How Much Money Has Been Going to Ocean Philanthropy? And Who's Giving?

Marine conservation is a core issue for some of the largest foundations in the world, with individual institutions playing major roles in certain geographies and areas of work. 

There’s good reason for that interest, as the problems facing our oceans—from climate change to collapsing fisheries—are grave, urgent, and require mobilization across all sectors. 

But as with all philanthropy, it can be hard to pin down exactly how much money and influence is out there, who’s leading the pack, and where it’s all going. The Packard Foundation has embarked on efforts lately to provide some clarity in the field, and a new report sheds light on the amount of private wealth going to the cause, where giving is headed, and how it’s changing over time. 

Among the key findings from "Our Shared Seas": From 2010 to 2015, philanthropic grants for marine conservation totaled $1.9 billion, growing from $252 million to $399 million in that time period. (Note that numbers don’t include donations from individuals, and likely miss donations from foundations outside of the U.S.) 


The figures come from an analysis by California Environmental Associates, which Packard commissioned to produce the report. The consultant created a new dataset by culling numbers from foundation websites or directly from foundation staffs, and reconciling their results with Foundation Center data. 

The analysis of past giving is just one section of what’s intended to be a larger guide for funders and others operating in the oceans space, including a breakdown of the core problems, plus perspectives from a variety of experts. It’s meant as an entry point and a way to help those moving resources to make better decisions. In particular, Packard highlights illegal fishing, climate change, and gaps in our understanding of the issues as standout priorities. 

You can read a lot more about the major needs outlined in the guide in an earlier post, but we thought some of the numbers on past giving were worth a closer look, here. 

Ocean Philanthropy Is on the Rise

The overall take-home from this new funding data underscores what we’ve been witnessing for some time, which is that large amounts of private wealth are heading toward marine work, and the numbers are steadily climbing. 

“In the context of the report, it’s clear that we need all the help we can get, so it’s all certainly a welcome sign,” said Matthew Elliott, principal at CEA. 

Still, it’s important to remember that when we look at numbers like $399 million in 2015, that’s spread across some sprawling marine issues and geographies. It's also important to put this funding in context in a feverish philanthropic climate. Also in 2015, for example, John Paulson gave $400 million to one institution, Harvard University. Our endangered oceans, meanwhile, cover 7o percent of the earth's surface. 

But it’s clear that philanthropy has come to play a significant and growing role in the ocean conservation field. For example, the report also looks at ocean-related official development aid grants (either from individual nations or multilateral agencies), and the philanthropic sector outspent such assistance in 2015—$399 million versus $372 million. 

With that kind of funding, these private entities gain a certain amount of influence in the field and the geographies involved. Meg Caldwell, deputy director for oceans at Packard, notes that part of the reason for compiling this information is to add a layer of accountability to what funders are doing. 

“One of the best ways to make yourself accountable is to be as transparent as humanly possible about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” Caldwell told Inside Philanthropy. “We can always do better, and I hope over time we will be able to close some of the information gaps.”

Of the issues receiving the most ocean funding, science led the pack, in large part due to some major commitments by the Moore and Packard foundations. Fisheries and protected areas ranked second and a close third. Then there’s a significant drop-off, with far less funding for topics at the other end of the list, such as ocean acidification, and pollution and marine debris. 

A Small Number of Foundations Dominate, but That’s Changing

The Moore, Packard, Walton Family, Marisla, and Oak foundations account for a significant share of global marine conservation funding. Specifically, out of that annual amount of total philanthropic giving, more than half in any given year came from just five institutions. 

That’s pretty remarkable, although Elliott notes that the dataset doesn’t factor in individual contributions, which dilutes those dollars somewhat. The report also doesn’t compare foundation giving to other significant streams of government funding (although another new tool, has some useful information for comparing such sources). 

“I think it would be misleading to say that these five foundations have an outsize influence. They certainly are trying to have an influence, and would like to, but these are really large systems and those resources are still modest in the grand schemes,” he said.

The dominance of the top funders is also shrinking. It’s not that they’re giving less, but there are more players entering the field. So in 2010, a whopping 77 percent of ocean foundation grants came from the Big 5, but by 2014, that proportion was down to 57 percent. 

That’s a positive trend, Caldwell said, and part of the guide’s intent is to help those newer parties coordinate with the larger field. “We definitely don’t feel that the area is crowded. We are constantly welcoming new entrants into ocean philanthropy,” she said.

One sign of the weight that these large foundations still carry, however, comes from Packard itself. One of the foundation’s core commitments is the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), founded by David Packard. Foundation support for MBARI between 2010 and 2014 totaled $187 million, which made up 13 percent of all ocean philanthropy in that time, and 45 percent of all science-related ocean philanthropy. 

That’s not at all to say that MBARI doesn’t do important work, but it does illustrate how large, individual foundations can impact a field. This same dynamic exists in the Moore Foundation’s commitment to its Marine Microbiology Initiative, although to a lesser extent.

Foundations Focus Heavily on North America, but That May Be Changing

Compared to official development assistance grants, the geographies targeted are like mirror images, with philanthropy favoring North America, and development aid focusing on Africa and parts of Asia. 

“There is a massive geographic divide between where multilateral or aid funding goes, and where the foundation community has focused,” Elliott said. “It’s almost like there’s these two different conversations going on.”

Nearly half of philanthropic dollars from 2010 to 2014 went to work in North America, mostly the U.S. and Mexico, while 45 percent of development aid went to Africa. 

That imbalance appears to be narrowing, however. The report found that the percentage of place-based funding going to the U.S. shrunk from about 51 percent of the total in 2013 to 43 percent in 2016. CEA expects this trend will continue, as more funders are looking to issues abroad. (Note that the Environmental Grantmakers Association has observed more of its members backing global work in recent years, as well.)

“Funders are increasingly looking to new places to have an impact, which I think is great, and it also comes with its own set of challenges about how you work responsibly with new geographies,” Elliott said.

This remains a fascinating field to watch, and the way things are developing lately, a big new player could waltz in at any moment and totally change some of these dynamics. While the report certainly doesn’t capture the entire story, it’s an insightful look at the data in recent years.

You can read the entire document here, and note that Packard intends to update it every couple of years. 

RelatedThe Many Foundations and Billionaires Trying to Fix the World’s Fisheries