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How the giving game turned pro

Support from wealthy individuals helps conserve our natural spaces and wildlife. But there are limitations …

Philanthropy has come a long way. A century ago it was essentially a form of charity, with origins in the feudal era. Today it’s frequently a highly professional endeavour, one which employs tools borrowed from the world of high finance and uses a lexicon that would warm the systems-loving hearts of MBA graduates; it’s goal-directed and places great store on determining risks, assigning value and measuring results. Did anyone say KPI?

At the same time, donors have become less prescriptive about their largesse and more ready to listen to the organisations, communities and people they seek to help. The result is the money they give now goes further and does more good.

The trouble is, there is simply not enough of it to go around and this is especially true of funding for conservation.

All of which is why efforts to unlock new sources of capital must continue apace. Indeed, we have little choice if we are to stave off extinctions, biodiversity loss and climate change.

These were a few of the broad conclusions that emerged at the 17th Tipping Points panel discussion, at the Oppenheimer Research Conference on 4 October.

The panellists, before an audience of over 420 experts, conservationists and scientists, in Midrand (and many more online), grappled with the theme “Environmental Philanthropy: Learning from the Past to Inform the Future”.

Businessman Jonathan Oppenheimer, whose family has been hosting the annual conference since 2010, and which supports the ongoing series of Tipping Points webinars, facilitated the discussion. Tipping Points is a monthly webinar series initiated by Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation.

Sharing the stage with him at the Randjesfontein Cricket Pavilion were Shafika Isaacs, an expert on education, technology and human development; Nicky McLeod, a rural development and biodiversity fundi; Irshaad Paruk, co-head of corporate finance with Rand Merchant Bank; and Robin Woodhead, a businessman and former art auctioneer.

Woefully inadequate

Oppenheimer challenged the panellist to suggest ways to increase the woefully inadequate levels of philanthropic financing that conservation must make do with, warning that the very survival of mankind was at stake. And he chided the panellists on occasion for being adept at diagnosing the problem, but less adroit at prescribing cures.

Oppenheimer began the discussion by quoting statistics gleaned from Google that put the scale – or rather the lack of it – of conservation philanthropy into perspective: Of the global gross domestic product (GDP), $105-trillion last year, Oppenheimer noted that only 3% went to philanthropy, some $550-billion. And of that 2% came to conservation – $11bn.

“Are we accepting that we will solve the world’s problems with significantly less than 1% of world GDP?” he said, suggesting to the panel a change in paradigm was required if we were to “compete for the money necessary to change the world”.

Isaacs agreed, philanthropic capital – donor money – was “extremely limited”. It was “miniscule” compared with other forms of capital, she said, noting corporate social investment in South Africa amounted to R10.6bn a year. This was “a drop in the ocean” compared with many other investments in the country, for example basic education, with a budget of R293.7bn for 2023/24.

But she also challenged Oppenheimer’s Google-sourced stats, noting that the search engine had its limitations, or more to the point, that GDP and other finance sector metrics, fell short as measures of economic wealth.

Isaacs said these failed to factor in other notions of wealth, including human, social, cultural and community capital, as well as indigenous knowledge. She called for a notion of blended capital that took other forms of capital into account so these might be properly valued and harnessed to finance sustainable development.


Oppenheimer agreed but saved his enthusiasm (“now you are speaking my language”) for comments from banker Paruk, who told of “positive developments” in the finance markets towards unlocking capital markets to fund conservation.

However, Paruk cautioned that formal capital markets and institutional investors would only really open up to conservation once the right governance frameworks were in place so that investors knew where their money was going and could determine the rates of return they would receive.

Paruk was encouraged by a change in attitudes to environmental issues. For many years climate change was dismissed as a fantasy; this was no longer the case and there had been a “real shift” to develop technology and funding instruments to tackle the problem. Although the need to preserve biodiversity was a far more complex matter than climate change, he felt we would “start to see traction”.

His corporate clients were increasingly worried that a functioning economic system was not possible “unless you have a functioning natural system”.

“The willingness to put capital and liquidity back into the system to enhance the security of resources is there,” he said, but the mechanisms necessary for this were “not there yet”. This was not merely about making the right financial instruments, like bonds or equity, available. An entire industry, with people to implement and measure it must be developed.

Oppenheimer stressed the need for urgency.

He remarked that the delegates in the room – including top scientists and researchers, there to present over the course of the three-day conference – represented a “significant portion” of the leading conservation work being done in Africa. Yet, next to the work that awaited doing, amounted to a “drop in the ocean”.

He likened current conservation efforts to the fictional story of the little Dutch boy who plugged a dyke with his finger and cried out for help to save his country from the sea. He said conservation had wound up having a conversation about which metaphorical hole should be plugged. But what was needed was to “step back and look at the bigger problem”.   

“If we don’t solve that problem, we are likely to be an extinct species,” said Oppenheimer.

He called on academics and the armies of scholars toiling away on obscure PhDs to take their findings and debates on climate change and biodiversity out of university classrooms, where it “goes no further”, and into the wider world.

They should find popular narratives to help them do this, ones that grab public attention and “attract human capital and get money”.

TP 17
Jonathan Oppenheimer (left) facilitated the 17th OGRC Tipping Points webinar, which was livestreamed from the Oppenheimer Research Conference. Joining him on the panel were Shafika Isaacs, Irshad Paruk, Robin Woodhead and Nicky McLeod.

Story-telling and inspiration

McLeod shared Oppenheimer and Isaacs’ enthusiasm for story-telling and inspiring conservation projects that captured the public’s imagination. And she mentioned a project to save Marion Island’s seabirds (which was presented to the conference earlier in the afternoon), remarking on how it had succeeded in drawing support from many quarters.

She spoke about Cape Town’s Day Zero drought and how it focused public attention on what happens when natural resources dry up, said McLeod. She recalled, too, her experience working on a project in a mountainous region of the Eastern Cape where 40% of the population draw their water from a spring which they must share with cattle.

“We only really value these things when they become rare,” she said, advising conservationists to “put some drama” into their storytelling.

Isaacs, a trustee of the Lewis Foundation, which funds conservation programmes, felt scientists should collaborate more, including across disciplines, on the bigger environmental and social problems.

“To what extent are we working beyond our own little ecosystems, our little philanthropic organisations and government departments?” she asked.

Big system changes required all of us to learn to cross boundaries, to engage with others, she said.

Oppenheimer shot back that Issacs was bent on identifying the problem; “but what is the solution?”

Learning from failure

We must learn from our failures, Issac countered.

Drawing on her work in education, she mentioned a recent study that found that an abysmal 81% of Grade 4 children cannot read for meaning. “Do we have a shared understanding of the problem? And then we need to work across disciplines with our contradictory perspectives to address the complexity of the problem?” she said.

McLeod warned her colleagues it was all very well and affirming to “talk about all this wonderful stuff” with likeminded people, but there was a danger it was “just an echo chamber”.

Riffing on Issacs’ comments about the need for individuals to step outside their professional and community boundaries, she spoke about the value of collaboration. She praised organisations like the World Wide Fund For Nature and Blue Ventures for fostering links and partnerships among people with often very different roles in conservation – from researchers and workers in the field, to investors and philanthropic advisers, to artificial intelligence experts and big thinkers.

McLeod stressed the importance of treating communities as co-investors in environmental projects. She cited Jane Goodall, the celebrated anthropologist who earlier in the day told the conference about the need for conservationists to co-create solutions with the people they were hoping to help.

Life is messy

Doing this could be difficult and demanding, because people wanted clearcut answers and to “tick boxes”. “But if we recognise the range of capital and opportunities, we can go further. But it requires courage. Life is messy and we need to step into that bravely,” she said.

Woodhead also questioned whether the statistics Oppenheimer offered were reliable or especially useful. He pointed out that philanthropy was not only about money, but about what motivated it, the expertise and “brilliance” brought to bear, and the “work on the ground”.

The former Sotherby’s International boss and City of London broker and investment banker, Woodhead traced the transformation of philanthropy in the 20th century and said there was evidence we may have reached a tipping point in the notion of philanthropy.

One hundred years ago it had been about a few very wealthy people doing good, a continuation of the mediaeval ethos of looking after your community. But with the advent of socialism and “huge taxes”, the public expectation was that this responsibility had shifted to the state. Gradually over the years, however, this had changed as wealth had spread more widely (notwithstanding the growing gap between the very rich and the very poor), which meant “there is more wealth available for philanthropy”.

Woodhead, who is involved with the Khula Education project and chairs the David Rattray Memorial Trust which governs it, said there was “more collaboration among the givers than ever before”.

Kyk hoe lyk ons nou

He touched on how Bill Gates, the tech titan and philanthropist, had roped in other big players like Warren Buffett, who had in turn touched 200 other billionaires, getting them to pledge the majority of their fortunes to philanthropic causes before they die.

Woodhead predicted still more philanthropy, including at lower levels of individual wealth, and said the sums involved meant the distribution of funds was becoming more professional and this demanded a professional response from users too.

“This is a major change and the better the relationship between these two groups (distributors of donor money and beneficiaries) professionally, the more funds will go to the users.” 

Paruk said that this philanthropic money could be used to unlock financial capital, ultimately closing the biodiversity funding gap – the $300bn a year the UN estimated it would take to save animal and plant life on Earth in its rich variety.

Woodhead, responding to a question from the floor, cautioned against “over-egging the problems philanthropy can solve”. Even the biggest foundations, like Ford and Gates, have their limitations.

But he took heart in the enormous amount of good that was being achieved.

“Thirty years ago we weren’t talking about philanthropy, but charity. And wow! What a journey we’ve made… It’s an amazing evolution.”


This story was produced with support from Jive Media Africa, science communication partner to Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation.

Watch a recording of this 17th Tipping Points webinar here on the OGRC YouTube channel.



Matthew Hattingh
Savannah Burns
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