Food (and drink) for thought (and action) at Environmental Funders Network retreat


Sarah Ridley


Sarah Ridley

An Englishman, a Frenchman, and an American woman went into a bar.

Now, this may sound like the start of a terrible British joke, but it instead it begins the inspiring tale of the many international discussions that actually took place on a cold and rainy Thursday in January in the north-west of England, when 54 philanthropists from around the globe gathered to talk about the environment.

The bar room scene occurred at the end of the first day of the annual retreat of the Environmental Funders Network (EFN), an informal network of trusts, foundations and individuals making grants on environmental and conservation issues. EFN was established in the UK to increase the overall level of financial support for environmental causes and to help environmental philanthropy to be as effective as it can be. To that end, EFN has hosted a retreat for the past four years, bringing together philanthropists with experts in the environment sector. By the end of the first day of this year’s event, participants had heard from Michelle DePass, Assistant Administrator for International and Tribal Affairs at the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and from Jonathon Porritt, the eminent writer, broadcaster and commentator on sustainable development. These speakers and others who followed offered participants challenging and inspiring presentations, giving us much to ponder as we met over food and liquid sustenance.

Importantly, this was the most international of the retreats so far, with attendees arriving by train and boat and, yes, plane, from Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Portugal, Switzerland and the United States, as well as from the United Kingdom. Fresh faces brought fresh insights and experiences to the multilateral conversations and sparked new friendships and forged tighter working relationships.

The retreat also marked the launch of the fifth edition of Where the Green Grants Went, an analysis of the state of environmental funding, which has become a vital resource for philanthropists and NGOs alike. The latest edition shows that environmental issues continued to receive just 3 per cent of overall UK philanthropy. The research also shows that over the three years from 2007 to 2010, funding from the 147 trusts covered by the report has plateaued at around £75 million per year. (Hard copies are available free of charge by emailing

The report’s authors note that grants supporting climate change work have increased as a proportion of environmental grants, from less than 9 per cent in 2006-07 to more than 21 per cent in the new research. They amounted to just under £48 million between 2007 and 2010. This sounds impressive until compared to patterns of wider philanthropic giving. For example, The National Galleries in London and Edinburgh raised £50 million over four months in 2009-10 to purchase a single painting.

EFN’s mapping of the financial support for environmental causes and its sharing of this information is an inspiring model that other sectors might choose to follow as a way to further encourage informed and strategic giving. EFN’s annual retreat is also worthy of replication in other sectors. Feedback from the event has highlighted the value of spending time with international colleagues who share a passion for the same issues as one’s own, learning together and developing effective strategies to tackle issues of common concern.

In the face of Skype, blogs and online magazines, the importance of learning together and of establishing relationships over a simple meal cannot be underestimated. So in the spirit of Alliance, here’s wishing you many fruitful, international culinary encounters to encourage informed, strategic philanthropy. Cheers!

Sarah Ridley is the Executive Director of the Tubney Charitable Trust until March 2012, when the trust will close having distributed its £65 million portfolio for charitable causes. The majority of the trust’s giving has supported conservation of the natural environment and promotion of sustainable agriculture. Click here for Alliance‘s interview with Sarah and chair of trustees René Olivieri about Tubney’s spend-down process.

Tagged in: Collaboration Environmental Funders Network Networks Peer learning

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