Why the environment needs builder philanthropy

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As donors, we support nonprofits for different reasons. Sometimes we’re compelled by emotion, such as our love for a particular place, our sadness upon learning that a species has become extinct, or our fear about the future for a warming planet. Sometimes we’re motivated by more practical pressures, such as an obligation to a friend or colleague, or our desire for a tax deduction. And sometimes we’re simply responsive - to a disaster, to a compelling ad, to an article we read or conversation we have. These and many other factors are our varied motivations to give.

How we actually allocate our support is another filter on philanthropy that is perhaps less obvious. Cue the ancient wisdom: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” This actually provides an excellent metaphor for the two main categories describing how donors give: Buyers give in order to support tangible, specific projects - they buy the fish. Builders give in order to support work that creates new systems for addressing issues for the long term - they ensure that there will be knowledgeable fishermen and plenty of fish for the long term. Both types of giving are necessary, but sometimes the immediacy of the tangible need trumps the importance of building capacity for longer-term positive impact.

Given the nature of our varied motivations to give - emotional, practical, responsive - we’re generally more inclined to be buyers, even if we might know or feel that the larger context needs investment.  This kind of giving can feel more connected to direct impact, more tied to an immediate need and its associated solution.

It’s a bit harder to translate our immediate motivations into a commitment to support work that strengthens a broader system that endures over time. It’s harder to step into builder giving. But, it couldn’t be more important.

Albert Einstein said that “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” Likewise, unless we create new approaches, tools, and systems for driving change, we’ll continue to need to “buy” tangible solutions for recurring problems.

This is particularly true for the environmental field in which the issues are broad and interconnected - literally ecosystems - and where impact may be difficult to show in a short time frame. In this context, the field doesn’t have enough philanthropy of either type, buyers or builders - in the U.S. only 3% of total philanthropy is directed to environmental nonprofits. Thus builder donors are absolutely critical to growing a system that deploys significantly more philanthropic investment for our planet.

So let’s circle back to where we started, the many motivations for giving. What we find is that builders are a rare and unique type of donor. They are systems thinkers and often have a specific perspective of how to create durable change in the world. In some ways, giving as a builder emerges as the most powerful and lasting way to act in response to the emotional or practical tug you may feel as a donor.

Imagine this: your heart lurches when you learn that the last of three White Rhinos has died (or that the largest ocean trash raft has reached an estimated 600,000 square miles...or, unfortunately, this list goes on). Our wonderful, very human desire is to give directly to that issue, to give as buyers addressing the urgent need. This is a really important thing to do. But we can also consider how to invest in building a larger ecosystem of activism and support that can not only engage more people in strategically addressing these critical issues but also ultimately change the story so that our children or children’s children may get to feel their heart lurch with joy in response to more positive stories that their parents and grandparents invested to create.

The amazing donors who give directly to 1% for the Planet are builders extraordinaire. They are supporting our work to build a global network that is not only increasing environmental giving, but also educating the network about becoming more strategic and effective with their giving. Our donors get to experience the power of knowing that each dollar they give to us not only results in at least $10 given to strong environmental nonprofits, and also enables us to innovate, grow, and improve the systems we are building to strengthen environmental philanthropy for the long term.

Katherine Williams