Rich Carey/shutterstock
Rich Carey/shutterstock

As the pandemic underscores global interdependence, many fundraisers are focusing on another set of crucial connections: those drawn by oceans and waterways. With one foot on land and one in water, organizations in this field have worked with funders to frame oceans and waterways as solutions to a growing climate crisis, to center social and economic dimensions of water preservation, and to collaborate in the fight for healthier waters and communities. Even in turbulent times, fundraisers report that support for oceans and freshwater work has held steady—although it still falls short of what’s needed to secure the health of our planet.

As in other fields, ocean and freshwater fundraisers have confronted pandemic uncertainty by drawing on longstanding funding relationships. “There has been an effort [from funders] to be even more of a partner to us through a time of instability,” said Laure Katz, vice president for Blue Nature at Conservation International’s Center for Oceans. “I’ve seen an increase in engagement, in flexibility, and understanding of significant shifts in priorities to deal with a crisis.”

Even with slight dips in individual and event giving, long-term relationships with trusted foundation partners have helped oceans and freshwater nonprofits continue their work. “They’re going to stick with us no matter what,” said Farrah Smith, director of major gifts at Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. “They have stuck with us no matter what.”

COVID-19 has created fundraising opportunities, too, with several organizations taking greater advantage of virtual tools. American Rivers, for example, has hosted more frequent webinars during the pandemic—with great success. In fact, according to Amy Souers Kober, the organization’s vice president of communications, a virtual launch event in April was so successful that American Rivers plans to continue virtual hosting even past pandemic restrictions.

Sea Shepherd, meanwhile, has benefited from pandemic TV-watching habits. In March 2021, it featured in “Seaspiracy,” a Netflix documentary highlighting its work against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing worldwide. Programs like these, coupled with people’s desire for positive impact in difficult times, have made contributing to oceans “a family affair,” Smith said.

Freshwater causes have also been resurgent during the pandemic, albeit for different reasons. According to Souers Kober, lockdowns and the economic downturn have catapulted water access into the national conversation. “We were told to stay at home,” she said. “Well, a lot of people don’t have clean, safe, affordable running water in their homes. With the economic crash, a lot of people were in danger of having their water shut off.”

But even for those with access to clean drinking water, “the only safe place to see friends was outside, and so having a natural space—a clean stream or river, access to that—was this incredible benefit,” Souers Kober said. For American Rivers, recent giving has reflected this growth in freshwater prominence nationwide.

A changing climate

Another source of urgency around these issues has been building for much longer than the pandemic: climate change and its vital relationship with ocean and freshwater health. “There is an increased focus on climate, and a starting understanding of the role that oceans play in regulating it,” Katz said. Freshwater fundraisers agree, but getting funders to recognize this connection, especially as climate funding increases, can be an uphill battle. “We took for granted that everyone was making that connection,” Smith said. “Now we’re realizing, wow, we actually have to get out there and explain this better.”

Oceans and freshwater fundraisers have sought to highlight two central ways that their work can confront climate challenges: adaptation and mitigation. For freshwater, “on the adaptation side, we’re often talking about floods and droughts, which are related to water and freshwater systems,” said Robin Abell, Conservation International’s freshwater lead. But according to Souers Kober, changing rivers aren’t just a source of climate stress—they can offer climate solutions. In the face of existential climate threats, she said, “I would love for funders to see… that rivers on every level—healthy, free-flowing rivers—really are sources of strength and hope and opportunity.”

When it comes to oceans’ role in climate change, fundraisers note a similarly two-pronged focus on adaptation and mitigation—and a similar funding gap. For Paul Houseman, international fundraising director at the Marine Stewardship Council, adaptation involves contending with changing ocean ecosystems. “As resources become scarce, as nations need to feed themselves, as fish start to move because of climate change,” said Houseman, “how do we deal with this challenge?”

While funding for adaptation challenges has grown in recent years, Houseman said he would like to see more funder interest in how oceans can contribute to reducing carbon emissions. “The fishing industry has a carbon footprint,” said Houseman, but with sustainable fishing, “catching abundant fish requires less energy. So [the question is],” he added, “how could sustainable fishing… actually help the world get to a more carbon-neutral state?”

Social and environmental

This emerging focus on climate has come alongside greater emphasis on social issues that intersect with the preservation of oceans and waterways. Increasingly, said Kathy Whelpley, chief of staff at Oceana, “nonprofits have to be able to tell the story of how foundation grants are having an impact on other issues that are interwoven” with more traditional ocean and freshwater priorities. Advocates are asking the question: What are we trying to protect? More and more, the field’s answer is including the human communities that contribute to ocean and freshwater ecosystems.

For the Marine Stewardship Council, this has meant a greater focus on “local communities, indigenous communities, female fishers and small-scale fishers,” especially in the Global South, Houseman said. “It’s no good to say that the fish we’re catching is sustainable if it’s caught by forced or child or slave labor, so the social component around fishing is becoming much more important,” he said. “Are we able to ensure that local communities have food security [and] economic development, or are the benefits of this resource extraction not staying with local communities, but going to multinational corporations?”

Oceana has seen similar emphasis placed on social issues. Its supporters, says Whelpley, have provided “smart and strategic” funding that maximizes impact on gender equity, poverty and other issues affecting ocean-reliant communities. Even beyond program implementation, Whelpley said, there has been a push to ensure nonprofit staff and planning are more inclusive and representative.

The same trend holds for freshwater nonprofits—with a more domestic focus. There is “more and more support for multi-benefit solutions that address these intersecting issues of justice, climate, economy and health,” Souers Kober said. Getting to these solutions, she added, requires “making sure that frontline communities are leading. They’re the ones feeling the burden of poor river management, of climate change, floods, droughts, pollution.” For some sectors of freshwater work, social emphasis is not new. “Access to clean water is a human right,” said Abell, “so there’s a very strong equity piece built into this discussion.”

Philanthropy “can be a catalyst, can be a first mover, can set the tone of support,” said Katz of Conservation International. And funders have long pushed oceans and freshwater nonprofits to embrace interwoven social impact as a priority. Today, she said, funders and fundraisers are reflecting “on social equity and the role of philanthropy in helping to promote that, on our responsibility in the way that we support and champion socially equitable approaches, [and] on how we approach strategy development in an inclusive way.” Houseman agreed, saying funders have adopted “a much more holistic appraisal of what it means to grant around ocean health. It’s not just species, it’s not just the environment; it’s also, how is this affecting human beings that rely on the ocean?”

Breaking down silos

As funders and nonprofits connect oceans, freshwater and human societies, organizational strategies have raced to catch up. In recent years, leaders in the field have fought to bridge divisions: between different organizations, between Global North and Global South, between types of funders, and between oceans and freshwater. “We cannot just be working in our own little silos, expecting to solve these big problems,” Souers Kober said. “You’ve got to reach out and collaborate.”

“Among the top things I’ve been hearing [from funders] is, we want to fund something where you’re working with other NGOs, because the more people that are working on an issue the better,” Smith said. Funders have led on this, building funding collaboratives like Ocean’s 5 and the Blue Nature Alliance (of which Conservation International is a founding member) to maximize impact. According to Whelpley, these collaboratives help donors and practitioners learn together—shared learning that is especially important as oceans and freshwater nonprofits increasingly focus on intertwined social issues like gender equity.

The need for collaboration isn’t just national—it’s global. Freshwater advocates are shifting away from local approaches to rivers in favor of national or international strategies. Still, says Abell, “there are very few foundations that fund international freshwater ecosystem conservation.”

Oceans have a similar gap, though the disparity there is between Global North and Global South. “The vast majority of ocean philanthropy is going to either North America or global initiatives focused in the northern hemisphere,” Katz said. “The Pacific Ocean is larger than all land masses on the planet on its own, and it’s receiving less than 1% of ocean philanthropy.” This discrepancy appears in funding sources, too. According to Whelpley, it’s time to engage more funders outside the U.S. and Europe, funders who could not only extend support, but also offer much-needed perspective.

As the scope of oceans and freshwater work expands, the field has increasingly welcomed corporate funders. “There is definitely a growing interest in the blue economy and the economic opportunities that oceans present,” Katz said, citing renewed attention from corporations and investment capital. Katz’s colleague Abell pointed out that on the freshwater side, some corporate giving by consumer-facing companies is spurred in part by potential “reputational water risk.” Both large and small companies want to invest in sustainability, Souers Kober said.

Governments have felt the pressure too, generating “a significant increase in multilateral and bilateral aid for oceans,” Katz said. But even where government funding is scarce, political will is an asset. Smith highlighted how Sea Shepherd often partners with governments with stretched economic resources. Meanwhile, collaboratives like Blue Nature Alliance match political will with philanthropic backing. Fundraisers emphasize that this is especially important to facilitate work in politically repressive contexts. For oceans and freshwater organizations, government support, both financial and political, is crucially important—and still short of levels needed to ensure global ocean and freshwater health.

But nothing encapsulates the field’s desire to break down silos more than emerging approaches that look beyond ocean/freshwater dichotomies. “What we would love to see,” Abell said, “is more of the ‘source-to-sea’ or ‘ridge-to-reef’ approach that goes from the mountains down to the ocean and recognizes those natural connections.” These connections, which are of increasing interest to multilateral funders like the Global Environment Facility, could transform the field. “Maybe it will increase the competitive tension between ocean and freshwater conservationists,” Katz said, “but maybe it will encourage us to work more together around those integrated systems.”

Sustainable organizations, sustainable water

Fundraisers in oceans and freshwater are heartened to see steady growth in giving. But they also emphasize that to maintain successes, more funding needs to go toward monitoring and maintenance, including regular operations like plastics removal and habitat protection. After celebrating new protected areas, Katz said, “the next phase is the hard work of actually building management—equitable, effective, durable management systems that are going to last. And that work has far fewer funders.” On the freshwater side, Souers Kober agreed. “What we’d like to see funders do more of is commit for the long term,” she said. “These big projects, sometimes they take decades.”

Some funders have responded to this call, prioritizing long-term impact and even shifting to increased unrestricted funding. Fundraisers say they would like more of that. “We’re one of those groups that sticks with it for the long term, but we just need to be persistent and have that ongoing support,” Souers Kober said.

Long-term funding doesn’t just ensure sustainability for oceans and freshwater projects; it also offers growth opportunities for the field. Smith, for example, touts Sea Shepherd’s expanding partnerships with governments on monitoring protected areas, and Houseman emphasizes that digital tools and traceability can strengthen ocean monitoring and maintenance.

Support for oceans and freshwater has been steadily growing as funders emphasize climate change, the social dimensions of water ecosystems and collaboration. But what fundraisers most resoundingly agree upon is that funding is far short of where it should be, especially given water systems’ centrality to life on our planet. “Oceans cover 70% of the earth’s surface,” Katz said. “They provide 50% or more of every breath of oxygen… But the proportion of even environmental funding that is going toward oceans is less than 10%.”

Other fundraisers echo Katz’s lament, highlighting the urgency of increased funding in the face of global challenges like climate change. “Water is life,” Souers Kober said, echoing 2016’s Standing Rock protests. “It’s a fundamental need for our environment and for justice and for our future. And so we need to elevate [it].” Any failure to do so, oceans and freshwater fundraisers warn, is at our own risk—and that of all life on our blue planet.