the largest foundations in marine conservation took the opportunity to reaffirm their support for the cause over the next five years. Packard announced a commitment of $550 million over the next five years, with $350 million going to longtime grantee the Monterey Bay Aquarium and its research institute. The Walton Family Foundation announced $250 million in commitments over the next five years for its marine giving programs, with geographic focus on Indonesia and the Americas. And the Moore Foundation announced a commitment of $220 million in giving over the next five years toward its several ocean research and conservation programs. 

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

These aren't new programs for these foundations, and the announcements mainly serve to publicly recommit them to oceans as a main priority. But those are some eye-popping numbers, to be sure, carrying on a big legacy for these foundations. For perspective, the dollar amounts announced put Packard and Walton on track to out-give their previous five years of oceans grantmaking, during which Packard gave about $372 million and Walton around $177 million. 

Philanthropy’s Role in Protected Areas

President Obama has been going all out to protect oceans in his final year in office, recently establishing the largest ecologically protected area on the planet by expanding the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawaii. At Our Ocean, he added to the list a new Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off the coast of New England. 

While the president has made the environment a big priority as he secures his legacy, you’ve got to give some credit to foundations and nonprofits on this front, as MPAs have been a huge cause among a number of funders. For example, Pew’s Global Ocean Legacy has been a champion for creating such protected areas, backed by partners that include Bloomberg, the Lyda Hill Foundation, the Oak Foundation, the Robertson Foundation, and Tiffany & Co. Foundation. Pew and the Switzerland-based Bertarelli Foundation announced at the conference they would extend the work of the Ocean Legacy Project with a new $30 million partnership for additional marine reserves. 

Related: Behind the Protection of Vast Swaths of Ocean, A Big Victory for Green Philanthropy

Other such new initiatives unveiled at the conference included the Waitt Foundation and Blue Moon Fund partnering with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Global Environment Facility to create a new $48 million fund dedicated to MPAs. Waitt Foundation was all over the place in the conference announcements, in fact, funding MPA work on a couple of fronts off the Chilean coast, including two science expeditions with National Geographic and other partners. 

The Tiffany & Co. Foundation announced a $3.2 million commitment aiming to conserve 20 percent of the marine environment in the Bahamas. Conservation International and the Walton Family Foundation announced a new $36 million commitment toward protection of reserves in Indonesia’s Bird’s Head region. 

A Bundle of Oceans Initiatives

Protecting swaths of ocean wasn't the only tactic that funders timed to the conference, with foundations kicking off these other notable commitments:

  • California-focused oceans funder Marisla announced $100 million for its mix of work over the next five years. 
  • The Oak Foundation announced $60 million over three years to its newly refined strategy to deal with overfishing, small scale fisheries, and plastic pollution. 
  • We recently wrote about the first marine program to be funded by Marc and Lynne Benioff, a crowdsourced approach in partnership with UC Santa Barbara. 
  • Plastic pollution isn’t a huge issue yet among funders, despite being a priority at the conference, but the Ellen MacArthur Foundation announced $10 million to reduce marine pollution as a result of plastic products.
  • A funder’s collaborative featuring Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Paul M. Angell Family Foundation, Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, the Helmsley Charitable Trust, and Oceans 5 will support work to stop overexploitation of sharks and rays. 

There's a good chance a lot of these programs have happened on some level regardless of the Our Ocean conference. But looking at this list of announcements, which doesn’t even cover all of the 2016 foundation commitments, goes a long way in understanding just how important American philanthropy has become in oceans work. More than twice as many foundations were involved the mix of commitments this year than in 2015's conference.

There’s also the fact that foundations working on these global environmental issues are, if not collaborating, at least coordinating with government efforts as a way to make a bigger splash (sorry). 

That kind of “get the ball rolling” approach has been a common one for the Obama administration, whether in its work with philanthropists and the Indian government on climate change, with corporations on STEM education, or with state of California and foundations to restore the Salton Sea. Such coordinated showcases of combined support potentially build critical mass, inspire new supporters to get on board, or existing supporters to give at higher levels.

UPDATE: The Blue Moon Fund has completed its “sunset strategy” and is no longer a grantmaking organization. Click here for more information.