More investors funding women-led conservation endeavours

Initiatives such as the Wild Elements Foundation, Women’s Earth Alliance, Daughters for Earth and WE Africa are supporting women-led efforts around the world,

Seychelles conservationist Christel Jacques leads a wildlife club for 8-year-old children on an outing to learn about mangroves. Image: UN Women, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Women-led philanthropy garnered renewed attention after MacKenzie Scott, former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, announced in March that she had given away $3.9 billion in grants to 465 organizations since June last year — around 60 per cent of them led by women.

Women-led NGOs are rare in many sectors, including climate change. Currently, 80 per cent of climate philanthropy goes to NGOs led by men, according to a report by the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity. And 90 per cent of philanthropic funding for climate change goes to organizations led by white people.

Erica Flock, communications and advocacy director at US-based Rachel’s Network, says both women and the environment make up a very small portion of philanthropy dollars.

“The work we are doing now is funding those people who … might be ignored because they are not led by a white guy necessarily,” Flock says. “Often these smaller groups do have track records of success and helping their communities, but they are often doing it without a lot of support.”

We need to be able to find leadership models that are more inclusive. This is even more important now in conservation, which is becoming increasingly militarised.

Colleen Begg, co-founder, Women for the Environment Africa

Rachel’s Network, named after the late pioneering conservationist Rachel Carson, was founded to break down structural barriers faced by women environmentalists. Every year, the network’s catalyst award program provides women environmental leaders of colour with a $10,000 prize, networking opportunities, and public recognition of their work.

“The people on the ground know what they’re doing, they are closest to the work and we need to make it easier for them to get funding,” Flock says, adding that trust-based philanthropy has become an increasingly important topic in the funding world.

Bridging the divide

Rachel’s Network also contends that gender disparity not only stymies equality, but also has serious implications for environmental policy. Its research into US congressional voting records between 1972 and 2021 found that women legislators vote for environmental protections more often than their male counterparts in both the House and Senate.

In response to research by the Global Greengrants Fund that only 0.2 per cent of all foundation funding focuses explicitly on women and the environment, Wild Elements Foundation was launched last year to invest in scaling up projects led by “innovators” — women conservationists, scientists, and community organisers. The group places a special focus on Indigenous women and women of colour.

In its first year of operation, Wild Elements provided 10 women leaders each with $100,000 in two-year unrestricted funding for projects from Colombia, India, Kenya, Australia, the UK, to the US

The foundation was started by Nikki Eslami who built a multimillion-dollar hair extension business. Part of Eslami’s interest in starting the foundation, according to Wild Elements’ Chief Operating Officer, Heidi Nel, was her firsthand experience of the challenges in attracting venture capital money as not only a woman, but also a non-white woman.

“We want to be disruptive in the space, philanthropy tends to be sort of an ivory tower space,” Nel says. “It tends to be a space where people who are not impacted by the issues directly … come in and build strategies and tell people how to make change and how to use their money.”

Nel says grants from Wild Elements not only provide additional funding, but also connections. Each Wild Elements-supported “innovator” is paired with an “advocate,” such as a famous actor, model, singer, or influencer, who will use their outsized social media influence to help the NGO reach a much larger audience.

“Nonprofits want to be great storytellers,” Nel says, “but it’s so rare that they’re able to allocate a budget to it to do it in a way that is truly compelling.”

Out in the field

In northern Colombia, Project Titi is one of Wild Elements’ funding recipients. The initiative is helping conserve the remaining 6,000 cotton-top tamarins (Saguinus oedipus) left in the wild. The critically endangered species only has 5 per cent of their geographic range remaining due to deforestation. It is also threatened by the illegal pet trade.

Project Titi’s director, Rosamira Guillen, tells Mongabay that they use an integrated model, combining science with community engagement via youth education programs and conservation agreements.

Guillen says that in their educational work with local communities, women seem to be more connected to nature and the environment.

“And when given the opportunity, it’s a wider proportion of women getting involved with these … environmental plots and the leadership programs that we have,” she says.

Guillen adds that one of the biggest achievements of the organization has been to bring awareness to the cotton-top tamarins, both nationally and internationally, which also helps to build their profile with local authorities. She says the partnership with Wild Elements — through funding, a new video project, and working with their advocate, Colombian-American actress Isabella Gomez — has created the opportunity to reach new audiences, which could eventually bring in new revenue streams.

Other Wild Elements grantees include projects to protect endangered zebras in Kenya, conserve seagrass meadows in Australia, evaluate the potential health effects of mining on medicinal plants in the Indigenous Navajo nation in the US, and promote elephant conservation in Mozambique.

The broader context

Wild Elements is also connecting and providing grants to broader women’s environmental initiatives such as the Women’s Earth Alliance and Daughters for Earth. The Women’s Earth Alliance has partnered with 250 women’s environmental and entrepreneurship projects in 24 countries by providing more than 12,600 women with technical, entrepreneurial and leadership skills. Daughters for Earth, newly launched in March, has ambitious aims to raise $100 million to support of women-led efforts to protect and restore the environment.

“We need to be able to find leadership models that are more inclusive,” says Colleen Begg, co-founder of Women for the Environment Africa, or WE Africa. “This is even more important now in conservation, which is becoming increasingly militarised … We risk making enemies out of the very people that could help us protect this biodiversity and are the custodians of these wild places.”

Begg says leadership in African conservation is still dominated white men, especially foreigners, so since it was launched in 2021, WE Africa has run a yearlong leadership program for 40 women environmental leaders across 17 countries.

“Particularly in Africa, many of the women in conservation are still deeply connected to their communities and to the land,” Begg says. “They have an understanding and compassion for being a woman around and in protected areas, and they are able to include their voices in decision-making and policy decisions.”

But not all groups are able to promote the women leaders they work with.

Amalia Souza, founder and strategic development director of Brazilian NGO Fundo Casa Socioambiental, tells Mongabay that it’s also important to support environmentalists who may not be able to share their efforts publicly as their lives may be in danger for actively pursuing environmental justice work. This is the reality for many women environmental leaders in Latin America.

“We work on the invisible level,” Souza says, adding that Fundo Casa Socioambiental acts as a bridge for big funders to channel funding to smaller grassroots organizations in South America, as well as to help them build capacity to receive and manage their own funding.

Since it was founded in 2005, Fundo Casa Socioambiental, which received funds from MacKenzie Scott’s latest round of donations, has provided more than 4,000 grants in 10 countries. At least 55 per cent were to projects led by women.

“We have improved a lot how we better understand the role of women in conservation,” Souza says. “The more people are organised and … know how to reach things together collectively, the stronger they are.”

Fundo Casa Socioambiental also forms part of the Global Alliance for Green and Gender Action (GAGGA), which in 2021 received approximately $41 million for five years from the Dutch government. Almost seventy per cent of this will go to providing flexible financial support to 24 funds, 28 NGOs and 390 grassroots groups and social movements for women’s rights and environmental justice around the world.

Maite Smet, coordinator for GAGGA, tells Mongabay that the organizations and movements they support— mostly led by women, girls, trans, non-binary, intersex people — are communities that have been historically excluded. She said this was particularly the case for youth in Indigenous and rural communities.

“For us the issue of climate is not something separate, it is within the environmental justice struggle,” Smet says. “What we are seeing with the climate crisis now is a consequence of environmental injustices that we have seen historically.”

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