Venture Philanthropy and the World's Most Plastic-Polluted Beach - Exponent Philanthropy
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Venture Philanthropy and the World’s Most Plastic-Polluted Beach

How to catalyze impact for the environment using venture philanthropy—three perspectives from our new member Howell Conservation Fund

Photo credit: Dr. Jennifer Lavers

I’m Brett Howell, founder of Howell Conservation Fund, and a new member of Exponent Philanthropy. My mission is to catalyze teams to achieve breakthrough solutions to the systemic sustainability issues we face on our planet. As a venture philanthropist, I’m focused on solving at the “root cause” of environmental challenges.

In June, I’ll be heading to Henderson Island, an uninhabited World Heritage site in the eastern South Pacific and the world’s most plastic-polluted beach, as part of a broader plastic pollution expedition including artists, business experts, filmmakers, government leaders, journalists, and scientists. I’ll be leading the beach clean-up team efforts. The overarching expedition objective is to study the plastic pollution on Henderson Island and raise awareness of the global problem of plastic pollution that is choking the oceans—known as marine litter or marine debris.

As I head out for the trip, Exponent Philanthropy asked me to share three perspectives:

An individual funder can have catalytic impact on environmental issues with the right strategy

I first heard of Exponent Philanthropy through the October 2018 New York Times story “Some Tips for Small Foundations Seeking to ‘Punch Above Their Weight.’” Key points from the article helped shape my approach to venture philanthropy:

  1. Have a concentrated focus.
  2. Pool money.
  3. Take a risk on early-stage nonprofit groups and ideas.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are an excellent framework to start thinking about what matters most to you. There is no need to “reimagine” what issues face the environment and humankind—figure out which of the 17 goals speak to you the most, and use that as an initial screen for putting your time and money to work.

By applying the article’s advice and being focused on the 2-3 SDGs that matter most to me, I’m now a member of Exponent Philanthropy, and Howell Conservation Fund has already had catalytic impact on the environment in the first year of projects. You can have this level of impact too!

Diverse teams solve “wicked problems”; in fact, collaboration is the only way to address systemic challenges

The Henderson Island team is international in makeup and highly diverse in background, ranging from a local community member, to Ph.Ds., to ex-special forces operators dedicated to conservation—yet we are brought together because of our passion for the oceans.

Photo credit: Dr. Jennifer Lavers

We are fitting multiple workstreams into an intense two weeks on the island. We are all going to roll up our sleeves and help each other out:

  • In addition to running their own experiments, scientists will be helping the beach clean-up team catalogue waste types that will lead to data for new scientific publications and allow us to track the “root cause” origin of some of the plastics.
  • A world-renowned artist will be creating new works of art out of what the beach clean-up team finds.
  • The communication team will be capturing imagery and stories to help tell the world about the impact of what all of us are doing in our daily lives, and why our individual choices matter when it comes to plastics.
  • The SCUBA team will document the extent of plastic pollution from underwater, and we’ll all work to keep them safe, because rescue is very far away in the event of an emergency.

When we aren’t working, we’re going to be spending time together on the expedition ship building deep human connections, sharing our knowledge, and learning from one another—coming up with new ideas about how to solve the systemic problem of plastic pollution. The diversity of our group is why I think we are going to have the resiliency to succeed when we hit inevitable roadblocks with the projects.

Don’t be afraid to join in doing the work yourself instead of just funding it

During my years working for nonprofits, I hosted quite a few “show the donors the project” trips. You’ve probably been on at least one of these yourself, where you “see,” but don’t “touch/directly impact” the solution that your funds are going to support.

In addition to providing financial support, I am applying my professional program management capabilities to make the trip a success by raising the overall capacity of the expedition:

  • Connecting with global players about breakthrough solutions for what to do with the tons of plastics we’ll be collecting
  • Creating a conduit for U.S. funders to donate to the international effort while meeting U.S. donor rules
  • Literally rolling up my sleeves and leading a team to remove ~10 tons of trash and plastics. This will prevent sea turtles from wading through plastic on the beach to dig nests, stop some seabirds from accidentally feeding their young microplastics, and perhaps let hermit crabs use shells from their natural environment instead of plastic bottle tops.

You don’t have to travel halfway around the world to start getting more directly involved in the how and what of your projects…consider doing more than just being the “money”!

Follow the expedition to Henderson Island

I’ll be sharing as-close-to-real-time updates as possible, given satellite internet coverage, via my social feeds: @BrettWHowell (Twitter) and @BrettWHowell (Instagram). I’ll be back online in July with an update on how we did with the expedition!

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