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Environmental Funders Network annual retreat 2017

This piece was first published by the Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF) in Trust & Foundation News (April, 2017)

Each year EFN hosts a two-day retreat for funders to discuss the most pressing issues concerning those involved in tackling the myriad of challenges facing the environment. ACF’s Emma Hutchins reports back.

This year the annual retreat of the Environmental Funders Network promised something for everyone – collaboration, investments, energy, Brexit, and botanic gardens all appeared across the two-day programme. Through two plenary sessions and six break-outs, along with presentations on EFN’s recent work, there was plenty of scope to unearth the challenges facing the sector and to find opportunities and inspiration among peers.

Difficult questions

Diverse speakers did not shy away from challenging the current trends and paradigms of environmental funding. Laura Sandys, former Conservative MP, talked about banishing the stigma attached to being ‘green’, arguing that it is perpetuated by technocratic tendencies within the sector. Laura shared her experience of being a right-wing environmentalist, prompting discussion of the sector’s relationship with party politics and the left/right spectrum.

Testing questions seeped into the break-out sessions too. Frank discussion covered many issues foundations face when pursuing an ethical investment strategy, such as mixed attitudes on trustee boards and a lack of ethical opportunities in the investment market. The session, led by Matthias Fiedler, Director of Bewegungsstiftung, highlighted the differences between investing ethically in Germany, where there are many opportunities to invest in transparent German-owned companies, and the UK, where the market is dominated by multinationals whose practices cannot be so easily tracked. Considering the difference, Matthias asked why foundations can find time to monitor those spending their money, but not the companies making it for them.

EFN’s two research reports revealed interesting findings for funders and led to some contemplation about whether foundations are using their resources to their full potential. Attendees were given a sneak preview of the reports by Florence Miller, Jon Cracknell and Phil Murray, due to be released later this spring, and the results painted a telling picture of what the sector needs to become more effective. Small group discussions allowed funders to ponder the reasons why these issues may not have been addressed, and how that could be rectified in future.

Branching out

Working across sectors was a topic of great interest in conversations throughout the retreat. Discussion centred on the persistence of funding in silos, despite the environment underpinning a number of other issues foundations tackle, such as health, migration and development. EFN’s programme offered several opportunities to start bridging those gaps.

Prompting a lively debate, Jeremy Leggett, Chief Executive of SolarAid and Chair of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, delivered a presentation on the battle against despotism across issues such as climate, inequality, and conflict. Having painted a bleak picture of the battle being largely lost, Jeremy made a bold challenge to funders to coordinate their actions and to “throw the endowment into the fight”; a message that did not go unchallenged. Nonetheless the question remains: in the face of wide-ranging and complex issues like energy and technology, to what extent can foundations leverage all of their resources in service of making a meaningful difference?

With an explicit focus on cross-sector work, another break-out session led by the Global Greengrants Fund looked at how to use collaboration to maximise impact. The intricacies of working in this way proved complex and challenging. How do we manage cross-sector collaboration internally? With which sectors can we successfully collaborate? How do we find the right collaborators in unfamiliar sectors? This opportunity to share experiences enabled an inspiring and thought-provoking exchange, and itself provided an example of finding solutions through collaboration.

Moving forward

In a sector where conservation and preservation are key themes, where risk appetite is always a factor, and where it can be hard to make bold moves, sharing knowledge has a vital role to play. EFN’s two forthcoming reports – Where the Green Grants Went 7, tracking grants made in the environmental sector, and the results of EFN’s pulse-taking survey of environmental groups’ chief executives – will be useful resources in facilitating such learning. But based on the provisional findings shared with attendees and on how valuable the conversations were, discussions will continue to challenge and inspire environmental funders.

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