By Jackie Gutierrez-Jones
“In my talks, I sometimes say, it’s like we’re funding the musicians on the Titanic,” chuckles Karl Burkart, deputy director of One Earth. “A lot of people don’t know how to be philanthropists in climate. And that’s one of the things we’re really trying to help with, because we need to scale the amount of funding for climate philanthropy.”
This is the mission behind One Earth, a philanthropic organization working to push collective action to limit global average temperature rise to 1.5°C, the threshold that scientists predict many natural systems will begin to cross dangerous points of no return, triggering lasting changes and transforming life as we know it. Co-founders Justin Winters and Burkart—who previously worked with the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation to award over $100 million in grants to innovative philanthropic funds—discovered that many of the solutions to our climate crisis already exist.
“It’s so strange that you find more risk tolerance in the investing world than in philanthropy,” Burkart remarks. “We should be the most generous with that capital. And what we find instead is that the behaviors around a lot of established philanthropies are extremely conservative and not willing to take risks on new projects. And that’s what needs the funding—like a restoration project led by indigenous women that needs $20,000 to get going.”
Enter: One Earth’s Project Marketplace
Winters and Burkart decided to take action and create a platform that would democratize funding and funnel money to projects that weren’t making it to the public consciousness. Their solution? One Earth’s Project Marketplace, an online database of vetted climate projects that need funding. Think of it as a GoFundMe for projects looking to provide solutions to our climate crisis. “As we can see by the political process for the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Convention, [change] is extremely slow and methodical, and sometimes all that comes out of the convention is clarity on one paragraph. We’re obviously not going to solve climate change at that pace,” says Burkart.
Project Marketplace currently has 120 projects, half of which are led by women. Each falls under one of One Earth’s three pillars of action: transitioning to 100% renewable energy, protecting and restoring half of the world’s lands and oceans, and shifting to net-zero food systems and fibersheds (geographical landscapes that provide the resources and infrastructure to create local fabric). In their work with the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, Winters and Burkart found that science pointed to those three goals as the best way to put humanity on track to limiting Earth’s temperature rise to 1.5°C.
The taxonomy of Project Marketplace’s site uses technology to let people drill down to the region or project they want to work with. As for the projects themselves, they often come to One Earth’s attention from its staff’s network of contacts or through partner organizations that nominate local projects in need of assistance. But to be selected as a marketplace candidate, the project must fit two criteria: It should align with One Earth’s three pillars, and it must be able to receive and disburse funds.
“That was one of the things that we found in the traditional philanthropy model—you’re almost always funding an organization and not a project,” adds Burkart. But there are examples of disruption in the philanthropy space, Burkart mentioned. Like Adopt a Classroom, a fundraising platform that allows donors to directly fund an educator’s classroom needs or projects from anywhere in the US
“That concept was powerful because it was so specific. A teacher in an underserved classroom needs [a particular list of items]. Climate philanthropy needs this [kind of specificity], do you know? Instead of, ‘I’m a great organization, fund me,’ you have all these different projects that need very specific help. Like, we’re trying to restore a sacred forest that was cut down in Kenya, and we need this much to do it.” That’s why One Earth is moving toward crowd-sourced validation—people can see that their money is being put to work.
As for funding projects, One Earth uses a donation platform that allows individuals to donate to any of the projects on the website. In addition to individual contributions, companies can also put together a portfolio of projects they want to fund and allocate a percentage of their sales to this portfolio—it can be as little as two or three projects or a group of 30. One Earth doesn’ t take commission from those donations. They’re a conduit for moving the funds to the organization or project it needs to get to. As a 501c3, they rely on funding that they receive from a core group of donors. But they also work with companies to develop bespoke donation portfolios, for which they charge a fee.
The Global Safety Net and Global Alliance for the Future of Food
Interestingly, Burkart has found that the people who are doing the best work are often ineffective marketers. “Sometimes, these project leaders aren’t literate—they’re just doing their thing. But no one knows about it.”
That’s why storytelling is part of One Earth’s process. It starts with technology and funding that’s then supported by content developed to help get these projects into the public eye.
One such project is the Global Safety Net (OE), which is based on the landmark scientific study that provided the first comprehensive analysis of the world’s intact ecosystems, highlighting the interconnections between biodiversity and climate change. The project, which is now in its second phase, uses vast amounts of data to populate a map highlighting areas in need of land conservation and protection for every country and region. In the US, that translated to $50,000 for scientists creating a map of old forests—no one had ever attempted to assemble something of that magnitude before. The results, which were presented to members of the Biden administration at the Salazar symposium, will bolster arguments to protect these sacred areas.
Another project—the Global Alliance for the Future of Food—turned the concept of national determined contributions (NDC) into a boon for agriculture. NDCs, which are government-based climate action plans to cut emissions and adapt to climate impacts, had almost been exclusively focused on energy and carbon dioxide. Now, they can focus on just about any sector—methane, nature, agriculture, etc. That’s where the Global Alliance for the Future of Food stepped in.
“Thanks to co-funding support from One Earth, our research analysis found that changing the way we produce and consume food could reduce global gas greenhouse emissions by at least 10 GT a year,” says Patty Fong, program director of climate and health and well-being for the Global Alliance for the Future of Food. “Through our assessment of 14 countries, we highlight opportunities and actions for governments and other actors to use food systems reform to drive significant gas emissions reductions, as well as other health, environmental and social benefits.”
One example of the project’s impact came from their work with the Bangladesh government. “The government of Bangladesh has included measures for agriculture to improve infrastructure while reducing emissions from rice fields, fertilizer use, enteric fermentation and manure management,” explains Fong. “We highlight an innovative community-based fisheries aquaculture program that has increased fishers’ income from fish culture, created alternative employment, and increased the availability and access to a greater diversity of nutritious and indigenous fish-based foods in the floodplains of Bangladesh.”
A look ahead
One Earth’s efforts are gaining traction—they’ve partnered with more than 30 organizations around the world to showcase over 100 vetted, on-the-ground climate solution projects currently seeking funding in 54 different bioregions. Looking to the future, One Earth plans to focus on technology that can aggregate and normalize data sets from different scientists (using both satellite and on-the-ground research) so the world can see the full story of a climate problem.
“That’s what gets me super excited. How do we leverage all this new technology to make science really actionable?” posits Burkart. “That’s the goal of the program. Along with looking at how we can make philanthropy more transparent, more exciting and more engaging.”
Lead photo courtesy of Getty Images