Eight Leading Foundations Working to Keep Forests Green, Water Pure and Farms Fertile

FArm in western colorado. JCA Images/shutterstock

Earlier this week, I put together a list of billionaires who are among the biggest backers of U.S. efforts to keep our forests standing, our air and water clean, and our crops growing. But they are not alone at the top.

Many venerable foundations have prioritized grantees working on the issues of conservation, pollution and agriculture. I’ve rounded up the institutions that are among the leading funders of related projects based on an IP analysis of Candid data for a soon-to-be released paper on this corner of philanthropic grantmaking.

This list includes some of the nation’s top climate funders, but otherwise focuses on several foundations better known for goals like saving America’s forests, keeping its water clean, or supporting its farmers. Such work is overlapping, even inextricable, with climate action. Yet these distinctions reflect traditional segments of philanthropy — and often reflect identities these grantmakers have historically embraced, even as our distinctions become increasingly blurred.

At a time when major philanthropy is increasingly concentrated on the coasts, this list also shows the enduring role of wealth generated in some of the country’s former centers of power. Yes, the three biggest players are based in Silicon Valley, and there’s another in New York City, but the other half are spread across the Midwest or the industrial centers of the Northeast. 

Without further ado, here are eight of the biggest legacy funders of conservation, pollution and agriculture in descending order based on how much they granted on those issues in the United States between 2014 and 2018.

Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

While many of this $8.4 billion-plus grantmaker’s awards go abroad, such as for its signature Andes-Amazon initiative, it still ranks as the top funder in this area, based on Candid data. For instance, it supports watersheds in the Northwest that are critical for wild salmon. Its Markets and Conservation initiative also sends big checks to U.S.-based green groups, such as World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy, for related projects.

David and Lucile Packard Foundation

About half of this Los Altos, California-based grantmaker’s priorities are environmental, with a specific commitment to conserving the American West. It also supports smallholder farmers, but only abroad. The $9-billion-plus foundation has a particular interest in conservation in the Golden State, though it has leveraged grants and program-related investments to preserve land across the North American West. 

William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

Headquartered in Menlo Park, California, this grantmaker is perhaps best known among green grantmakers as one of the nation’s leading climate funders. But like Packard, its environmental portfolio also focuses on Western conservation. Thanks to its $13.3-billion-plus endowment, it is among the top 50 funders when it comes to any number of priorities, but toward the very top among conservation, pollution and water funders. For instance, it has funded past projects to remove dams, as we’ve previously covered. Its current goal is to conserve 320 million acres of public land in the North American West by 2035 — and ensure safe migratory routes for key species.

Richard King Mellon Foundation

Unlike most of the grantmakers on the list, this Pittsburg, Pennsylvania-based institution funds in virtually every segment covered in this article. Its grantmaking spans support for wildlife, sustainable agriculture, water conservation, anti-pollution measures and forest preservation. The latter is the $3.1-billion-plus foundation’s single biggest area of grantmaking, where it is outranked only by the major national funders listed above. Western Pennsylvania is a focus, but it sends money nationally. Grantees include groups like the Memphis-based Ducks Unlimited and the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land. 

William Penn Foundation

This Philadelphia-based grantmaker’s green grants are laser-focused on protecting the Delaware River watershed. As you might expect, much of that money goes to groups focused on water quality, monitoring and management. But that’s not all. For instance, the $2.7-billion-plus foundation has put big money toward walking and cycling trails along the river. It also supports some equity-focused work and organizations, such as Outdoor Afro. 

Charles Stewart Mott Foundation

This $3.9 billion-plus funder sends grants around the world for environmental priorities like development finance and clean energy. Yet its presence on this particular list is almost solely due to its work on water, particularly concerning the Great Lakes and the horrible water crisis in its hometown of Flint, Michigan. It funds a wide range of fresh water work across the many states that border the lakes, including Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and New York. It also supports work to make access to clean water a reality for all communities, in Flint and beyond. Its president even co-authored an IP op-ed on the topic. 

Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies 

One of the three focus areas of this Twin Cities, Minnesota-area umbrella institution is the environment. With combined assets topping $8.2 billion, it can afford a broad approach to this portfolio. Its work spans animal welfare (including dog and cat welfare, and wildlife rehabilitation), water protection (freshwater and coastal) and habitat conservation (grasslands to tropical forests). The latter area trumps the rest, with Cargill ranked recently among the top five domestic conservation grantmakers in the U.S., based on our analysis of Candid data.

Doris Duke Charitable Foundation

Headquartered in New York City, this $2.6-billion-plus funder is widely recognized by its peers as a leading conservation funder. In recent years, it has supported projects with a more explicit climate focus, such as conservation work by the Open Society Institute focused on the Southern Cumberlands and Appalachia. The foundation also maintains a subprogram focused on its tri-state home region, and is a top 10 animal and wildlife grantmaker, according Candid data.