- Conservation is complex. If it were easy, problems like the extinction crisis, human-wildlife conflict, overexploitation of forests and oceans, and habitat degradation and loss would be resolved already.
- Conservation’s complexity arises from the need to address multiple, often conflicting, objectives that span disciplines from ecology to economics to human welfare. Synchronicity Earth, a U.K.-based charity, recognizes this and incorporates the idea of complexity into its strategy, looking to opportunities to build connections between disparate areas and seeking “overlooked and underfunded species, regions, and ecosystems.”
- Jessica Sweidan, who founded Synchronicity Earth with her husband, Adam, in 2009, says this approach emerged out of the understanding that “there were no silver bullets” in conservation.
- Sweidan talked about Synchronicity Earth and more during a February 2021 interview with Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett A. Butler.
Conservation is complex. If it were easy, problems like the extinction crisis, human-wildlife conflict, overexploitation of forests and oceans, and habitat degradation and loss would be resolved already.
Conservation’s complexity arises from the need to address multiple, often conflicting, objectives that span disciplines from ecology to economics to human welfare. Something that may seem straightforward on the surface, like saving orangutans from extinction, actually requires understanding the great apes’ ecological needs, reining in the wildlife trade, encouraging behavior change among hunters, controlling out-of-control fires, and addressing both direct and indirect drivers of deforestation, which may be affected as much by local issues like basic nutritional needs as national issues like corruption and international issues like overseas demand for palm oil. Silver bullets don’t exist.
Synchronicity Earth, a U.K.-based charity, recognizes this and incorporates the idea of complexity into its strategy, looking to opportunities to build connections between disparate areas and seeking “overlooked and underfunded species, regions, and ecosystems.” Synchronicity Earth does this through a combination of communications, facilitating and enabling connections between disciplines, and rallying financial resources in support of protecting and restoring nature.
Jessica Sweidan, who founded Synchronicity Earth with her husband, Adam, in 2009, says this approach emerged out of the understanding that “there were no silver bullets.”
“We started to understand the challenges, and knew that we needed to be supporting a range of interventions: supporting local communities and livelihoods; educating about environmental threats; collecting data about endangered species; regenerating ecosystems; addressing supply chains, global policy and financial systems; shifting consumer culture and habits; as well as rethinking philanthropy and even conservation itself — in order to effect lasting change,” she told Mongabay.
Sweidan adds that they started surveying the philanthropic landscape in the late 1990s (she and Adam started the Synchronicity Foundation in 2000), but when they shifted to the environment, they quickly saw biodiversity conservation wasn’t receiving the level of resources that other issues were attracting.
“When we first stepped fully into ‘the environmental arena’ it became very clear, very quickly, that biodiversity loss was not only on track to become one of the biggest issues of our time, but that biodiversity conservation was a grossly underfunded sector,” she said. “It was a major gap.”
“There wasn’t and there still isn’t enough funding going into conservation,” she continued, noting that only 3-4% of U.K. philanthropy goes to environment-related causes. “For far too many years, supporting conservation was a very niche activity: we all failed to understand the inextricable links between the natural world and ourselves.”
Sweidan says that Synchronicity Earth’s prioritization of underfunded areas within the conservation sector “means that we are focused on the gaps within the gaps.”
“Conservation is often seen as something of a luxury, connections are seldom drawn between protecting and restoring nature and progress towards U.N. SDG targets, for example, or between diverse and abundant ecosystems and human health,” she said.
But the COVID-19 pandemic may change that siloed view.
“This last year has highlighted the interconnectivity of everything in a way that we could never have articulated without going through it. Sectors that were for some, seemingly unrelated, are now talking to each other. There are enormous opportunities in the finance sector around ESG. And an ever-increasing number of people are becoming more aware of where they invest their money, the consumer choices they make, and companies are having to react to this.”
Sweidan talked about Synchronicity Earth and more during a February 2021 interview with Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett A. Butler.
AN INTERVIEW WITH JESSICA SWEIDAN
What is your background and what inspired your interest in environmental issues?
I studied philosophy and art, at Northwestern University, but never held any preconceived notion of ‘what I wanted to be when I grew up.’ I guess I was remarkably open to ideas and circumstance, although I always imagined it would involve the arts. Adam and I started supporting really small-scale initiatives almost straight out of college, not really thinking we were ‘doing philanthropy’ just really enjoying the process of immersing ourselves in projects. Twenty-five years later, I can say my background is philanthropy.
The environment came later, after years of working across sectors all over the world. Adam always had an interest in animals, but I was more interested in things like social justice, education and community building. Through The Synchronicity Foundation we did support projects that would class as conservation, projects like the Amboseli Elephant Trust, but that was because we had a direct connection with the Founder Cynthia Moss. We weren’t actively looking for an elephant project. And even then, our support was earmarked for their pioneering endowment fund, which looking back now shows how we’ve always had an interest in trying to generate long-term annuity income for projects.
I guess the key question for us is why did we switch? Why did we close out all of our projects in the foundation, and set up an environmental charity?
First, it is important to understand that we didn’t have an outright intention of creating a charity. That was possibly the last thing we wanted to do; we were acutely aware of how many charities existed and weren’t wanting to contribute to the noise. Our intention was to address the systemic issues, as best we could, given our relatively small pot of funds, and in investigating how to do this, we ended up creating Synchronicity Earth. We knew from our broad work in the foundation, and years of gathering evidence, that ‘the environment’ was an issue that affected almost everything we were supporting – we accumulated what I might call data points. Around 2007, Ken Bacon, the President of Refugees International told us, unequivocally, that climate change was going to be a key contributing factor in future refugee crises. He was trying to get ahead of it. Or, take the AIDS crisis in South Africa. We helped bring anti-retroviral medication (ARVs) when the leadership in the country didn’t believe that AIDS existed. But that medicine only worked if the recipients had nourishing food, so we found ourselves supporting urban gardening programmed. The point is: the environment is linked to everything, but often organizations aren’t equipped to ‘think’ systemically, however interconnected the issues might be. A lot of this has changed since then – because it has had to – but 15-20 years ago, projects and their funding models weren’t necessarily set up to address the environmental threats that underpin everything else.
Interestingly, in the one case where we actively tried to support an environmental project, dating back to 1997, we struggled for other reasons. There was a half-page ad in the Financial Times about the demise of the orang-utan, which moved us to act. I have vivid memories of dial-up modems, reaching out to WWF Netherlands, and going down rabbit-holes that led me to various tiny organizations in Kalimantan, Indonesia, finally emailing with two of the legends in orang-utan conservation, Birutė Galdikas and Willie Smits, trying to figure out how and if our small contributions might be put to work. It was very hard – impossible really – to be so far away and understand the complexity of the issues and the local context. In the end, one of our colleagues went to investigate. I suppose this is notable: it was the first time we actively went out into the field to do some research. In the end, he came back with disappointing news explaining that the projects (back then anyway), while endearing, were really about orang-utan rehabilitation, and weren’t set up to address the long-term threats. They were effectively frontline responders, and while important, we wanted to tackle the cause of the crisis.
Over the next ten years, we intermittently ‘checked-in’ with orang-utan conservation, looking, for instance, at ways to help Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) buy land in Indonesia, but deciding against that. We were aware that other organizations like Greenpeace and WWF had various campaigns for orang-utans, and in some ways, I assumed that because of these campaigns, things were happening, orang-utans were being protected. But I was wrong. The picture was far bleaker, and the issues far greater than I had ever really understood. No one organization could possibly address or be responsible for the level of change that needed to happen, not only in Indonesia, and Malaysia, but in the supply chain that led all the way to the palm oil in our peanut butter. And that is, of course, still the case.
My wake-up call – my epiphany – came in 2006, when I realized that not only had nothing changed since seeing that first ad in 1997, but it had gotten far worse. This time, it took a film clip on TV – one I have now seen repeated numerous times – of an otherwise clear-cut forest, with a lone orang-utan in a tree, a bulldozer revving, ready to go – just waiting for the rehabilitation team to come and dart her, so they could cut down the last standing tree. That was it, that was the moment that changed everything for me. I could no longer watch from the sidelines.
Adam was all in and over the next hour, we changed our entire strategy to focus on the environment. How we would do that took some time to figure out, but it became Synchronicity Earth, the charity we never intended to create.
Just stepping back a moment, what drew you to philanthropy in the first place?
I guess I have always been an altruistic person, it is just my nature – ask my Mom! I am generally more comfortable giving than receiving and go out of my way to create scenarios that inspire and make people happy. It sounds ridiculous writing about it – but giving is literally what powers my engine. Adam knew this about me. He is very possibly the most generous person I know but is less overt about it. He is turned on by ideas and social systems. I think for him there was something experimental about philanthropy and, in what eventually became The Synchronicity Foundation, he created a platform where we could test ideas, be engaged, do something, be highly creative and give all at the same time.
This field of work is a truly positive and joyous process; the more I do, the more I am energized to do more. It’s also a vertical learning curve. Each day presents new learning, insight or clarity. I know what we are striving for seems almost unattainable, but I am a deep believer that humans can do ‘far better than this’ – and that with each new day – we are, and we will, so we have to keep puzzling away. I guess I am also a bit of a serial collaborator – which is a fundamental part of philanthropy. And I mean true collaboration, where people play to their strengths, and everyone has a seat at the table.
How did Synchronicity Earth decide to focus on biodiversity? What are your priorities within that space?
When we first stepped fully into ‘the environmental arena’ it became very clear, very quickly that biodiversity loss was not only on track to become one of the biggest issues of our time, but that biodiversity conservation was a grossly underfunded sector. It was a major gap. We set Synchronicity Earth up with this in mind. How could we design a charity that leveraged our personal philanthropy by forming a respected, rigorous, useful and creative service for other funders, thereby helping to have an overall larger impact?
In our initial conversations, we were offered any number of ‘silver bullet’ style solutions. But we knew – intuitively, and also from our previous philanthropic experiences – that there were no silver bullets. We started to understand the challenges, and knew that we needed to be supporting a range of interventions: supporting local communities and livelihoods; educating about environmental threats; collecting data about endangered species; regenerating ecosystems; addressing supply chains, global policy and financial systems; shifting consumer culture and habits; as well as rethinking philanthropy and even conservation itself – in order to effect lasting change.
Now, Synchronicity Earth works with an array of partners across the world, supporting overlooked and underfunded conservation challenges for globally threatened species and ecosystems. Science, data and evidence guide us towards what we need to be supporting and why; organizations, experts and local knowledge, help us figure out how. We work with dozens of organizations of all sizes across the world, all tackling critical issues. Clustered into overarching themes – Marine, Freshwater, Congo Basin, Amphibians, Asian Species, Regeneration and our newest program Flourishing Diversity which supports local and indigenous communities at the frontlines of environmental protection – our programs offer ways for donors to support a wide array of interventions.
Is there a project you’ve supported that best encapsulates the aims or strategy of the charity?
First of all, we think of ourselves as a charity that supports people and organizations, rather than projects. We always strive to build long-term relationships with people on the ground or those involved in processes that can bring about meaningful change. Building a mutual understanding with partners, helping them build capacity in their team to do the work that they know is most important is a critical element of our role.
That said, and as hard as it is to choose, it’s widely known among my colleagues that Hutan is very dear to me and is a great example of our approach in action – especially as it is primarily an orang-utan organization. But then, it is so much more, and that is why it is brilliant example. Nestled on the Kinabatangan River in the Malaysian part of Borneo is the manifestation of an idea shared by two conservation biologists who back in 1998 wanted to protect wild orang-utans. In order to do this, they needed land and they needed to work not only with the local communities, but also with the numerous neighboring palm oil plantations and, they needed to demonstrate what was thought impossible: that wild orang-utans could and would live in reforested landscapes. Within ten years, they were proving their theory. And what I love about this project – and what I saw when I had the good fortune of visiting a few years ago – is that it demonstrates that orang-utan conservation isn’t just about orang-utans. It is about the Malaysian women who dedicate their lives to creating nurseries of native trees and planting them; it is about sitting down at the table with local business leaders to search for common ground about forest management; it’s about testing prototypes of bird boxes for the endangered hornbills and employing young men to become guardians of the caves where the swallows nest, so they aren’t poached. It’s about a vision, and then realizing that in order to achieve a vision, you have to be adaptable, creative and collaborative. It’s about understanding that there will always be relevant and distinct context for every project, so there will never be a one size fits all approach – but there can be an ecosystem of ideas, interventions and possibilities, that taken together will result in success. Or in the case of Hutan, more orang-utans and all of the species they coexist with, and also, cannot exist without.
The other aspect of this work that is tremendously beneficial, is that successes are measurable. We can garner success rates of tree species planted, for instance. This enables an organization like Synchronicity Earth to have conversations with more data-driven donors around metrics. But I would say that this is not the norm for conservation, and nor should it be. It is important to measure success, yes – but as a sector, and certainly as an organization, this is something we spend a lot of time on – we have to be able to demonstrate success in broader terms, and against longer time horizons.
2020 was billed as the ‘super year for climate and biodiversity’, and there is a lot of talk about this current decade we’re in being our last chance to act and change course. There’s a delicate balance between the urgency imposed by the ecological crises we face and the importance of taking a long-term view, building relationships and working to shift cultural narratives. As I said before, there are no silver bullets. I’m a believer that the best way to navigate this challenge is simply to act. By taking action and being involved we create momentum and become part of a larger groundswell movement for nature. Similarly, I don’t think the debate about individual actions vs corporate/institutional/government action is very helpful, or this idea that there’s no point doing anything because the changes we need are systemic. Being involved in any way you can is an important first step, but the more of us that get involved in fighting for the changes we want to see, the more companies, governments and international institutions will feel compelled to act. All the systems we are part of – those that are beneficial and those that are destroying our only home – all these systems were created by people, so they can all be changed by people, if we act together.
What do you see as current gaps in the conservation sector? Or where can conservation do better?
In terms of doing better, I think there is almost an art to ‘doing conservation’, and it varies enormously depending upon the context. Sure, there are certain analytical tools, studies, ways of gathering evidence, understanding data, sharing best practice etc. that can and must be utilized, but there is also an enormous amount of nuance and cultural context that has to be accounted for. This is where the art comes in. There is also something about being OK with taking certain kinds of risks. A lot of the areas we support, in fact most of them, are not easy to fund, whether because of their remote location, geopolitical situation, or simply because the species itself is just highly elusive. The point is, doing conservation is fraught with complexity, and donors will need to adjust their expectations accordingly. But being OK with that level of risk can create enormous reward. The bottom line is, we know conservation works and we need to do much more of it. Much more of the right kind of conservation.
I would say even in the last few years, there has been a move away from top-down one-size-fits-all conservation approaches towards supporting on the ground local initiatives. I think organizations like Synchronicity Earth and many of the initiatives we host and support like Flourishing Diversity and Shoal, and even Conservation Optimism, have a distinct role to play in nudging this along. This is where the art I spoke of earlier comes in. We recognize that we are just one piece of a much bigger puzzle that needs to come together for transformative change to take place. So we actively seek out other people and organizations whose values, approaches and goals align with ours and we convene, support, fund and help to develop them in any way we can. There is no one size fits all here: we can act as a key funder, host – providing office space and support from our team, consultant, partner or friend. Or sometimes a mixture of all of those. For us, genuine collaboration that recognizes the need to help join the dots between people that are working towards the same vision, is part of what is missing in the conservation sector. So that’s a gap we’re trying to help fill.
How has the pandemic affected your philanthropic strategy?
It has reinforced it. Our strategy is being proven structurally, financially and philosophically all the time, and never more so than in the last year. In Synchronicity Earth, we embedded a model, and a mindset, of resilience. Against the backdrop of a pandemic – which is of course deeply connected to the loss of nature – I feel like our approach has been stress-tested and as a result, strengthened. For us, 2020 was actually remarkable – we almost doubled the amount of funding we were able to distribute to our partners. To me this indicates that our philanthropic strategy makes sense.
As an organization, we are doing what we all need to do – we are stepping up, adapting, finding space, caring for each other, mourning, responding, being creative in ways we couldn’t have imagined, and figuring out how to do more, together.
Do you see opportunities for biodiversity in the aftermath of the devastation wrought by the pandemic?
There are only opportunities. We are talking about the survival of our species. We have to be opportunistic. And wise.
This last year has highlighted the interconnectivity of everything in a way that we could never have articulated without going through it. Sectors that were for some, seemingly unrelated, are now talking to each other. There are enormous opportunities in the finance sector around ESG. And an ever-increasing number of people are becoming more aware of where they invest their money, the consumer choices they make, and companies are having to react to this.
This past summer prompted the conservation sector to confront social justice concerns. Do you have thoughts on how conservation can become more inclusive as well as broaden its constituency of support?
Conservation and social justice have always been deeply connected, but it’s also true that 2020 reminded us of many of the inequalities that persist in our societies. It’s a paradox that for all the diversity of the partners we support around the world, the conservation sector we are part of continues to suffer from an extraordinary lack of diversity. Only around 3 per cent of people employed in the conservation sector in the UK are from Visible Minority Ethnic (VME) backgrounds. As part of our work to ‘broaden the base’ for conservation, we are currently developing new partnerships with initiatives that aim to empower a more diverse range of people to become conservationists and reduce some of the persistent obstacles to greater diversity and inclusion in the sector. One such initiative is the Race for Nature Recovery, which is supporting the placement of hundreds of young people from diverse backgrounds into environmental organizations around the UK.
Critical to this success is collaborating with and bringing other funders along. It has to be a group effort.
In terms of the second part of the question, broadening the constituency of support for conservation is something both Adam and I have championed from the outset. There wasn’t and there still isn’t enough funding going into conservation. For far too many years, supporting conservation was a very niche activity: we all failed to understand the inextricable links between the natural world and ourselves. It has been encouraging to see the supporter base for Synchronicity Earth grow beyond ourselves, to like-minded donors, to notable foundations and increasingly, the finance sector. Our ecosystem of donors is really broad and growing. Just like the statistic about the lack of diversity in the sector, it’s also jaw-dropping to realize how little philanthropic funding is devoted to environmental issues. Only around 3 – 4 per cent of UK philanthropy goes to the environment! To broaden the base for conservation, more people need to recognize how fundamental protecting and restoring the environment is – not just where they live but across the world – and contribute in any way they can. With our More than Carbon initiative, we’re focusing on the finance sector to try to encourage more people to contribute to nature protection and restoration. More than Carbon works with financial firms to bring funding to partners working on the ground in some of the most biologically and culturally diverse regions of the planet. These partners all share a similar, holistic approach: as well as protecting Earth’s carbon sinks to mitigate the impacts of climate change, they are protecting and restoring biodiversity and contributing to the economic and social wellbeing and health of local communities. Protecting the natural world isn’t a niche activity, so we need to work to break down any barriers that exist and make sure that it isn’t perceived as such.
The scale and extent of environmental challenges we face can seem daunting. What keeps you motivated?
The process. Once you are aware of the problem, and have made a commitment to do something, and even though the scale of it is daunting, the actual process of doing is deeply enjoyable. I am working with exceptional and inspiring people. Our team, our advisors, my network. I work in a sector where you actively want people to do well, and for everyone to be a winner – and I love nurturing all of that.
What would you say to young people who are distressed about the current trajectory of the planet?
Engage. Create. Be heard. Scream loud enough so we can hear you. Please ask questions, challenge traditional thinking and suggest alternative approaches. Quite a few of us are listening. We need new diverse ideas and approaches.
Do, and act. Even if seemingly small in the grand scheme of things, by doing you are contributing to a wider fabric, or weave, and frame of mind, of right-action which may not be obvious, or feel like much, but is essential to our total well-being. Yours and ours.
And, I care about you. A lot. This is really all about you, and the generations that follow you.
Header image: Satellite image of Reserve de chasse de la Lefini in Republic of Congo. Photo credit: NASA Landsat