Philanthropy Must Connect the Planet’s Health and Human Health

By Gabrielle Fitzgerald, Founder and CEO, Panorama, and Heather Tallis, Global Managing Director and Lead Scientist for Strategy Innovation, The Nature Conservancy, and Founder and Secretariat Chair, Bridge Collaborative  

Hurricanes, air pollution, disease outbreaks — the news is filled with visual evidence of the intricate links between the environment and health. New studies and reports corroborate these global interconnections, emphasizing the fact that our health and the health of the planet are inseparable.

Many people and organizations have come up with new ideas to tackle these linked challenges, but a lack of philanthropic funding is holding back action on everything from promoting new thinking to carrying out much-needed solutions.

Philanthropists are usually on the forefront of catalytic change, pushing others to think in new ways or apply new ideas, yet here they are a step behind.

The majority of philanthropic funding still sits within such traditional silos as health, environment, or development. Only limited funding has been made available for activities that intentionally and efficiently deliver benefits in both areas. Our organizations have just issued a report that examines the grant-making landscape and identifies foundations that have invested across health and the environment to date.

If we want to continue to make gains in both health and the environment, we must start building stronger connections and collaborating to meet common goals. Shifting to such an approach may seem harder in the near term, but it has the potential to deliver much greater returns by dealing with the root causes of problems instead of symptoms.

Philanthropists have a critical opportunity to step up and fill this gap. We see several ways this can be done:

Connect the dots. If you are a philanthropy with both a health and an environment priority, think bigger and connect the dots across your investments. The challenges we face are interwoven and cannot be solved unless grant makers change their approaches.

Internally, take steps to share what people working on health and environment issues are learning, identify common goals or solutions, and develop priorities that take both human health and the environment into consideration. Your impact will be better for it.

If you are a philanthropist focused on health, consider integrating environmental factors to help make more holistic, lasting progress in improving people’s lives. For example, synthetic proteins could greatly improve nutrition for children and adults worldwide, while also helping to stop environmental degradation from livestock and farming.

If yours is an environment-focused philanthropy, take similar measures to incorporate health factors. Nearly all of the reasons behind a decline in biodiversity also harm human health.

The Democratic Republic of Congo provides a clear case of the connectedness of health and the environment. The country is facing yet another outbreak of Ebola. Many experts suspect that deforestation is driving infected animals closer to villages and putting more people at risk than ever. Grant makers who tackle the problems of forest loss and infectious disease at once could make a major difference.

Start fresh. Make new investments that intentionally connect health and the environment from the outset. Explore and test approaches and ideas that can lead to changes and share ideas and results to influence others.

This is a ripe area for frontier thinking. Pioneering leaders include the Wellcome Trust with its Our Planet, Our Health grant-making effort. The fund supports projects that learn how food systems, urbanization, and climate change affect the environment and health, then use that knowledge to improve global health.

The Schmidt Family Foundation, through the 11th Hour Project, has taken an integrated approach to transforming energy, food, and water systems to improve health and natural resources and build prosperity for all.

The Kresge and Robert Wood Johnson foundations are two examples of grant makers approaching climate change and health in a unified way in the United States.

There are also new, ambitious philanthropies where ideas are being formed that have the potential for game-changing contributions.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, for example, remarkably aims to rid the planet of disease through $3 billion in investments. As it makes its plans, it must not overlook the role of the environment in disease exposure and mitigation. For example, air and water pollution are some of the planet’s biggest killers, and new diseases are being transferred to people from wildlife.

Organize. Drawing together philanthropies, government, and businesses can expand the sphere of influence and catalyze change. There are opportunities to galvanize grant makers, building on the good work of groups like the Health and Environment Funders Network.

If you are involved in a group that represents donors focused on specific topics, such as climate change or nutrition, encourage members to think broadly. Or start a new group, creating new ways for donors to collaborate, accelerate, and increase resources to promote action on both health and the environment.

Support global programs. The Sustainable Development Goals are driving integrated approaches at global and national levels and building political will to overcome complex challenges. In the past few years, several international organizations have taken great strides to connect health and the environment, yet they desperately need resources to move from concept to implementation.

The Convention on Biological Diversity and the World Health Organization have established an interagency group on biodiversity and health. The U.N. Development Program is drawing organizations together to apply a proven approach it calls “advocacy through numbers’’ — efforts that build investment cases for stopping the spread of noncommunicable diseases and tobacco use and then helping countries create action plans.

And just last week, the World Health Organization, U.N. Environment, and the World Meteorological Organization launched a global coalition on health, the environment, and climate change. The coalition aims to reduce the 12.6 million deaths annually caused by air pollution and other environmental risks.

With the right financial support, all of these agencies have tremendous potential to change people’s lives, considering their collective influence and their reach into countries and communities worldwide.

The stakes are high, and the opportunities are plentiful for thoughtful philanthropists to connect health and the environment in an intentional and substantial way. We cannot safeguard our planet and our own health if we aren’t brave enough to invest where it counts.

Gabrielle Fitzgerald is founder and CEO of Panorama. Heather Tallis is global managing director and lead scientist for strategy innovation at the Nature Conservancy and founder and secretariat chair of the Bridge Collaborative.

Originally published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on May 30, 2018.