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Into the Fourth Dimension: Funding with a ‘discourses’ lens in mind

By Jon Cracknell and Harriet Williams, The Hour is Late, 8th July 2021

Following are notes from Jon Cracknell and Harriet Williams’ presentation at the EFN Retreat for funders in May 2021. Thanks to Jon and Harriet for giving the talk and letting us publish the notes here. 

When thinking about how to focus their environmental giving, funders often think about three dimensions of work they can support: the thematic issue addressed (climate, biodiversity, agriculture, toxics, etc), the approach used (litigation, academic research, environmental education, etc.) and the location or geography of the work. Jon and Harriet presented on a fourth dimension, which they classified as values, or discourses. They argued that funders, consciously or unconsciously, tend to inhabit these discourses, which bound the limits of their giving.

They described seven such discourses, which run the gamut from ‘conserving’ the environment to ‘changing’ the world more broadly. As you move through the discourses and along the spectrum, an understanding of success — what a ‘win’ looks like — differs. Concerns about justice, rights, inequality, economic growth, and the way in which democracy is practiced become more and more important as you move through the discourses.

The seven discourses are:


  • Practical conservation —preserving species and habitats in situ
  • Market transformation — market-based alternatives to government regulation, with an emphasis on technology and environmental education
  • State-led regulation — using policy and legislation to set signals for the market (concepts like polluter pays)


  • Deeper systems change — looking for deeper social and political change, e.g. in the ways we build; grow and eat food; and move around
  • One planet, fair shares — concerns about economic growth central, as are concerns about inequality, intergenerational equity, well-being
  • Environmental justice — concerned with, e.g., environmental racism (‘fence-line’ communities bearing the brunt of pollution), indigenous rights
  • Revolutionary — focused on systems change, involves networks of activists and global protest communities; very clear on their critique of the status quo, if not always clear on the alternatives they’re pushing for

Tensions often arise when different group are working on the same thematic issue (e.g. climate change) but coming from very different discourses. But we rarely talk about or acknowledge these discourses — so those tensions cannot be resolved.

Jon and Harriet conducted a polling exercise with the funders present, first asking which of the seven discourses they most identified with, and then asking which discourses their grants were most aligned with. Participants were asked to select one or two discourses in each case.

The results indicated that the discourses that the funders present most identified with personally were ‘deeper systems change’, ‘environmental justice’ and ‘one planet, fair shares’.

Deeper systems change: 50%
Environmental justice: 48%
One planet, fair shares: 33%
Revolutionary: 22%
Practical conservation: 15%
Market transformation: 15%
State led regulation: 11%

Their grantmaking, however, favoured practical conservation:

Practical conservation: 53%
Deeper systems change: 47%
Environmental justice: 39%
State-led regulation: 21%
One planet, fair shares: 13%
Market transformation: 8%
Revolutionary: 5%

In addition, Jon and Harriet had analysed the grants from 110 European foundations giving out significant funding to environmental causes in 2018. They found that 72.6% of grants went to the mainstream discourses, and 27.4% to the radical discourses, with just 0.5% supporting environmental justice and 0.2% towards work in the revolutionary discourse.

They asked us to consider why, as a group, we had collectively identified with the environmental justice discourse, but our funding patterns did not reflect this.

Jon Cracknell and Harriet Williams are the co-founders of The Hour is Late, a philanthropic consultancy focused on protecting the environment and righting injustice. Jon co-founded EFN, and Harriet serves on our board. They both have led and supported the grantmaking of the Goldsmith family for many years.

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