How common folk can make big impact

Mr Brett Howell (right), one of the leaders of a project to clear plastic that ended up on Henderson Island in the South Pacific.
Mr Brett Howell (right), one of the leaders of a project to clear plastic that ended up on Henderson Island in the South Pacific.PHOTO: NYTIMES

(NYTIMES) - Mr Brett Howell, a programme manager at Coca-Cola in Atlanta, Georgia, has found a way to use his small family foundation to take on environment issues that have a big impact.

He was one of the leaders of a 2019 project to clean up Henderson Island, an atoll in the South Pacific that has the highest concentration of plastic pollution in the world. The island, a United Nations world historical site, is uninhabited but sits in the middle of a current that carries ocean debris.

Mr Howell also started a process of working with other organisations to figure out how to keep the plastic from filling up the beach again. Sure, people can recycle, maybe dial back the thermostat to save heat. But even governments with unlimited resources struggle to take meaningful steps.

Yet some smaller foundations, like the Howell Conservation Fund, are trying to challenge this narrative and focus their energy and resources on one small area of the environment in the hope that it will have a major impact.

"Philanthropy is so much more than money," said Mr Henry Berman, chief executive officer of Exponent Philanthropy, which works with small foundations.

He said: "Relationships, expertise, pulling people together - these are all parts of the puzzle to make things work. You don't have to be Bill Gates or Mike Bloomberg to make it work."

Mr Howell contributed just 10 per cent of the 2019 operation's US$300,000 (S$396,900) cost. But he brought people together with more money and different expertise. "If you're hyperfocused, you can punch above your weight," he pointed out.

Smaller foundations have often found that they have to take a role in bringing together other interested groups of all sizes.

The Campbell Foundation, which is based in Baltimore, has focused on the poor health of the Chesapeake Bay for over 20 years. Last year, it made US$18 million in grants to some 200 organisations, but it also regularly brings together the various interests around the waterway, including farmers, fishermen and conservationists. One big issue has been the run-off into the water from chicken waste.

"It's me going around and meeting people," said Ms Sarah Campbell, president of the foundation, which her father started. "That kind of effort to hear all sides really counts," she said.

"I say it's not just conservation for conservation's sake," she added. "It's about the benefits to people of a healthy environment."

As the only American on the expedition to Henderson Island, Mr Howell had to do something similar. "You have to bring together very disparate groups," he said.

Some members of the expedition team focused on research to understand where the plastic was coming from and how to recycle it. And others focused on getting out the word on how a pristine island was overwhelmed by plastic.


Mr Brett Howell brought people together with more money and different expertise. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Some smaller environmental organisations also try to educate people outside environmental circles. Ms Campbell acknowledges that her group's efforts have not necessarily improved areas of the Chesapeake Bay, but she shows that without education efforts, it could have been much worse.

Foundations can also push for change at large, publicly traded companies by investing assets and then filing motions as a shareholder in a company.

"Small foundations are often the named shareholders in shareholder advocacy proposals," said Ms Sada Geuss, an investment manager at Trillium Asset Management. Its foundation clients were named on motions a few years ago to push Home Depot to sell more sustainable lumber and to stop using on plants it sold a chemical that has been linked to the decline of bee colonies, she said.

Shareholder actions, when successful, can have a significant impact; consider how much lumber and how many plants Home Depot sells. The money used in such campaigns might otherwise have sat in an endowment.

Even foundations that do not want to become part of a shareholder motion can take steps to ensure that their investments align with their values. Those steps can be as direct as investing in clean energy companies or more indirect, like investing in companies that make products that will help other companies become more efficient.