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This Earth Day, Let’s Celebrate Experimentation in Environmental Grantmaking

April 20, 2016

News_tropical_andes_for_PhilanTopicAs we near the forty-sixth anniversary of Earth Day, let's all take a moment to celebrate the diversity and breadth of approaches to conserving this special planet we call home. Like so many other organizations in the conservation field, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation grapples with the question of how to make sure — while there is time — Earth and its vital ecosystems flourish long into the future.

When Gordon and Betty Moore established the foundation in late 2000, they asked us to find ways for humans and other species to share the limited resources of our small but amazing planet. Fifteen years in, we've been both encouraged and humbled by how much our grantees and others working alongside them have accomplished — whether it's conserving wild salmon ecosystems across the North Pacific, the long-term health of the Amazon basin, or North America's marine environments.

As much progress as we have made, however, we also recognize that we need to scale and accelerate these gains. By reducing the mounting pressures on natural resources, we can help sustain the most critical ecosystems worldwide and, by extension, those who depend on them for their livelihoods. Put simply, those of us who work in environmental conservation must embrace the challenge of trying new things and doing more to develop long-term, systemic, sustainable solutions to meeting the demands of a growing human population.

To be clear, we don't think there's a single best approach to conservation. In fact, we believe our  success — as funders, nonprofits, corporations, governments — will require coordinated efforts that bring together vastly different approaches from all sectors.

Even within our own portfolio of investments, we have intentionally diversified, experimenting with a trio of newer initiatives that seek to harness global agriculture, seafood, and financial market forces while complementing our longer-running investments in strategies such as comprehensive ocean planning in the United States and Canada and the creation of protected areas and indigenous lands in the Amazon basin.

For us, these different approaches evince some consistent themes. When Gordon and Betty Moore articulated their hopes and expectations for the foundation, they also advised that we search for under-resourced opportunities to make a lasting difference at a large, meaningful scale. With respect to environmental conservation, they asked the foundation to "seek pragmatic solutions that maintain the integrity of essential ecosystem functions while accommodating necessary development and other activity." That pragmatism drives our commitment to fostering solutions that align conservation with social and economic incentives, often by bringing unlikely partners together.

Across all the foundation's programs, the spirit of scientific inquiry that stems from Gordon's background as a chemist guides us to articulate hypothesized outcomes and establish metrics and systems for evaluation to determine what works, while creating space for our grantees to manage their efforts in a way that enables them to adapt and achieve the greatest impact.

What do we think we need to do, collectively, to make meaningful, lasting progress in environmental conservation at the scale that's needed and at the rate that's required? We believe such an outcome can only result from a diversity of, and experimentation in, approaches to conservation that reflect the complex and beautiful natural systems around us. For the Moore Foundation, that means placing some complementary but strikingly different bets in our own grantmaking portfolio. For us, as well as our grantees and partners, across sectors, it also means we have a better chance at success if we all recognize the need for a multiplicity of perspectives and strategies.

Aileen_lee_for_PhilanTopicSo, this Earth Day, let's celebrate diversity, both in the world around us and in the work we all do, to conserve the resilience and abundance of life on Earth for future generations.

Aileen Lee, J.D., incoming chief program officer for the environmental conservation program at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and program director for its conservation and markets initiatives, has been with the foundation for fifteen years. She currently is a board member for the Climate and Land Use Alliance and served as chair of the board of the Environmental Grantmakers Association.

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