I just returned from leading the team that successfully cleaned up the world’s most plastic-polluted beach as part of the multi-disciplinary Henderson Island Plastic Pollution Expedition 2019.
From the first day of my involvement with the Expedition, as founder of Howell Conservation Fund and leader of the beach cleanup team, I had two key performance indicators:
- Contributing financial support to the project, which proved to be difficult given the overseas nature of the work
- Demonstrating the feasibility of the “circular economy”—an economic system aimed at eliminating waste and the continual use of resources—by getting the plastics we collected into new products for re-use, rather than burying or burning them
We ended up achieving both thanks to a global community of collaborators. So how’d we do it, and what lessons are applicable to other philanthropic projects?
One factor stands above all the others: network-weaving.
You have to be personally committed, willing to keep going in asking questions and making connections, and unafraid to put yourself 100% out there in search of solutions for projects you believe in. If I’d given up the 1st or 20th time I heard “no,” including from groups with seemingly shared missions, we wouldn’t have been successful.
Creating the Henderson Island Plastic Pollution Expedition Fund
Giving money overseas is complex. In the case of the Expedition, I didn’t have a choice—to succeed, the project needed more funding, and it was up to me, as the sole U.S. member of the Expedition, to figure out how.
I ran into multiple headwinds and learned some vital lessons along the way:
- Some major U.S. managers of donor advised funds (DAFs) do have processes for giving overseas by working with intermediaries. This approach has high transaction costs, though, and very limited control over timelines for delivery of grant funds.
- Although some U.S. nonprofits might be willing to serve as a fiscal sponsor for overseas efforts, the devil is in the details. I thought we had a solution with a group that had already done some work in Henderson Island, but its board had a last-minute reversal and refused to support the effort, which left me scrambling for another solution.
- Foundations do have ways to give money internationally, including directly funding a foreign government, as we had to do because the Expedition was a project of the Pitcairn Island government. I abandoned this route after discussions with a few foundations where I have close relationships because of the additional scrutiny and complexities involved.
- Specialist DAF groups are structured for international giving and make the process very simple, but it wasn’t easy to find them until introductions by Exponent Philanthropy connected me with two of these groups. We ended up creating an entirely new DAF called the “Henderson Island Plastic Pollution Expedition Fund” through Charities Aid Foundation of America (CAF America). We selected CAF America because they understood the sense of urgency, performed due diligence immediately, and assigned a specific officer I could easily reach. Also essential, their accounting process allows near real-time distribution of grants vs. other groups that send money overseas at set intervals (e.g., monthly).
Ultimately, grant funds were delivered on time, and an established conduit has now been created that allows U.S. donors to support ongoing plastic pollution efforts in Henderson Island.
Creating innovative solutions for plastic collected from Henderson Island
For me, simply cleaning up the beach wasn’t enough. We also had to have a solution for what we were going to do with the waste, and one that supports global efforts to create a circular economy. Being successful in this area required connecting with some 40 nonprofits, startups, and innovators to find solutions that could be viable for us.
Henderson Island is close to the world’s most remote spot in the ocean, and it is uninhabited. To say that logistics were a challenge would be an understatement. In addition to extreme remoteness, the issue of what to do with the plastic was made even more difficult by policy regulations that limit the movement of plastics. The most obvious choice of recycling the plastics back to New Zealand, the home port of the Expedition ship, wasn’t possible due to the country’s extensive “bio-security laws.”
I’m happy to report that, thanks to the fantastic collaboration we’ve built with The Center for Regenerative Design and Collaboration, waste from Henderson Island will be going to Costa Rica to be turned into Habitat for Humanity Homes.
If you share my interest in finding solutions to plastic pollution, please get in touch!