June 01, 2014
One of the most exciting aspects of philanthropy is the prospect of effecting systematic change, yet many of us in the sector often struggle with the scale of the systems we're trying to influence. Certainly this is true in environmental philanthropy, where a single and coherent environmental system like a watershed (e.g., river basin) can encompass an enormous geography and a host of complex issues. Where my colleagues and I sit in the Delaware River watershed, for example, we're dealing with 216 major tributaries and an area of more than 13,500 square miles that includes four states, 838 municipalities, and a total population of nearly 8 million people. For watersheds and other large ecosystems, even the most generous grantmaking budget will be dwarfed by the enormity of what's needed, raising important questions for philanthropic investors. How can we be more effective in deploying scarce resources? How do we assess whether we're making a difference? Where do we choose to invest, and how do we support work in a way that meaningfully sets the stage for replication and greater impact?
At the William Penn Foundation, we're responding to these tough questions by implementing a new approach to a decades-long legacy of environmental grantmaking. With the support of our board and strong partners in the research and nonprofit communities, we are focusing our geographic footprint by prioritizing select ecosystems, aligning the work of capable nonprofit organizations within those ecosystems, targeting specific environmental stressors, and continually measuring progress. All to restore and protect the quality and availability of our water resources — resources with a history of unchecked pollution and abuse.
We have come a long way since the mid-1880s, when fouled water, factory waste, and mining by-products were drained into our waters at alarming rates. In the first half of the twentieth century, many bodies of water — including the Delaware Estuary, the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay, and Long Island Sound — were renowned for their dead zones, stretches of polluted water where virtually nothing could survive. The extent of the damage eventually led to multi-sector partnerships to address the problem, including the first interstate watershed commission in 1936, as well as a succession of state and federal legislation to reduce point-source pollution, culminating in the Clean Water Act of 1972 and amendments to the act in 1977 and 1987. Today, as a result, we have far fewer dead zones in our lakes, rivers and estuaries, and polluters are held to a much higher standard when it comes to releasing waste into local waterways.
But it is not enough.
Since the first Earth Day in 1970, new contaminants have emerged to threaten environmental and public health, even as major sources of industrial pollution have been outsourced to foreign shores. With the relative decline in American manufacturing and an ever-increasing U.S. population, we are seeing new threats from the industrialization of agriculture, suburban sprawl, and our appetite for fossil fuels. Regulators are challenged to address sources of pollution that are widely distributed across the landscape and cannot be traced back to a single end-of-pipe discharge point.