Rich Carey/shutterstock
Rich Carey/shutterstock

Over the past decade, global philanthropic giving to marine conservation issues doubled, jumping from $520 million per year in 2010 to $1.2 billion in 2020, according to the new “Our Shared Seas” report by CEA Consulting.

While that’s an encouraging trend, the investment is still, well, a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed to stave off climate change, restore ocean health, and protect the economic livelihood of a sizable portion of the planet.

Marine conservation funding levels lag on two fronts. First, one widely cited report puts the global biodiversity conservation need at roughly $600 billion to $800 billion per year, far beyond the $1 billion per year philanthropic organizations currently contribute to the cause. Second, these marine conservation funding levels are a small portion of U.S. philanthropic giving.

“Marine conservation is still a teeny, teeny segment of philanthropy,” Meg Caldwell of the Packard Foundation, which funded the “Our Shared Seas” report, along with marine grantmaker Oceankind. Packard—the prominent West Coast funder that supports science, the environment, reproductive health and other causes—led philanthropic organizations in marine conservation giving over the past decade.

In 2019, all U.S. charitable donations totaled $450 billion. Environmental and animal-related causes received roughly $14 billion or 3% of these funds, while only about 7% ($1 billion) went to ocean-related causes, according to the report. By comparison, single gifts to universities approach this level. In 2017, a funder gave $500 million to the University of California San Francisco, and more recently, Northwestern University received a $480 million gift. The ocean covers 71% of the planet.

“To have doubled the amount of resources going into ocean work is really a tremendous, exciting feat that I expect to continue,” Caldwell said, “despite the fact that it’s still not enough.”

The increased giving appears to be driven by boosted contributions from mainstays like Packard and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Japan’s Nippon Foundation, and the U.K.’s Novamedia/Postcode Lotteries foundation, as well as an influx of new donors, including Bloomberg Philanthropies, Bezos Earth Fund, and Benioff Ocean Initiative. Caldwell said the entrance of new philanthropic organizations is an especially “strong signal” that foundations find oceans to be an important area of work.

J. Charles Fox of the funder collaborative Oceans 5 also welcomed the new entrants but said “surprisingly few” donors participate in marine conservation. The ocean’s vast size and increased stressors due to climate change mean much work remains. “The nature of the challenge is only growing,” Fox said. “We could use more players, and their money could be spent wisely.”

According to “Our Shared Seas,” global philanthropy rivaled developmental (government) aid as a top source of ocean funding, with both sources contributing at roughly the same levels. For example, in 2019, all funding sources tracked totaled $3.1 billion, with development aid contributing $991 million, philanthropy at $978 million, NGOs (non-foundations) at $939 million, and private finance providing $212 million.

While total aid levels over the decade were similar, philanthropy and governments directed their funding to different parts of the world. Philanthropy prioritized marine initiatives that targeted global efforts and North American causes, while development aid targeted Africa and Asia. Between 2010 and 2019, philanthropy gave $2.6 billion (35%) to global marine initiatives, $2.2 billion (30%) to North American recipients, and just $157 million (2%) to African initiatives. Developmental aid went primarily to ocean causes in Africa at $2.4 billion (33%), Asia at $1.8 billion (25%), and North America at $417 million (6%).

Who’s getting funding?

Over the past 10 years, philanthropic funders primarily targeted marine science recipients ($1.84 billion), protected areas and habitats ($1.35 billion), pollution and industrial stressor issues ($1.34 billion), fisheries ($1 billion), and provided core support ($830 million). Household names in conservation dominated the list of top organizational recipients, including Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, World Wildlife Fund, Oceana, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund.

Notably, funding toward ocean-climate issues increased, emerging as a grantmaking area and growing annually from $3.6 million in 2010 to almost $50 million in 2020. Emily Peterson, CEA Consulting director and editor of the report, believes the ocean-climate giving trend is significant, helping address the threat that climate change poses to the ocean and positioning the ocean as a source of climate solutions.

“Still, many strategies within the ocean-climate sector—such as expanding offshore wind and advancing shipping decarbonization—are underfunded relative to their mitigation potential,” Peterson said.

Takeaways for grantseekers

For grantseekers, the “Our Shared Seas” report holds two primary benefits. First, the report’s data and insights put every grantseeker—large or small—at the same information table with funders.

“We get so much from being able to look and talk about the same data, understanding how each other sees it, and cross-pollinating,” Caldwell said, noting that the Packard Foundation is always looking for ways to help their grantees connect with funding sources. “To equip them with information that is on par with what we know is really important. I have pointed many grantees to this report as a starting point.”

For years, a primary challenge for ocean-focused philanthropists and nonprofits had been grasping and managing the sheer size of the ocean’s footprint, needs and economics. Grantseekers and funders alike struggled to identify needs and opportunities, track funding, and measure success. This lack of reliable ocean data is what motivated the Packard Foundation to support the development of the report, which has undergone several iterations since 2017. The latest version features the decade-long analysis and incorporates more European funding sources, among other additions.

Aggregating ocean funding data requires intensive data collection, cleaning and analysis. While the new report’s data is not comprehensive, it’s now commonly considered the field’s primary resource on the topic and will be updated every two years. “There are many funding data sets out there, but the ‘go to’ is ‘Our Shared Seas,’” Fox said.

Second, the report means that grantseekers can gain substantial insights into who is funding what, which Fox advises they study carefully. He said there are approximately 40 to 50 potential philanthropic organizations funding ocean issues, and of those, 15 to 20 dominate. “Each of them only funds certain things,” Fox said. “The value of the report is it can help grantseekers discern which funders support their requests and what’s the best match for them.”

The full “Our Shared Seas” report is available online. The next update is anticipated in 2023. Below are some additional key findings:

Top 10 Ocean Funders, 2010–2020

  1. David and Lucile Packard Foundation
  2. Nippon Foundation
  3. Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation
  4. Walton Family Foundation
  5. Novamedia/Postcode Lotteries
  6. Marisla Foundation
  7. Simons Foundation
  8. Oak Foundation
  9. MAVA Foundation
  10. Dalio Philanthropies

Notable Entrances of New Ocean Funders since 2010 (incomplete list)

  • Bloomberg Philanthropies
  • Blue Nature Alliance
  • Bezos Earth Fund
  • Builders Initiative (Lukas T. Walton)
  • Emerson Collective (the philanthropy of Laurene Powell Jobs)
  • Monarch Foundation
  • National Philanthropic Trust (a donor-advised fund sponsor)
  • Quadrivium Foundation (James and Kathryn Murdoch)

Notable Exits of Ocean Funders since 2010 (incomplete list)

  • Helmsley Charitable Trust
  • Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation
  • MacArthur Foundation
  • MAVA Foundation (expected in 2022)
  • Rockefeller Foundation
  • S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation (spend down, closed 2020)