Ashley Enrici recently joined the faculty of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy in a new role dedicated to examining issues at the intersection of the environment and philanthropy.
She’ll teach and study the roles philanthropy has played — and the roles it could play — in addressing environmental challenges. Enrici, the inaugural McKinney Family Fellow of Environmental Resilience and Philanthropy at the school, recently spoke with the Chronicle about her research on what happens when foundations exit from conservation work, how funders are plugging into the environmental-justice movement, and why more scholarship about environmental giving is so important. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your academic background. How did you come to study environmental philanthropy?
I knew I wanted to study anthropology from a really young age when I did a career report and interviewed an anthropologist at the Field Museum in Chicago.
I studied anthropology in undergrad. I went on to grad school for applied environmental anthropology. After that, I went on to do my Ph.D. in geographical sciences.
I spent several years living in Indonesia studying the Radar for Detecting Deforestation program for global forest management and improvement of the way we manage forests to help mitigate deforestation’s contribution to climate change. We looked at how a big donor — the Norwegian government — was affecting forest governance in Indonesia through a promise of $1 billion to meet certain goals for changing the way they manage their forests.
I’ve always been pretty passionate about the natural world and spending time outside and in the ocean and forests. One of the overarching themes with all my work is how humans interact with the natural world.
Your postdoc research has focused on philanthropic foundations and marine conversation. Can you tell me about that?
My focus shifted to specifically looking at philanthropic donors because there’s a huge vacuum in terms of our understanding of how philanthropic foundations affect the way that humans interact with the environment.
For the last four years, I’ve been working with a team from Colorado State University and Duke to take a look at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s legacy. The foundation supported marine-conservation governance in the Pacific for 20 years, and they were exiting.
It’s a five-year project, and I’m continuing on in my role as part of the research team. We’re using collaborative methods of knowledge co-production, so we’re involving the people we’re doing research on — marine-conservation practitioners and the donors themselves — into the research process. In 2018, we visited Fiji and Pulau and talked to around 80 marine-conservation practitioners there. We also talked to 22 donors working in marine conservation. And we asked all these people, what should our research questions be?
We were able to categorize people’s answers into four major questions. The first one is what are the roles of philanthropic foundations in marine conservation? We all know that foundations give financial support to different types of environmental governance and conservation. But what else do they do? Do they act as thought partners? How do they affect the conservation agenda? Do they spark innovation? How do they affect conservation networks? There’s all sorts of important questions about what else they’re doing besides just giving money.
The second question is about exits. Donors might change the issues that they’re focusing on; they might change who or where they’re funding. When those exits happen, how can donors do that in a way that’s responsible?
The third question is what are the legacies of philanthropic foundations after an exit? In this case, we’re doing a case study on the Packard Foundation in Fiji and Pulau.
Over 20 years, the Packard Foundation was funding all sorts of initiatives — capacity building, marine protected areas, fisheries. But they’re not funding them anymore, so what’s happened to those initiatives? Are they still going as they were, or have they ended? Have they evolved? Why? Are there particular conditions that affect those outcomes? Can we see that because of longevity of the donor’s funding or government support or how well the initiative was aligned with the local context? How do those combinations of factors contribute to whether the initiative ended or evolved or continued?
And the fourth question, which is really important because it crosscuts all the previous questions, are issues of legitimacy and justice. So what are the legitimate and just ways that these donors can interact with practitioners of conservation and the grantee communities where they’re giving?
Will most of your research going forward look at institutional funders as opposed to how individual donors are supporting environmental nonprofits?
My focus is definitely on private foundations. Environmental NGOs such as World Wildlife Foundation or the Wildlife Conservation Society or Conservation International or the Nature Conservancy — organizations that might receive contributions from individual donors — are part of that work. But, really, my focus is more on private foundations.
Environmental philanthropy is really understudied. There’s almost been this blank spot.
Part of the reason is because we’re in a moment of great need. There’s all these anthropogenic environmental stressors. We are facing a really critical moment with climate change and how humans care for the natural world. And these private foundations are in a really unique position to make a difference. They’re incredibly autonomous. They have the potential to be really flexible in the way they approach their giving. Based on how they decide to focus their funds, they have opportunities to make a huge impact. They also, of course, face different types of accountability than other organizations.
Are there other scholars of this area that you see as peers?
Aside from a few exceptions, this is a brand new field of study, especially when it comes to marine conservation. In general, environmental philanthropy is really understudied. There’s almost been this blank spot when it comes to this kind of scholarship. Drawing attention to environmental philanthropy in general through not just research but also teaching is really important.
Giving to environmental and animal charities has been growing for at least six years, according to “Giving USA.” Do you expect that growth to continue?
People are really becoming more aware of these issues. You can see it day to day, year to year in the weather, in the way that your garden blooms from one year to the other, the types of insects and birds that we see outside. The changes are very tangible, and people are able to see that. From what I know about the donor community, they seem to be aware of where needs are, and sometimes there are blind spots. But the environment is certainly coming to the forefront of everyone’s mind as we face the great challenge of climate change and all the other stressors that the environment is facing these days. So I certainly hope so, and I do think so as well.
We recently published an opinion article that argued funders should consider climate change in all their grant making, the same way that many have applied a racial-equity or gender lens to their grant making. What do you think of that argument?
That’s a really interesting idea. It’s really important for donors to be aware of the needs of those they’re giving to and of the context in which they are giving. There’s an important link between justice and climate and accessibility to resources and safety and who’s polluting and who’s feeling the effects of that.
It’s sort of a two-sided coin because we should be thinking about climate all the time. But maybe in order for a community to be able to protect their forest, they need to have food security first. So if a donor says, I’m not going to fund this unless you talk about X, Y, and Z in the grant application, that might preclude somebody for achieving something that they need in order to be in the right place to be able to work on climate stuff.
Some major environmental funders have been criticized for their lack of support for grassroots organizing and movement-building and a failure to build popular support for climate action. Do you see foundations plugging into the environmental-justice movement in a meaningful way?
I sense that there are a lot of donors that are really interested in this and will be attuned to increasing justice considerations and diversity and equity in the way that they work moving forward. There’s increasing pressure on philanthropic foundations to act with legitimacy and justice and diversity and equity in mind, as well as an interest in that.
Studies suggest that millennial donors are more likely than other generations to believe that environmental challenges will be solved by both technology and nonprofits. Is philanthropic support of more tech solutions like geoengineering important? Or should those resources go to movement-building and other social solutions?
We’re sort of in trouble. The climate is changing; there’s a lot of uncertainty with how fast things are going to unfold as we continue to emit as much as we are, even with the really bold commitments that President Biden made. We’re still emitting a lot of carbon and methane and other things, and that’s not going to stop tomorrow.
We may need some aspects of geoengineering and technology, which is kind of scary. But certainly that does not preclude or detract from the need for positive change and behavior change. Corporations and industry are a huge part of this. Until we hold those actors accountable, there’s going to be a missing part of this puzzle. It’s going to take a lot, and it’s not clear to anyone yet what the magic solution is.