San Francisco Bay, California, salt ponds in 2004. (Photo courtesy of Pelican Media)

Advocates of “strategic philanthropy” argue that charitable foundations should set explicit goals and measure results against them. Advocates of an “emergent model” of philanthropy resist command-and-control governance structures in favor of flexibility.

We’ll never resolve the debate over how far foundations should go in influencing their grantees’ work—this tension is inherent to philanthropy. But perhaps we can all agree on the highly catalytic value of early, patient, and nimble investments, especially when it comes to public-private partnerships.

When donors seize an opportunity, stay engaged over many years, then pounce again to take advantage of the new opportunities their initial investment unleashes, they can achieve exponentially greater results than they would with a time-limited set of grants that assumes a certain cause-and-effect will happen. Early capital creates momentum and invariably stimulates other private and public funding. Patient capital gives grantees running room to be effective and experimental, and to adapt from lessons learned. And nimble capital provides flexibility to get things done in an ever-changing world, as donors and grantees exploit unanticipated opportunities.

We’re talking about savvy, instinct, grit, flexibility, and persistence. And we believe they matter in philanthropy for the same reasons they make sense in our own lives: Good things often take time. Life does not unfold in a linear or even logical way. Sometimes opportunity knocks only once.

What long-term investments can do

Back in 2001, Resources Legacy Fund (RLF), a California-based environmental nonprofit, joined forces with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation—all private foundations based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Together, we worked closely with Senator Dianne Feinstein and the state of California to help acquire and catalyze the restoration of Bay Area commercial salt ponds—diked ponds used since Gold Rush days to evaporate and collect salt. Our chief goal was to reclaim for wildlife some of the roughly 187,000 acres of baylands that development had cut off from tides since the 1800s, and to make the beauty of the bay more accessible for hikers, birders, and all residents.

Initially, RLF used $20 million of foundation funds to help state and federal wildlife agencies acquire 16,500 acres from Cargill Inc., the company that owned the ponds. At the same time, the foundations invested $15 million to support both long-term restoration planning and initial environmental stewardship so that public agencies could manage the salt levels in the ponds for the benefit of wildlife.

Next, RLF identified, convened, and supported a team of wetlands, wildlife, and geomorphology experts to physically reconnect some ponds to the Bay and stabilize salt concentrations in other ponds to protect wildlife habitat. The state Coastal Conservancy meanwhile agreed to manage a long-term restoration planning process that was scientifically sound and publicly supported.

In the course of acquiring the lands and planning for restoration, some of the people involved started to ask: Would rising sea levels and other effects of climate change make restoration pointless? Geomorphologists, hydrologists, and others advised us that in fact, there was a way to create habitat that would endure even as sea levels rose, and the restored wetlands would act as a sponge to help buffer Bay Area cities—home to nearly eight million people and composing one of the most robust regional economies in the United States.

It also became clear that the cost to restore the salt pond habitat in a way that also helped protect nearby cities from floods and rising seas far exceeded any single existing source of funding. So the foundations and RLF, along with regional business, community, agency, and conservation leaders, worked to round up sources of state and local funding. These leaders ultimately helped create a nine-county San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority; worked to pass legislation to allow a single ballot measure to appear on all nine county ballots; and managed a targeted public education campaign, Our Bay on the Brink, to raise awareness of the flood threat.

In June 2016—15 years after we began work on this project—Bay Area voters passed Measure AA, a parcel tax to raise $500 million over 20 years. The funds will match state and federal funding to support wildlife and wetlands restoration, trails and recreational facilities, and flood protection for communities rimming the bay. The first wave of funding was approved this month. Though profound and unstoppable changes lie ahead, Bay Area residents now have the means to protect both cities and wetlands for the long term.  

Stubborn but flexible philanthropy made this possible.

California offers other examples of the outsized payoff for philanthropic patience and collaboration in conservation. The state passed landmark legislation in 1999 to establish a network of marine-protected areas along the coast where sea life harvesting would be restricted. Though smart in its holistic approach, the complexity and contentiousness of the law stymied the state agencies charged with carrying it out. Years passed, with marine-protected areas created only near Southern California’s Channel Islands.

Several foundations—including the Packard and Moore foundations, as well as the Marisla Foundation, the Annenberg Foundation, and the Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment—came together to support efforts to implement the legislation.

Working on behalf of the foundations and in formal agreement with the state, RLF helped develop a strategy to implement a statewide network of marine-protected areas. This involved creating stakeholder groups in four coastal regions; a “blue ribbon” task force of political, business, legal, and academic leaders; and regional science advisory teams. We developed a sophisticated online visualization tool to help scientists and stakeholders map, design, and evaluate protected areas.

In June 2012, after years of discussion, vetting, and hundreds of meetings, the California Fish and Game Commission approved the last protected areas within the network. Stretching from Oregon to Mexico, the network—the first of its kind for a state—covers almost 17 percent of state waters. Thanks again to patient donors, RLF continues to help support community stewardship and education, scientific monitoring, and enforcement. Other states and nations consider the network a model for marine conservation.

Model partnership

Patient philanthropists can also dramatically improve how government agencies serve the public. After a 2012 budget scandal shook public confidence in the management of the California state parks system, RLF worked with the California Natural Resources Agency and the Department of Parks and Recreation to create an independent, multi-year collaborative effort. Our goal: to develop an action agenda for a financially sustainable State Park system that met the needs of California’s growing and changing population. The S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and the Moore, Hewlett, Packard, and Marisla foundations funded the effort.

Governor Jerry Brown’s administration appointed a Parks Forward Commission, chartered with making recommendations for sweeping changes. Since then, department leadership has implemented the commission recommendations by working to transform operations, technology, budgeting, and hiring—all geared to improving the visitor experience and building a foundation of more-sustainable funding. Patient funders have stayed engaged and are helping create a new nonprofit organization to support State Parks.

The success of the California initiative caught the eye of Montana Governor Steve Bullock, who late last year assembled a Parks in Focus commission modeled after Parks Forward. Philanthropists again have stepped forward to support changes that will strengthen Montana state parks. Who knows where this journey will end, so long as funders stay engaged.

In our experience, philanthropists can play a pivotal role in private-public partnerships. They can marshal the forces that help political and government leaders acknowledge problems and find solutions. Sometimes that means paying to convene and support experts who can offer well-grounded advice. Sometimes it means supporting research, polling, or a public education campaign to create a common body of knowledge and consensus. Sometimes it means funding groups so they can participate in a public process and help shape policy. Sometimes getting results requires all of that and more. In any case, private-public partnerships work best when philanthropists step up early to focus public attention and attract other funders, invest for the long haul, respect government processes, and seize opportunities as they arise. Call it strategic, emergent, or something else entirely—the fact is, early, nimble, and patient capital delivers.