To create systems change, philanthropy first needs to change itself

A thought piece by Sufina Ahmad MBE, Director at the John Ellerman Foundation, a UK-based organisation, which uses its endowment to make multi-year core funding grants to organisations working in the arts, social action and environment.

In June 2022, I was interviewed by colleagues at the Luc Hoffmann Institute in relation to their Future of Philanthropy for Biodiversity initiative. As a funder committed to contributing to greater harmony between people and the planet, through the protection, restoration, and enhancement of the natural world, this is something that I consider often in my role.

In our work, we see the many challenges and opportunities that our applicants and grant-holders are grappling with in pursuit of advancing well-being for people, society, and the natural world. Consequently, we reflect often on whether we are doing enough and prioritising transformation in our work. There is no easy answer to this, some days we veer towards saying yes, on others, we don’t. Realising that there’s more for us to do in pursuit of transformative work – work that changes the system and influences government and the market – encourages us to strive for more and better, but feeling as though we are doing enough already risks hubris and failure.

In conversation with other philanthropic organisations, I see the increasing recognition that as funders we have not done enough to delve deep into our legacies, our power, or our principles. I see the querying of long held norms and givens and the desire to change and challenge these. My biggest realisation has been that our past is our present and future too. By this, I mean that we must understand our origins and past decisions in order to learn what has been ingrained into our ways of working, because if we don’t we are doomed to deliver our work through a narrow and rose-tinted lens. It is these reflections and conversations that also lead me to realise that much of what has made philanthropy possible, such as the economic and political systems that allow for unfettered wealth creation and growth, is at the root of the work our philanthropy now seeks to address and improve.

Systems, such as the ones underpinning politics, economics, communities health and wellbeing, our natural world and many more are often discussed by UK-based funders. In our discussions, it is not always clear if we are talking about one or many systems, or if we are clear on how the systems interact with each other and operate. Recently, I have had conversations that have made me wonder about whether the systems work we support as funders needs to be more ambitious. Questions arise in my mind such as: are we making surface level changes rather than the deep changes that are truly at the root of the problems we see? Are we challenging the fact that these systems exist in the first place? Are we failing to consider both people and planet in the systems we describe and support? Are we applying western/Global North ideals to the systems we are supporting?

In trying to answer these questions at the John Ellerman Foundation, we strive to first look inward by continually reviewing and re-assessing our internal guidelines and commitment to accountability. Through our investment policy, which was developed in 2020, we want to make sure that our investments align with the environmental work we support through our grant making – in other words what does a net zero or carbon positive investment portfolio look like and how do we get there? And through regularly inviting feedback and independent audits of successful and unsuccessful applicants, we are also much clearer on how we are accountable to those that apply to us and those we fund, especially in light of the Foundation’s commitment to spend down in 30 years’ time.

Going forward, I believe we will benefit more from systems thinking and systems-based work that is designed and delivered in ways that are just, pluralistic, inclusive, and ambitious. This will mean ensuring that those most negatively impacted by various systems are empowered and enabled to design and pursue alternative ideals. But what role can philanthropy play in this kind of systems transformation? I think that there won’t be one best way of doing things. Instead, we will need to embrace a tapestry of approaches that weave together in ways that enable the philanthropic movement to exist in community and conversation with itself and those it seeks to support.

To support this reimagination of systems, I hope that philanthropic spaces will become intergenerational, diverse and inclusive. Our own publicly-available Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Policy sets our intentions in relation to its application in all that we do – from recruiting, retaining and progressing staff, to exploring the origins of our wealth, to our grantmaking and investing and more, as well as defining what DEI means to us. The policy recognises that the failure to prioritise and improve DEI practices within institutional philanthropy and the wider charity and philanthropic sector has led to the inequitable distribution of funding. At the John Ellerman Foundation we hope that alongside others we can challenge ourselves to imagine and create new models and ideals through which to deliver our work. As well as borrowing and learning from other sectors and other parts of wider civil society, I hope that the philanthropic movement will be something that can be looked to for ideas and insights as well as responding to our biggest societal, cultural, and environmental challenges.

There may come a time when philanthropy will not be needed. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that philanthropy in its current form will not be needed. I look forward to working with others to think about the kind of philanthropy we need for the coming years and decades. I believe that it will be a kind of philanthropy that, with ambition and humility, finally takes on systems in a way that is no longer at the surface level.

Learn more about this initiative: The future of philanthropy for biodiversity

Further reading:

The craft of systems change
A guide on the Luc Hoffmann Institute’s approach to catalysing change.

“Philanthropy needs to become more humble”
A thought piece by Kathy Reich, director of BUILD at the Ford Foundation, on the mindset shift that gets us there.


“Philanthropy needs to become more humble”

In a long and seasoned career, first at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and, since 2016, as director of Ford Foundation’s Building Institutions and Networks (BUILD) initiative, Kathy Reich has driven multiple efforts to create effective and resilient organisations that are better equipped to fight inequality. In a wide-ranging interview with the Luc Hoffmann Institute for The Future of Philanthropy for Biodiversity exploration, Kathy discussed the levers that will cause philanthropic giving to shift to more equitable and collaborative models, the mindset change that gets us there and where philanthropy is best placed to serve a more humble purpose.

What does philanthropy mean to you?

Kathy: If you look at the root of the word philanthropy in Greek, it’s philos, it’s love of man. But I’m Jewish and in Hebrew the word is tzedakah and the root of that word is justice. In Judaism every person is compelled to do the work of repairing the world, so when I think about philanthropy I think of it not just as a societal obligation but as a personal one and one that every human should be engaged in doing, whether that is giving of money or giving of time or giving of thought and ideas. And whatever you have the capacity to give, this is what you should give because all of us are on this planet and it is everybody’s job.

Imagine yourself in a perfect world 10 years from now – what does philanthropy look like?

Kathy: I think in a perfect world in 10 years, philanthropy is working shoulder to shoulder with governments and corporations and activists from the local level on up to the global level to really solve the toughest challenges that are facing humanity. In the area of climate for example philanthropy is providing seed funding, innovation funding to develop mitigation strategies and technologies to make them commercially and economically viable. It’s funding the work of activists on the ground in communities all over the world to inform the development of those technologies. Philanthropy is also providing the space for activists, researchers, and journalists to hold governments accountable for climate commitments that they make.

And then on the adaptation side, philanthropy is funding communities on the ground to generate their own solutions for how to adapt to climate change. Philanthropy is supporting advocacy on the behalf of those who have been displaced by climate change, which as we all know, there will be billions, particularly in the Global South.

Philanthropy can truly be the accelerant for the innovation, the excitement and the creativity that’s going to be required to imagine a more sustainable future for climate. What philanthropy is not in this scenario: philanthropy is not the kingmaker, philanthropy is not the developer or the owner of the solutions. Philanthropy is the entity that can set the table, that can bring together different disparate, sometimes conflicting actors and provide them with space and flexible funding to come up with the best ideas.

Kathy Reich, director of Ford Foundation’s Building Institutions and Networks (BUILD) initiative.
Kathy Reich, Ford Foundation

Does philanthropy need to change and if so, why and how?

Kathy: I think philanthropy needs to start first with a mindset shift. We need to be realistic about how much power we actually hold and what we are actually good at. I think that too often organized philanthropy still acts like we hold all of the answers, or the experts within our walls have the best answers, or because our founders made billions of dollars that they somehow know how to solve incredibly deep, complex, wicked problems like systemic oppression. In reality, what organized philanthropy has is money. That is the first thing that it brings to the table. Money does bring power, but it does not bring wisdom. Money does not bring solutions to complex problems.

So that’s the first thing – philanthropy needs to get a lot more humble.

I think then philanthropy needs to figure out what it is actually quite good at, and I think it can be good at a lot of things. It can be good at funding innovation. It can be good at taking a long view, it can be good at convening people and bringing them together across differences because money does talk. It will at least get people to a table. It won’t get them to do anything once they’re there, but it will get them to at least show up.

And philanthropy does have the ability to provide that glue money, which the government doesn’t have, and the private sector won’t spend in that way, to provide the money that just can kind of grease the gears of collaboration. I think philanthropy needs to stop thinking it can do all of the things that it wants to do well, and really focus on, and lean into what it’s actually good at.

How do you see the key enabling players shifting wealth to better address the climate and biodiversity crisis?

Kathy: On climate, the scale of the problem is so vast that it is mind boggling. What is needed at this point is a concerted global effort – it’s a global treaty with targeted greenhouse gas reductions, it is a massive investment in R&D to come up with clean fuel technologies, and it is a massive investment in climate resilience, including probably wholesale relocations of large populations of people. And these are problems that philanthropy alone just does not have the resources to fix.

So what can philanthropy do in a situation like this? Our own power is quite limited when the scale is so huge and really what we need is governments that are led by morally courageous people putting their own self interest aside and maybe even the interest of their countries aside for a greater good.

I think a few things could help. I think that philanthropy funding innovation, funding R&D is important. One of the core philanthropy models of change that has worked many times in the past is to identify promising solutions, invest in them, pilot them, evaluate them, and then have governments bring them to scale. That is a path that is well trod by philanthropy and I think a path that when it comes to climate, we haven’t explored nearly to the extent that we can.

And philanthropy also can be critical in equipping civil society actors to hold their governments accountable. That’s certainly an area where Ford invests a lot of time and money in ensuring that people within countries and communities can organize themselves to exert pressure on their governments for positive change, whether it is around climate or many other issues such as gender and racial and ethnic inequality.

I do think that offering positive visions of the future is important. I think that people have to see a way out of the problem, and they have to be able to envision a better future or else they’re not going to bother trying to work for one. I do think that philanthropy is really strong, particularly in arts and culture and narrative change at advancing some of those more positive hopeful visions of the future.

What factors might cause philanthropic giving to shift in the direction that you’ve outlined in your vision for the future?

Kathy: I actually think the most important shift that needs to happen in philanthropy is a mindset shift.

I think philanthropy needs to reconceptualize its role away from being the architect, and the kingmaker of social change to being a convener and an enabler of social change and an incubator of social change. I think that until that mind shift happens we’re going to be swimming upstream.

And I think I can see the possibilities for it happening. I can see there’s been movement. If you’d asked me prior to COVID-19, I would have said nothing’s going to change philanthropy. But I did see how quickly many philanthropies were able to shift their practices when COVID-19 hit. I think the other reason that the mindset shift is so important is because when you shift your mind it leads you to other behaviors that reinforce the mindset shift and create a virtuous cycle.

So if you shift your mindset away from being the kingmaker and more toward being the supporter, it leads you to having a more flexible approach, a more humble approach to your grant making. And that leads you into different relationships with those you are funding and the communities that you’re working in and then that can lead to still more change.

Learn more about this initiative: The Future of Philanthropy for Biodiversity


Announcing the winners of the future of conservation NGOs global Innovation Challenge

The Luc Hoffmann Institute, the IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy (CEESP) and Impact Hub are pleased to announce the winners of the future of conservation NGOs Innovation Challenge. 

The Innovation Challenge was launched on 21 April 2022, with the aim of surfacing innovative ideas and solutions that proactively address the deep-rooted issues facing the conservation sector and impacting conservation effectiveness. 

Nine innovative ideas have been selected that are challenging dominant conservation narratives, redesigning conservation approaches and reimagining the conservation space to create a more just, equitable and regenerative future. Each of the winning ideas touch upon one or more of the four broad themes, identified collectively during the first phase of “The future of conservation NGOs“ initiative, as areas where change is most needed. The winning ideas represent a wide array of conservation efforts – international, local, rural, and urban – from the coastal communities in Maldives to the urban population in Greece.  

The winners will receive €5,000 in prize money and a place in a tailored co-learning and incubation programme with either the Luc Hoffmann Institute, Impact Hub or IUCN CEESP. The collaborative programmes of co-learning and incubation will start this month, with the host institutions working alongside the winners to take their ideas to the next level of implementation or testing.

Click here to see the list of winning ideas.

About the challenge

The Innovation Challenge sought ideas to explore possible futures of conservation NGOs and their new roles in effectively approaching and managing nature conservation work. 

The challenge sought solution-driven concepts proactively addressing deep-rooted issues facing the conservation sector such as legacies of discrimination and social and economic inequalities perpetrated by existing power structures and reinforced by entrenched narratives. The challenge was open to anyone, from any sector, experience or background, with a vision for the future of conservation practices and an idea challenging the existing approaches, structures and narratives adversely impacting conservation effectiveness.

A total of 173 ideas from 58 different countries around the world were received. The infographic below shows the geographic spread of the ideas.

Geographic Distribution of Ideas

Future of Conservation NGOs Geographic Distribution of Ideas

All  applications went through a rigorous evaluation process involving a review by a diverse panel with a range of expertise, from community-based conservation and business development to entrepreneurship. The review panel was faced with a tough choice from among many inspiring applications.  The judges were really impressed  by the variety of ideas and potential of the solutions submitted.  

“We’ve been delighted by the calibre of the applicants so far, coming from every corner of the world, and are looking forward to harnessing the power of our global community of changemakers to turn these innovators’ dreams into reality,” said Bruno Lacey, Programme Manager at Impact Hub.

Congratulations to the winners!

As we celebrate the winning ideas, we also celebrate the vibrant community of innovators and entrepreneurs who applied to the challenge and of thought-leaders who helped establish the challenge themes and stand poised to help take the ideas forward. All have displayed the ability to take risks, think out of the box, collaborate and lead in ways that create more value for people and the planet.


The Future of Conservation NGOs Innovation Challenge: Winning Ideas

The Luc Hoffmann Institute, the IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy (CEESP) and Impact Hub are pleased to announce the winners of the future of conservation NGOs Innovation Challenge. Nine innovative ideas have been selected, challenging dominant conservation narratives, redesigning conservation approaches and reimagining the conservation space to create a more just, equitable and regenerative future. Listed below (in no particular order) is a brief description of the winning ideas including the themes that they primarily focus on and the location where they will be piloted/implemented.

Operational and Funding ModelsCommunication and NarrativesInterdependence and InclusivityPower and Legacy

Title: Human Nature

Human Nature aims to transform conservation practice by supporting conservation organisations to fully engage with and understand the social complexity they are working within. Human Nature aims to create conservation practice that listens to and works with more marginalised voices. To achieve this, Human Nature intends to carry out context-specific social science and conflict resolution and equip conservationists with the tools to communicate, collaborate and engage more effectively with a diversity of voices.

Team: Lauren Evans, Fleur Nash
Location: Kenya and Cambridge

Operational and Funding ModelsCommunication and NarrativesInterdependence and InclusivityPower and Legacy

Title: Herding 4 Health (H4H)

H4H aspires to catalyse system change by enabling community-driven rangeland restoration and wildlife protection. The H4H model uses skilled herding, strategic kraaling, and livestock management to regenerate Africa’s rangelands, enable wildlife-livestock coexistence, unlock livestock value chains, and enhance climate change resilience of pastoralist communities.

Team: Anna Haw, Jacques van Rooyen
Location: South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana & Zambia with imminent expansion across Africa

Operational and Funding ModelsCommunication and NarrativesInterdependence and InclusivityPower and Legacy

Title: Kyklos

‘Kyklos’ (‘Circle’) aims to create a new approach to involving local communities and co-creating a circular neigbourhood. The project aims to build a new collective local mentality that will lead to changes in everyday habits and thus reduce dependence on the linear models of production and consumption.

Team: Sofia Petridou, Ilias Papagianopoulos, Sophie Sarri
Location: Greece

Operational and Funding ModelsCommunication and NarrativesInterdependence and InclusivityPower and Legacy

Title: Gabon Women’s Platform

Gabon Women’s Platform is an inter-community platform that will support rural women across four Gabonese villages in documenting, managing, and defending biocultural diversity of their territories of life, and to create solidarity among them through the exchange of experiences and mutual learning. It is an initiative of the Nsombou Abalghe-Dzal Association.

Team: Savana Nnang-Obiang, Charlotte Bayossa, Martine Bidzime Nkoulou
Location: Gabon

Operational and Funding ModelsCommunication and NarrativesInterdependence and InclusivityPower and Legacy

Title: Empowering women through ocean opportunities

Empowering women through ocean opportunities aspires to drive systemic change for an equitable future by enabling women and girls in ocean-dependent states to access and (re)connect to the ocean through community-led swim and snorkel training programmes.

Team: Florence Barraud, Maeesha Mohamed, Alun Morgan
Location: Maldives

Operational and Funding ModelsCommunication and NarrativesInterdependence and InclusivityPower and Legacy

Title: Young Stewards of Migratory Birds Ecosystem

The project aims to build a more just, equitable and sustainable future by motivating young people to protect the different ecosystems along migrating birds flyways. The idea lies on the intersection of environmental conservation and mental health as it places the psycho-social needs and potentials of rural adolescents and young adults at the center of the design of educational, communicational and activism experiences.

Team: Elena Iraida Blanco
Location: Venezuela

Operational and Funding ModelsCommunication and NarrativesInterdependence and InclusivityPower and Legacy

Title: Project In/Visibility

Project In/Visibility challenges the status quo by bringing narrative-shifting stories from the grassroots to classrooms, conferences and workplaces in the conservation sector. It is a conduit between academia and NGOs, channelling the diverse and plural voices at the forefront of social and ecological justice.

Team: Samirah Siddiqui, Hannah McGurk, Tasnim Elboute
Location: UK, Germany, and Morocco

Operational and Funding ModelsCommunication and NarrativesInterdependence and InclusivityPower and Legacy

Title: RewilDAO

RewilDAO aims to enable communities to gather around a cause, fund, acquire, govern and restore close-to-home; for human and non-human nature. The concept aims to utilise blockchain-based social concepts of DAOs (Decentralised Autonomous Organisations) to enable collective decision-making in a self-tailored, transparent, non-hierarchical manner – while providing livelihood opportunities to local entrepreneurs and their communities.

Team: Gal Zanir, Stav Mushkat
Location: Israel

Operational and Funding ModelsCommunication and NarrativesInterdependence and InclusivityPower and Legacy

Title: Boola Boola Yoka Dandjoo (Many Women Together)

Project Boola Boola Yoka Dandjoo is a regenerative agriculture project that centers the critical role played by indigenous peoples in delivering conservation outcomes. It aims to include the women and youth in the community while also enabling intergenerational knowledge and skill exchange.

Team: Heidi Mippy
Location: Australia


What is the future of philanthropy?

A thought piece by Jessica Villat, Head of Communication at the Luc Hoffmann Institute, on how this investigation can help shape global giving to do better for people and biodiversity.

In the first half of 2022, the Luc Hoffmann Institute has been interviewing donors, funders, grantees, leaders, activists, and administrators from the philanthropic and environmental sectors, in an effort to explore the future of philanthropy at this crucial moment in history when biodiversity and climate crises are by most measures near if not past the point of no return. Among the questions we pose is: “What does philanthropy look like in a perfect world?”. A resounding answer from many interviewees is that if we were in a perfectly balanced world, philanthropy wouldn’t exist anymore.

Long divorced from its original meaning of “love of humanity” and often very much at odds with nature regeneration, big philanthropy particularly is seen as a brazen byproduct of flawed, extractive, and unequal systems. Indeed, giving back implies that one has taken something. In a 2021 Mongabay article André Hoffmann, member of the Luc Hoffmann Institute Advisory Council, was quoted as saying, “If you destroy nature to make a profit then you are creating the problem that you then try to solve with philanthropy”. In other words, big philanthropy is often remedial. It is little surprise therefore that most interviewees imagine a perfect world to be one that doesn’t need this kind of philanthropy at all.

So what could the future of philanthropy look like? How can we co-create things at the incept for the benefit of all, rather than benefiting the few who then give back? At the Luc Hoffmann Institute, we are strong believers in systems thinking, diversity and biodiversity, and rebalancing of power for true social innovation for the way forward.

In terms of systems thinking, we’re hearing through our consultation process that there is an overflow of money going into organisations that are short-termist and doing potentially very good work but that is incremental, and programme-based. And there is a deficit of money going into work that is transformational and long term. Historically, at least for a few centuries in mainstream dogma, there has also been a false division between the human and the natural world, and this false division existed in philanthropy too, where for example funding for human rights is often severed from funding for nature conservation, or funding for the more human topic of climate is divorced from biodiversity, even though the issues are intimately intertwined. However, some leaders, institutions, and organisations are beginning to see what indigenous peoples and local communities across the world have long known – that the human and natural world are inextricably connected if not one, a realisation that is long overdue for how philanthropy can tackle systemic issues.

We’re also incredibly conscious of the need for diversity and diverse perspectives for radical innovation in this space. While seeking to understand and shift the levers of change, some of which we’ve begun to identify through the Future of Conservation NGOs initiative and its four themes for change, our first step has been contending with the limitations of our own world view and how we might start to widen the lens. Firstly by surveying not just the state of big philanthropy that dominates cultural and media narratives, but the incredibly diverse and global practice of philanthropy embodied in dozens of different cultures, religions and countries. From them – and newer forms such as the renegade fundraising by digital communities – we have much to learn and they rightfully should have a place in the discourse and at the table. Perhaps equally important is scrutinizing current models and work-arounds that simply prop up structures of old systems by dressing them up in distracting facades. In teasing apart good intentions from meaningful systemic overhauls, the question we ask is: does this go far enough?

Rebalancing power is another big part of the exploration. How is wealth being rebalanced so that it benefits the areas of the world and the communities that are the most under-resourced? Here we see social justice issues mingling with access to natural resources. Is climate and biodiversity funding flowing to the Global South ? How can we work towards a dynamic equilibrium where such flows are less necessary because wealth is distributed less unevenly? Yet power dynamics are tricky, even amongst global actors. In nature conservation, how comfortable are programme leaders and fundraising officers in engaging with foundations and philanthropists to fundamentally shift the status quo?

As we embark on this exploration process, we hope to inspire systems thinking, invite a truly diverse and unusual set of voices to the conversation, and level power dynamics. We don’t have the answers, but we’re not afraid to ask difficult questions. Our aspiration is by the end of the process for a truly diverse set of stakeholders from the philanthropic and environmental sectors to collectively take forward a vision for how new and radical ways of giving and thinking could lead to systems change for people and nature to flourish as one.

Learn more about this initiative: The future of philanthropy for biodiversity

Related reading

Nature is no longer “a nice to have,” it’s “a must-have”: Q&A with André Hoffmann
An April 2021 Mongabay interview by Rhett A. Butler with André Hoffmann, member of the Luc Hoffmann Institute Advisory Council, and President of the MAVA Foundation and Fondation Tour du Valat.

project timeline What we are working on now

The future of philanthropy for biodiversity

For societal and biodiversity resilience and regeneration, the Luc Hoffmann Institute is exploring the possible futures of philanthropy. What paradigm shifts are occurring that will shape ways of giving in the future? What are the new paradigms and models of funding/giving and beyond that that could increase net-positive outcomes for nature and people?

For this exploration, the institute is conducting background research and interviews, and plans to use the emerging themes and questions to form a state of knowledge report and spark a conversation with a diverse range of stakeholders, including philanthropists, grantees, people at the forefront of community-led conservation, and NGOs from the Global South and North.


Now more than ever, a paradigm shift is needed in philanthropy if it hopes to contribute to more durable solutions to the world’s most complex challenges. Power dynamics – between grantors and grantees, donors and communities – have always been an inherent part of philanthropy. In the past decade, growing awareness of economic inequality and racial disparities has begun to make these often unspoken undercurrents much more visible. There are also issues that need exploring, such as human rights or siloed funding that create trade-offs and impede systemic impact.

Related SDGs

Explore the impacts


The Future of Philanthropy begins as the seed of an idea from conversations at the Luc Hoffmann Institute in 2020.

Fokussiert / Adobe Stock
December 2021

The Future of Conservation NGOs project beginning to hone in on themes including operational and funding models; communication and narratives; interdependency and inclusivity; and legacy, power, and principles.

The Future of Conservation NGOs

Simon Rawles / WWF
January 2022

The themes from the Future of Conservation NGOs are tied back to the Future of Philanthropy seedling and the idea enters the institute innovation pipeline with an initial small ideation budget.

Chairman of the MAVA Foundation and Luc Hoffmann Institute Advisory Council member André Hoffmann calls for innovative sources of funding that better balance the needs of nature, social, and human capital.

André Hoffmann on strategic philanthropy for nature regeneration

Steve Taylor / WWF-UK
February 2022

Students (Marija Jurcevic, Nebat Kasozi, Gal Zanir, and Christina Meister) from the University of Cambridge’s Masters in Conservation Leadership programme focus their innovation challenge project on the Future of Philanthropy, and put together an initial internal report on ‘The future of philanthropy in nature conservation’, drawing from desktop research, a survey within the nature conservation sector, and interviews with a handful of people in the philanthropy sector. The report explores potential paradigm shifts that could help conservationists obtain the necessary funding to support biodiversity projects across the world. Vyn / WWF
March-April 2022

A project team is set up, consisting of Jessica Villat as Project Lead, Christy Carter as Project Management Consultant, and Nayantara Kilachand as Project Communication Consultant. Paul West from Project Drawdown also joins as Project Advisor. The institute begins conducting background research and interviews with a diverse array of leaders in the philanthropic and environmental space including donors, grantees, and conservation organisations from the Global South and North.

Ola Jennersten / WWF-Sweden
May 2022

A state of knowledge report, due for external release in Autumn 2022, is commissioned from lead author Benjamin Soskis, Senior Research Associate at the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute.

jayzynism / AdobeStock
June 2022

Jessica Villat, Head of Communication at the Luc Hoffmann Institute, writes a thought piece on why any reimagining of philanthropic models must emerge from a wider systemic overhaul that addresses issues of equity, power, and diversity.

What is the future of philanthropy?

James Suter, Black Bean Productions / WWF-US
August 2022

Kathy Reich, director of BUILD at the Ford Foundation shares her thoughts with the Luc Hoffmann Institute on why philanthropy needs to become more humble and the mindset shift that gets us there.

“Philanthropy needs to become more humble”


Drew Beamer / Unsplash

A diverse set of stakeholders from the philanthropic and environmental sectors collectively take forward a vision for how new and radical ways of giving and thinking could lead to systems change for people and nature to flourish as one.

Timeline ends here

Related resources

André Hoffmann on strategic philanthropy for nature regeneration
In January 2022, the chairman of the MAVA Foundation makes an impassioned plea for innovative business and funding models that can address root causes of threats to both biodiversity and humanity.

Exploring possible futures for conservation NGOs
A March 2022 analysis report by Luc Hoffmann Institute authored by Barney Tallack, Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken, Martin Kalungu-Banda, and Marcelo Furtado that examines
several aspects of how nature conservation could be better organised, approached, and funded.

System change in philanthropy for development: a research framework for global growth markets
A May 2022 report prepared by Dr. Shonali Banerjee of the Centre for Strategic Philanthropy highlights often neglected perspectives from Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.

project timeline What we are working on now

Digital disruption and the future of conservation

How can conservation NGOs improve practices and stay relevant in an increasingly disruptive digital landscape? 

We are living in a time of increasingly rapid digital transformation, with the adoption of digital alternatives recently accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the mainstreaming of blockchain technology. Blockchain based applications are opening up new opportunities for fundraising and engagement, while at the same time contributing to the democratisation and transparency of existing conservation practices. 

Younger generations are consuming this digital information with ease, with growing online communities possessing the expertise and drive to bridge the divide between conservation and digital spheres. These digital communities are not only adept at using innovative technologies, but display new motivations and strong philanthropic tendencies which are yet to be well understood or optimised by the conservation sector. The appetite of conservationists to engage with this space was revealed during the Gamifying nature conservation initiative, sparking investigations into the knowledge gap and acting as the catalyst for this project.

The ‘Digital disruption and the future of conservation’ initiative is exploring the transformative potential of blockchain technology and online communities whilst paving the way for ongoing intersectional collaboration. By investigating and testing the ability of digital disruption to catalyse new fundraising and business models, this initiative aspires to empower innovators to make effective choices, ensure the ongoing relevance of conservation NGOs, and ultimately increase the impact of global conservation efforts.

If you would like to get in touch with the project team, please email

Related SDGs

Explore the impacts


pickup / Adobe Stock
November 2021

The Gamifying nature conservation initiative unearths the appetite of the conservation sector to further understand the transformative potential of blockchain technology.

Gamifying nature conservation

weerapat1003 / AdobeStock
15th December 2021

After recognising the lack of resources currently available to help conservationists make effective decisions in the digital sphere, the Luc Hoffmann Institute begins its investigations into digital communities, blockchain, and how they can contribute to the democratisation of the conservation movement.

Impact NFT dashboard
February 2022

The Luc Hoffmann Institute compiles a database of projects using blockchain for conservation impact. Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) prove to be in a state of rapid growth and, taking a step to bridge the knowledge gap and encourage further discussions, the database is turned into an online interactive repository of ‘Impact NFTs’.
Despite blockchain’s ability to provide transactional transparency, there is difficulty in measuring the overall contribution of impact projects to conservation efforts. Two software developers are brought on-board to tackle these issues of traceability.

Impact NFT dashboard

sydney / AdobeStock
9th May 2022

Sasha Sebright, MPhil in Conservation Leadership graduate and project lead for ‘Digital disruption and the future of conservation’, shares her thoughts on how conservation can learn from digital communities.

How conservation can learn from digital communities

willyam / AdobeStock
10th June 2022

The Digital disruption project team joins the Future of conservation NGO initiative for a dynamic session revealing the areas of greatest existing alignment and future collaborative impact between the two initiatives.

The future of conservation NGOs

Luc Hoffmann Institute
27th June 2022

A virtual workshop brings together 18 experts in the web3.0 sector to map how NFTs, Decentralised Autonomous Organisations (DAOs), and new tools for digital engagement such as virtual worlds can be used to enhance current and future conservation impact.


Lagunov / Adobe Stock

To unearth and utilise cutting edge digital innovation for positive conservation impact, and empower innovators to create more equitable and effective conservation approaches.

Timeline ends here

Related resources

Exploring possible futures for conservation NGOs
A March 2022 analysis report by the Luc Hoffmann Institute authored by Barney Tallack and Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken. The report acknowledges two lenses involving digital innovation (‘Embracing digital technology and data-driven approaches’ and ‘A bridge between the blockchain and local community conservation’) by which future conservation NGOs could position themselves.

Exploring the potential of gamification to finance nature conservation: a new report
A September 2021 report by the Luc Hoffmann Institute exploring how storytelling and gamification can derive value from, and for, wildlife.

Gamifying conservation: What could go wrong?
A September 2021 thought piece by Sasha Sebright, MPhil in Conservation Leadership candidate at the University of Cambridge, exploring the unintended adverse consequences of gamifying nature conservation.


Cyriaque Sendashonga steps in as Ad-interim Director of the Luc Hoffmann Institute

The Luc Hoffmann Institute is pleased to announce that Ms. Cyriaque “Cyrie” Sendashonga has been appointed as Ad-interim Director of the Luc Hoffmann Institute, effective 1 June 2022. She is stepping in for Melanie Ryan, Director of the Luc Hoffmann Institute, who is currently on maternity leave until the end of December 2022.

Cyrie will be based in Montreal, Canada, working 50%. A seasoned conservation leader, Cyrie was formerly the Global Director of IUCN’s Policy and Programme Group. She is a biologist by training, with a master’s (M.Sc.) degree and a PhD in Zoology from the Free University of Brussels (Belgium). Her career has focused on natural resources management, encompassing both research and development perspectives. She previously worked at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi, and headed the Biosafety Programme at the CBD Secretariat. She also spent time at CIFOR (Center for International Forestry Research) as Regional Coordinator for the Central Africa Regional Office, based in Yaoundé, Cameroon, before IUCN for eleven years.

Cyrie was born and grew up in Rwanda, is the author and co-author of many publications on environmental issues and is a Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science.

Since 2018, Cyrie has been a member of the Luc Hoffmann Institute Advisory Council, from which she will be stepping down while filling the role of Ad-interim Director. The Luc Hoffmann Institute is very grateful to Cyrie for her dedication and contribution to the Luc Hoffmann Institute as part of our Advisory Council these past years.

For any questions to the Director or Ad-interim Director, please contact the Director’s office at General inquiries for the Luc Hoffmann Institute can also be sent to


How conservation can learn from digital communities

A thought piece by Sasha Sebright, an external innovator collaborating with the Luc Hoffmann Institute to investigate the role digital innovation can play in shaping conservation efforts. This research feeds into The future of conservation NGOs initiative.

New global communities are rapidly emerging around a decentralised, digital planet. These digital communities present a desire to embed philanthropy, transparency, empowerment, and democratisation within their interactions both on-and-offline. If the conservation sector wishes to remain effective and relevant in an increasingly digital world, it is critical to better understand these communities and unleash their skills for environmental good.

The philanthropic nature of digital communities

Conservation organisations recognise the importance of social media for their engagement and fundraising strategies, but only two of the fifteen biggest conservation NGOs are interacting with two of the most dynamic global communities. These communities can be found on Discord, the fastest growing website in 2020;¹ and Twitch, the 20th most visited website in 2021 which raised US$83 million for charity in 2020 alone.²

Twitch launched in 2011 with a focus on live-streaming gaming content. Each year its users unite in ‘Games Done Quick’, a series of video game marathons completed to raise money for a selected charity. This year they achieved a personal best, raising US$3.4 million for the Prevent Cancer Foundation in just 8 days.³ All from the ground-up, led by the community, and without being orchestrated by a traditional NGO.

In 2018, Twitch branched out from the gaming sector and dedicated a space to ‘Animals, Aquariums, and Zoos’, which allows users to celebrate the world of non-humans and learn about the conservation of species and habitats. Even with Twitch featuring tools such as Tiltify (a digital fundraising platform) and their ‘joystick philanthropists’ ² showing an appetite to engage with environmental efforts, the conservation sector remains notably absent.

Engagement within these communities involves an inbuilt system of cooperation, co-creation and information exchange. From this, the conservation sector has much to learn. Strikingly relevant for considerations around the future conservation NGO is how these communities display a clear drive towards a decentralised and democratic future, and are forging the way with a continuum of purpose-built digital innovations. 

Shaking up the status quo

The Gamifying Nature Conservation project revealed that modern digital communities require a level of transparency in their transactions that the current conservation business model struggles to accommodate. There has been a barrier between the desire to help environmental causes, and action. Until now. These communities are taking matters into their own hands and creating new ways of engaging with the conservation sector by designing and mobilising digital technologies such as blockchain, which is inherently suited for this decentralised vision of impact.

In the search for transparency, blockchain provides a way for financial transactions to be clearly and immutably traced from start to finish. It also opens the door to novel methods of fundraising and engagement including the trading of digital assets called non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Wielding NFTs for environmental fundraising is not free from controversy, with concerns about the energy requirements needed to fuel the blockchain process. Despite criticism, projects utilising these technologies for good, such as impact NFTs, continue to thrive.  

These endeavours tend to be built from the ground up by the community itself, with countless examples of digital communities uniting to promote social good. One such venture is Fishy Fam, which raises funds for ocean conservation and galvanises a community of over 70,000 followers to clean beaches and waterways around the world. Another is Belugies, a collection of 8,000 NFTs created by a 14-year-old female artist. With the support of the Belugies community, Abigail has fundraised over US$242,000 and, more recently, created a not-for-profit NFT campaign, ‘One Planet For Ukraine’, that donates 100% of funds towards humanitarian efforts in Ukraine.⁴⁻⁵

Online interactions, offline impacts

While offering an insight into a future of decentralised decision making, these online interactions may have offline impacts which do not reflect such equality. If the communities disproportionately comprise technology and time-rich individuals from certain demographics, then the physical and intellectual benefits gained will exacerbate global imbalances in power and digital literacy. When engaging with these new communities, the conservation sector must identify and mitigate against inequality by incorporating opinions across a range of diverse digital spaces.

During these interactions, it would be detrimental for the sector to under-value these progressive audiences when reconsidering the current model of one-way charitable giving. Integrating digital communities’ motivations and skills within the sector could accelerate environmental innovation and ignite the transformation of funding streams focused not on donations, but on the considered purchase of conservation services. In co-creatively exploring the ever-developing potential of blockchain technology, conservationists can play a role in ensuring future applications are designed with environmental and social good at their core.

Instead of focusing on these new communities as conventional engagement tools, the sector should aim to learn from the transformative changes that these communities actively pursue. If successful, conservationists could not only benefit from the skills and digital innovations of these communities, but secure the ongoing relevance of conservation organisations in an increasingly digital future.

The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Luc Hoffmann Institute, The future of Conservation NGOs initiative, nor of any of their collaborating institutions.


1. Grothaus, M. (2021) These were the top 10 fastest growing websites in 2020. Fast Company.

2. Strub, C. (2020) $83M+ Raised And Counting In 2020: Are Twitch Streamers The New Philanthropists? Forbes.

3. Michael, C. (2022) Awesome Games Done Quick 2022 raises record $3.4 million for the Prevent Cancer Foundation. Dot Esports.

4. Belugies Market.

5. Poux, S. (2021) 14-year-old artist uses NFTs to raise $50K for Alaska beluga conservation. KTOO.


The future of conservation NGOs – applications for the innovation challenge are open!

Do you have an innovative idea that could transform conservation work?

The Luc Hoffmann Institute, along with our partners the IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy  (IUCN CEESP) and Impact Hub are excited to announce that applications for The future of conservation NGOs innovation challenge are now open.

The conservation NGOs are in the midst of rapid change, facing a complex, and progressively demanding environment in which they operate. The pace of change is driven both by external and internal pressures. Structural and systemic issues are at play within the sector, which are impacting conservation effectiveness. To remain relevant, legitimate and effectively deal with the present global ecological crisis, conservation NGOs need to change radically and faster.

The institute is inviting ideas to explore possible futures of conservation NGOs and their new roles in effectively approaching and managing  nature conservation. 

The challenge is seeking solutions that proactively address the deep-rooted issues facing conservation NGOs. This might be by addressing legacies of discrimination, equalising voices and resources, dismantling existing power structures, reframing narratives or challenging the approaches that perpetuate existing social and economic inequalities.

Anyone, from any sector, experience or background, with a vision for the future of conservation can apply. These ideas might include new business model innovations, partnerships, networks, structures and/or tools and tactics. 

Concepts at all stages of development, from ideation through to prototyping or beginning to scale, are welcome.

Participants will have the chance to win €5,000, a place in a tailored incubation and co-learning programme and access to a community of conservation practitioners, fellow change-makers and potential investors.

For further details visit the Innovation Challenge Portal

Thank you for your interest in The future of conservation NGOs Innovation Challenge. Applications are no longer being accepted, and the challenge is now closed. The application period ran from 21st April – 22nd May 2022.

The review panel is currently evaluating all the applications. We will be in touch with all applicants by the end of June 2022 to let them know whether or not their ideas were successful. Successful applicants will win €5,000, a place in a tailored incubation and co-learning programme with either the Luc Hoffmann Institute, IUCN CEESP or Impact Hub, and access to a community of conservation practitioners, fellow change-makers, and potential investors.