Deepening Commitment in a Moment of Change

Rose Letwin

I grew up in a small Midwestern farm town and have always had a passion for animals. I moved to Seattle in the 1970s and fell in love with the outdoors. These interests led me to volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation center, where I faced the devastating truth that many of these animals, once healed, had no home to return to. Seattle and its surrounding communities were growing rapidly, and there were fewer spaces where wild animals could just be.

In 1991, after a successful career in technology, I founded Wilburforce Foundation. Nearly three decades into this work, I remain equally committed. But these past couple years have been particularly unsettled for the issues I care so much about. I knew we had to make some changes.

For me, Wilburforce operates at the intersection of my heart and my head. The foundation’s work is inspired by a hopeful vision that wildlife can thrive throughout a web of connected lands and waters in western North America. Because of my background in technology and engineering, it was critical that the foundation’s work be based on science.

I also believe that our work is more powerful and effective when we build strong, enduring relationships with our grantees, the vast majority of whom receive consistent annual support from us. The organizations with which we work provide vital, on-the-ground wisdom that is necessary for prioritizing our work. We ensure that our partners have not only the dollars they need, but training, tools, and other assistance beyond the grant check. Since 2004, we’ve worked with CEP to gather feedback from our grantees on a regular basis through the Grantee Perception Report (GPR), which helps us know that we’re doing a good job.

My commitment to the foundation’s mission is long term. It takes years, sometimes decades, for us to protect the places that science tells us are important, and the foundation — and our grantees — have evolved as the political, social, and economic contexts have changed. It’s important to take the long view because the problems we are working against are complex and deeply rooted, but recent changes in our country and the world have prompted me to make a difficult decision now.

In the past two years, I’ve seen some of the biggest shifts in the context for our work — creating both tremendous opportunities and an increased need to react swiftly and strategically. In Canada, recent elections have created the most conservation-friendly political climate we’ve ever experienced. Federal, Provincial, and First Nations leaders are working together to protect 17 percent of Canada’s terrestrial habitat by 2020. In the United States, the shift in administration following the 2016 elections created considerable obstacles. We’ve seen policy shifts that emphasize energy dominance over conservation; rollbacks of environmental regulations that protect our land, air, waters, and wildlife; attacks on science; and actions that harm national monuments and other public lands.

Last year, CEP decided to survey foundation leaders about their reactions to the shift in U.S. presidential administrations, and the degree to which they were making changes as a result. They asked how this shift might affect foundations and their areas of focus, what new challenges or opportunities had arisen, and what types of changes foundations might consider.

For our part, Wilburforce acted quickly after the U.S. elections. In January 2017, we began planning a summit for a diverse cross-section of grantee leaders from across the western U.S. to:

  • share learnings, approaches, and tactics to help us become more effective in the new context;
  • identify individual, organizational, and collaborative capacities that we need to develop to be effective in our work;
  • gain a deeper understanding of key leadership competencies needed in the new paradigm; and
  • develop a refreshed and deepened sense of connection, shared support, and inspiration.

Fifty-six people attended from a representative sampling of local, state, and national organizations, both large and small. Following that summit in May 2017, Wilburforce’s staff and our partners worked to develop webinars and workshops around topics that were described as especially important in the new context, such as communications, grassroots organizing, and government relations.

These efforts were a good start. However, absent more money, the only way to move forward with new initiatives would be by cutting back on existing programs that we rely on to defend the gains we have made. Furthermore, we didn’t want our difficulties in the United States to detract from opportunities to make significant gains in Canada.

That led me to make a personally challenging decision concerning the foundation’s work.

In consultation with Wilburforce’s finance committee, I decided to increase the foundation’s grantmaking budget by 15 percent over the next two years, to nearly $15 million per year.

It’s a temporary surge. Foundation staff have developed three strategic initiatives to which we will target these new dollars in ways that we are confident will build and engage new conservation constituencies, address immediate threats, and seize conservation opportunities across the western U.S. and Canada. Not every grantee will see an increase. Most, in fact, may not even be aware that we’re giving more. But for those groups working on the initiatives that we’ve identified as most strategic for us in this moment, we trust this surge in funding will accelerate their work.

As the sole donor to Wilburforce, I make significant annual contributions to support the foundation’s work. I feel incredibly privileged to be able to do so, and also deeply responsible. During the past two recessions, I never cut back my giving, wanting to assure that the foundation and its grantees had the resources needed to make progress and achieve results.

I always carefully plan for the future, wanting to ensure that Wilburforce has the resources to respond to the next set of opportunities and challenges. It is not my plan to have the foundation exist in perpetuity. But I am committed to keeping the foundation funded long enough to see many decades-long conservation campaigns through to their successful completion. I have to consider the downstream implications of financial decisions I make today. These times are so critical for our work that I feel that money spent now will have more impact than the same money spent later.

I have met many of the grantee leaders with which we work. I know their work — it’s more than just words on a grant application. I know that they are incredibly smart and skilled. I trust them. What I’ve heard from them over the past year, as well as from my staff, is that doing more now is incredibly important and necessary.

I encourage other foundations who have the flexibility to consider doing more now as well.

Rose Letwin is the founder, president, and sole funder of Wilburforce Foundation. Follow the foundation on Twitter at @WilburforceFdn.

donor stories, founding donor, Grantee Perception Report, Shifting Winds
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