Struggling against the tide

Newfoundland and Labrador environmental groups have enormous challenges but few funding opportunities

“As many grantmakers have overt mandates to fund within their home province, a match between grantmaker location and environmental activity location can be anticipated. The significance of this for provinces that house few grantmaking organizations is that they tend to receive a smaller proportion of funding.”
– Canadian Environmental Grantmaker’s Network, 2007

Those of you who share my age bracket will remember the terrible personal attacks made by some groups in the heyday of the anti-sealing protests (late 1970s and early 1980s). Our quiet corner of the world was suddenly in the global limelight, and not in a good way. I was only a teenager then, but I remember sharing the bewilderment of my fellow Newfoundlanders and Labradorians – how could people say such things about us? We never meant any harm to anyone, yet we were (and sometimes still are) labelled as “inhuman” or “barbarians”. It made a long and lasting impression on me and, I firmly believe, on our collective psyche. Tell me truly, what’s the first thing you think of when someone says they are an environmentalist?

The actions and words of these groups decades ago cast a long shadow over our province, under which our environmental groups still struggle today. One of the largest struggles they face is how to acquire funding for their activities and operations. Environmental NGOs (or non-governmental organizations) serve an important role in our society but, in Newfoundland and Labrador, they have a much smaller pot to share. In this column, I’ll review the funding challenges our environmental NGOs face and provide a few concrete suggestions about how we can address the problem. And, when I refer to environmental groups, I’m not referring to the anti-sealing groups that attacked our proud province with so much vitriol.

Where does the money come from?

Most ENGO funding comes from one of four sources: individuals, corporations, foundations or government. There can be some overlap in these sources. Wealthy individuals sometimes set up foundations to handle their philanthropic acts as do some corporations. We Canadians are a charitable people. In 2010, 84% of Canada’s population over the age of 15 donated money (this includes all charitable giving, not only to ENGOs). The total donated that year was more than $10.6 billion (that’s billion with a ‘B’). In Newfoundland and Labrador, more than $80 million was donated that year. Although we gave somewhat less individually than the rest of the country, we still had the highest donor rates (92% of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians donated).

The ENGO sector, however, receives the least of this largesse. Less than 1% of charitable giving from people in this province goes toward environmental groups. This means that about $8 million is donated to environmental groups, but that includes donations which go to national or international groups. These monies don’t necessarily get spent in Newfoundland and Labrador (the best way to ensure your money is spent in this province is to actually state that on your cheque or donation form). I can assure you, having worked in the ENGO sector locally, that there is not actually $8 million to share within the province.

Photo by Graham Kennedy.
Photo by Graham Kennedy.

Anyone who works in the environmental sector is aware of the many excellent foundations that take applications for funding. The Canadian Environmental Grantmaker’s Network is an association of individuals, groups and even governments that have environmental funding programs. This group has conducted some sound research into the patterns of giving by foundations. In 2007, they conducted an analysis of 92 foundations that gave to environmental groups. Besides providing a useful “behind the scenes” look at what these foundations were looking for in proposals, the study determined that foundations are more likely to give in the provinces where they are based.

The bad news? None of them were based in this one. That’s not because the authors were lazy. It’s because there are no foundations based in Newfoundland and Labrador that are solely concerned with the conservation of nature. Proposal writers beware: you have to work especially hard to compete with groups in a foundation’s home province.

Corporations also create foundations, but they also have their own programs. Anyone living in the Northeast Avalon for the past five years has seen a remarkable growth in the area. You’re also probably aware that several charitable organizations have benefited greatly from offshore oil money and have actually been able to construct new buildings (obviously not ENGOs). Remember, each company engaged in the offshore is required to spend a large amount of money in the province for research and development, as well as education and training. While the majority of these funds are directed towards projects related to offshore work, they are not necessarily restricted to that sector. And folks, we’re not talking chump change. We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars.

We tried, but we blew it

In late 1999, the Government of this province established the Newfoundland and Labrador Legacy Nature Trust. The Nature Trust was the right idea for the right reasons at the wrong time. The deal was this: the provincial government provided $1 million in seed money to be used as operational funds while the organization acquired donations to set up a permanent endowment. The interest from the endowment would be used as a new source of grants for Newfoundland and Labrador-based ENGOs. They had a few successes, but in the end the effort was a failure. Finally, in 2010, they closed their doors for good. Don’t get me wrong – they had an enormous task to accomplish and the pool of experienced and trained ENGO leaders in this province was quite shallow. To explore the reasons for the failure would require a column in and of itself. Suffice it to say that the main consequence is that few are eager to try something similar anytime soon.

Only province without a dedicated funding program for conservation

One of the reasons government tried to establish the Nature Trust was to funnel all those pesky environmental proposals to one group. Every government in Canada has one or more funding programs for environmental projects. Often these funding programs are funded from the sale of “wildlife stamps” or permits. Examples abound. In British Columbia, long considered the Canadian leader in conservation, they have several programs, including the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation and the Public Conservation Assistance Fund. In truth, there are many, many more – but then, it’s B.C. right?

Photo by Graham Kennedy.
Photo by Graham Kennedy.

So then, let’s look at some of the less fortunate provinces. Take New Brunswick (and I mean no offense – I’ve been there). They have two government-based conservation funding programs, the Environmental Trust Fund and the Wildlife Trust Fund. In fact, you can find similar programs in every province.

Except Newfoundland and Labrador.

“But wait,” you say, “we have the Multi-Materials Stewardship Board and they fund environmental projects.” The truth is, they only fund projects that deal with waste reduction. In other words, their mandate is rather narrow and many excellent projects are simply ineligible. The good news is that they make their revenue from deposits on plastic bottles. At one point the fund was over $20 million. But, unless you’re cleaning up garbage in one form or another, you need not apply (as another aside, I think a change in their tactics is needed – I see more garbage every year).

Environmental groups in Newfoundland and Labrador are left with the old recourse of getting money from government. But you have to know the right person. You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. In the absence of any structured program for funding conservation, my experience is that you really have to know a bureaucrat or politician and convince them to support your proposal. I’ve done it. At one point, I was even told by someone in the Department of Environment and Conservation that “we don’t have a funding program and we like it that way.”

In the meantime, keep your chin up

So, what do environmental groups in Newfoundland and Labrador do in the meantime? Here are a few tips from my experience. First, develop programs that engage people outdoors in a meaningful way. Maybe you could apply to a fitness or wellness grant program for a series of outdoor hikes? Secondly, look to new Canadians – they may have difficulty finding activities in their new home and, according to Statistics Canada, generally show their appreciation by giving. My last suggestion is for ENGOs in this province to band together and lobby government and corporations to create a new Newfoundland and Labrador Trust largely based on oil money. It’s a mountain of a challenge, but only together will we succeed in banishing the shadow cast by other groups so many years ago.

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