PROGRESSIVE PHILANTHROPY: An Oxymoron or a Strategic Vision for the Future

WORDS & IMAGES BY: Cristina Mormorunni, TERRAMAR Founder/Managing Director & shutterstock_161989352; yuris/shutterstock; ozphotoguy/shutterstock


Recently, TERRAMAR partnered with some of our long-standing colleagues around a desire to actualize a shared vision for the future of conservation philanthropy. We dreamt of a time when changing the world was done in true, deep, and lasting partnership with the communities on the ground—those who inherently stand on the razor’s edge of change. We dreamt of investments that not only led to healthy ecosystems, but also to community well-being, the protection of culture, and the advancement of human rights and social justice. Committed to turning this dream into reality we poured our dreams into a project we dubbed P3 or the Progressive Philanthropy Project, with an end goal of making a positive and lasting contribution to an evolution in grantmaking philosophy, norms, and best practices.
As a vital first step in the Project, a Concept Note was crafted to capture “the what” and make a case for the timeliness, relevance and important of P3 to our foundation colleagues. The Note offered a vision of philanthropy that embraces enduring partnership, systems-thinking, shared decision-making, and solution co-creation as crux pathways to social change. The Project Advisory Board and Core Group of Principle Investigators worked on finalizing the Concept Note for circulation and designed a phased strategy for outreach to potential philanthropic partners and for capturing and integrating the learnings from these conversations and concept critique.


It is fairly well established in the fields of conservation philanthropy and sustainable development that effective grantmaking requires not only a fluency in local ecology but also, an understanding of cultural and socio-economic drivers, and perhaps most importantly, authentic engagement with local people. This particularly is the case in indigenous landscapes and seascapes.
The strategic advantages of including local people in conservation and development initiatives are undeniable, and there is growing recognition that cultural knowledge, economic viability, and social justice are vital to realizing conservation and development goals and achieving durable impact.

Project Goals, Objectives & Expected Outcomes

The Progressive Philanthropy Project set its sights on co-creating a holistic vision for bringing forward philanthropic models that were not only more contextually relevant but also, replicable, scalable, and leverageable. In conceiving the Project, the intention was to capture and build on knowledge currently alive in the field—while simultaneously giving rise to a new and emergent collective understanding of guiding principles and grantmaking strategies capable of hastening reconciliation and ensuring the resiliency of ecological, cultural, and socio-economic systems. The Project hypothesized that this type of philanthropic engagement model would produce more congruous, effective, and durable outcomes.

The Project adopted a phased design—each subsequent phase incorporating data from the previous phase via an iterative learning strategy. The primary objective of the initial Development Phase was to identify issues and questions for discussion and create a safe space for a series of small, topical meetings or gatherings. This Gatherings Series was conceived as a strategy for bringing together funders, conservation organizations (grantees), indigenous people and organizations, and local communities to dig into the challenges alive in the field and focus on inspiring engagement in deep dialogue, shared learning, and collaborative action.

A set of meta-level questions were developed to guide these early exploratory conversations. Questions like:

  • How can the effectiveness of philanthropic projects in biologically and culturally rich systems be maximized?
  • How can enduring partnerships between philanthropy, conservation and development, and indigenous people be realized?
  • How can blind spots be mitigated so unintended consequences, such as the disempowerment of local stewards or the destabilization of community initiatives and/or institutions, are avoided?

Based on the content of these conversations, it was envisioned that the P3 Team would develop and curate several core products: a series of briefing papers or “thinking papers;” best practices and case studies; relational collaborative networks; web-based tools were envisioned.

WHAT’S NEXT?: Project Conclusions

From the onset, there was a great deal of interest in the Progressive Philanthropy Project from our colleagues in the philanthropic community. All the individuals who reviewed the paper and agreed to an interview expressed the view that the Project was critically important, posing difficult but urgent questions. Several deeper insights about the potential of philanthropy to drive social change emerged, as well as about its inherent limitations.

Although our study was limited in scope, it supports the Project’s inceptive hypothesis that the foundation community holds significant interest in exploring the interstitial spaces between conservation and culture, between grantmaking and diversity, equity and inclusivity, between indigenous people’s interests and strategies and those of NGOs. And not only is there interest, but there is a deep desire for honest, open dialogue about these integral issues and recognition of the need to dissect challenges and collaborate on solutions in free from judgement and finger-pointing.

P3 also supported our assumption that biocultural or rights-based frames are not currently prevalent in philanthropy. A very small number of foundations actively are supporting indigenous approaches to conservation or development, or are investing in advancing sovereignty or indigenous rights. An even smaller number of foundations fund indigenous people or organizations directly. And finally, we did not find a single organization explicitly relying on formal ethical guidance, such as a co-created code of ethics or memorandum of understanding, to guide their grantmaking and/or engagement with indigenous people.

These findings point to significant gaps in the field and illuminate critical next steps. Despite the interest in and support for the Progressive Philanthropy Project and its message, only one foundation—the Oak Foundation—stepped forward with concrete financial support. Our hypotheses are preliminary and a better understanding of the ‘whys’ is warranted. Nonetheless, we firmly believe in the validity of the originally proposed “Gathering” framework. Only through creating a space where funders, NGOs, and indigenous/local communities can explore the nature of their relationship and respectfully share lessons, best practices, and learn from their successes and mistakes can we move the field of conservation philanthropy forward. Catalytic leadership within the philanthropic community is needed to get this type of project successfully off the ground. Without leadership, we do not feel the conversations will advance or more importantly, gain momentum.

For a project like P3 to move to the next phase of its development, foundation leadership and investment is needed to create a gravitational pull strong enough to overcome the realities of overcommitted calendars, competing demands, hazy relevance, hard conversations, and even harder solutions.

For a Summary Paper detailing P3’s initial phase of work, please click here.