- When Aileen Lee took on the mantle of chief program officer at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, she brought substantial experience as a management consultant to a nonprofit that’s the largest private donor of Amazon conservation efforts.
- Like management consultants, she says, grant makers “will never be as close to the realities of the problems” as the groups they help, but can still help them “access resources, knowledge, and networks that might not otherwise be available to them.”
- Lee hails groundbreaking efforts in conservation and philanthropy, including the adoption of technology and greater engagement with a wider range of stakeholders, including Indigenous-led conservation groups.
- In an interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler, Lee discusses the Moore Foundation’s achievements in the Amazon, the impacts of recent setbacks to that work, and the role of young people in forging the future they want.
Since the early 2000s, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has invested more than half a billion dollars into efforts to protect the Amazon, making it the largest private donor of conservation efforts for Earth’s largest rainforest. The foundation has supported a range of interventions, including establishing protected areas and Indigenous territories, using technology to monitor forest clearing and degradation, and working with agribusiness companies and governments to reduce deforestation from commodity production.
But while the Moore Foundation’s largesse helped contribute to a decline in deforestation across the Amazon from the mid-2000s to the early 2010s, and to a blossoming of conservation innovations and institutions, deforestation has since soared in Brazil, suggesting the limits of private philanthropy and civil society in arresting forest destruction when national leaders are opposed to environmental protection.
But Aileen Lee, the chief program officer for the Moore Foundation’s Environmental Conservation Program, says that while the recent reversal is a setback for Amazon conservation efforts, there are reasons for optimism, including identifying new strategies for impact.
“The recent setbacks in the Amazon are a sobering reminder that the gains we’ve made in the Amazon are still fragile, and much more must be done to secure them,” Lee told Mongabay during a recent interview. “But they are also a reminder that opportunities to advance conservation persist at the level of sub-national jurisdictions and indigenous territories even when national level geo-politics turn against our objectives, and our grantees have made the most of these.
“As the Foundation’s grantees have adapted their strategies, we’ve learned about interventions that can strengthen our overall conservation toolkit, for example, litigation capacity in service of indigenous rights or new capacity building efforts to address the problem of fires in the Amazon.”
Lee’s pragmatic perspective on the situation in the Amazon is informed by her professional background, which includes earning a law degree and working as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company, and her nearly 20 years working at the foundation, including stints in its programs to protect salmon habitat in the Pacific Northwest and improve the sustainability of commodities markets.
Lee says her pre-Moore career taught her “both the power and limitations of the law as a tool for protecting the environment” as well as “how to ‘make the business case’ for change” within organizations.
“It also taught me about the practical obstacles that can impede meaningful implementation of commitments to improve environmental performance, even when there is principled support from the C-suite,” she said, referring to her work with corporate clients while at McKinsey. “I see these issues playing out constantly in the Foundation’s Conservation and Markets work, where the real challenge that our grantees face right now is converting ambitious pledges into tangible changes in production and harvest practices that actually touch ground in the landscapes and seascapes we care about.
“At a more basic level, I’ve also found that the client-service mindset I developed as a management consultant has been a valuable part of my toolkit as a grant maker,” she continued.
“In some ways, management consultants and grant makers are similarly situated relative to those who their work is intended to serve: you provide support, but you are not the one who actually carries out the work, and you will never be as close to the realities of the problems and opportunities as they are. At the same time, you can hopefully help those you support access resources, knowledge, and networks that might not otherwise be available to them. You can listen well, help remove obstacles in their path, and put them in a position to realize their full potential. Those are lessons from management consulting that I’ve tried to keep top of mind working in philanthropy.”
Lee spoke about her background, the changes she’s seen in the philanthropic and conservation sectors over the past two decades, the role of technology in achieving conservation outcomes, the importance of collaboration between funders, and more during a conversation with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.
An interview with Aileen Lee
Mongabay: What is your background and what inspired your interest in environmental issues?
Aileen Lee: Whenever I’m asked this question, it reminds me how much my path to working on the environment differs from that of many of my peers. So many of my environmentalist colleagues relay beautiful stories of childhoods spent exploring vast wilderness and encountering the wonders of nature firsthand. They tell tales of immersive experiences so transformative that their passion for the environment flowed inevitably from it. But I’ll confess that while I am wistfully envious of such experiences, growing up as the child of recent Chinese immigrants, I never shared them. And honestly, when I was younger, I really didn’t give much thought to what I was “passionate” about; my focus was on achieving academically and professionally in ways that would honor the sacrifices my parents had made for me. But once I had the luxury of some professional stability, with a law degree and career as a management consultant behind me, I started to ask myself what I really wanted out of life. I realized that I would only find fulfillment by pursuing work that makes the world a better place. And as I considered how I would focus my efforts, the environment stood out as a place where I wanted to make a difference because it picked up on the experiences that had resonated the most throughout my education and career: my visit to the site of what would become the Three Gorges Dam in China as an East Asian Studies major and the questions that provoked about how to reconcile environmental protection with poverty alleviation, my legal studies and clinical work that fueled my desire to work on behalf of “underdogs”, and my consulting work with clients focused on environmental and supply chain issues.
Mongabay: Prior to joining the Moore Foundation, you earned a law degree and worked at McKinsey & Company. What did you bring from those experiences to your career in philanthropy?
Aileen Lee: My legal training taught me about both the power and limitations of the law as a tool for protecting the environment. It also made me acutely aware of the ways that legal institutions interact with, and often reinforce, existing power structures, and therefore the value of transforming those institutions and governance systems to shift who holds the power. I find it a valuable lens to bring to our work.
At McKinsey, I worked with several clients on environmental and supply chain management issues. It left me with a deeper appreciation of what it really takes to “make the business case” for change inside a company. It also taught me about the practical obstacles that can impede meaningful implementation of commitments to improve environmental performance, even when there is principled support from the C-suite. I see these issues playing out constantly in the Foundation’s Conservation and Markets work, where the real challenge that our grantees face right now is converting ambitious pledges into tangible changes in production and harvest practices that actually touch ground in the landscapes and seascapes we care about.
At a more basic level, I’ve also found that the client-service mindset I developed as a management consultant has been a valuable part of my toolkit as a grant maker. In some ways, management consultants and grant makers are similarly situated relative to those who their work is intended to serve: you provide support, but you are not the one who actually carries out the work, and you will never be as close to the realities of the problems and opportunities as they are. At the same time, you can hopefully help those you support access resources, knowledge, and networks that might not otherwise be available to them. You can listen well, help remove obstacles in their path, and put them in a position to realize their full potential. Those are lessons from management consulting that I’ve tried to keep top of mind working in philanthropy.
Mongabay: You’ve been working in philanthropy in support of conservation and sustainability for nearly 20 years now, what have been the biggest changes you’ve seen during that time? Both in terms of the conservation space and philanthropy.
Aileen Lee: I think one of the most important changes we’ve seen is the growth in momentum for climate action. We’ve gone from climate change being regarded as a “special interest” concern that was largely the domain of environmentalists, to today’s much more widespread embrace of the imperative for climate action — with the call for climate solutions being championed by diverse social movements, private sector companies and investors, and local governments all around the world. Of course, this isn’t to say that the work is finished. Far from it, there is clearly much more to be done in terms of raising global climate ambition and aligning national level policy commitments to put the world firmly on a net-zero pathway. But the progress has been tangible and meaningful, and we can see the benefits in terms of increased motivation to tackle deforestation and land degradation due to the climate impacts, though again, much more needs to be done to elevate nature conservation as a critical solution for both climate mitigation and adaptation. Indeed, I think an important opportunity for the conservation community is to amplify the climate-nature nexus in order to bring some of the momentum that’s been generated around climate action to the nature conservation agenda. After all, though the climate crisis is urgent, its ultimately just a symptom of the problems we create when push the planet’s life support systems beyond their breaking points. As such, addressing climate change and other sustainable development challenges will only be possible if we set our collective course towards a nature-positive world.
The other really positive change I’ve seen in the last two decades is the continued evolution towards a more expansive definition of conservation that embraces leadership from a wider array of actors. In our work, we’ve experienced this most notably in the growth of indigenous led conservation, where our grantmaking has progressed over time from funding ENGOs that work in indigenous communities, to supporting ENGO partnerships with indigenous communities, and now increasingly to investing in indigenous led conservation. But I also see this trend in the conservation community’s increased engagement with the private sector, with resource users like fishers and farmers, and with communities of color whose voices have often been excluded. From my perspective, these developments have done much to enrich conservation solutions and the strengthen the constituencies to support them.
Mongabay: The Moore Foundation has been one of the biggest private funders — if not the biggest — of conservation efforts in the Amazon rainforest since the early 2000s. How has the foundation’s strategy evolved over the past 20 years?
Aileen Lee: The foundation has invested nearly $520 million in its Andes Amazon Initiative over the last two decades.
From the beginning, it was clear that we had to avoid the biome’s ecological “tipping point” by maintaining forest cover above the ~70% threshold. We approached this by prioritizing vast forested landscapes across the basin and also areas with high biodiversity (the Andean Amazon).
The initial phase of work centered on the creation of new protected areas. Then in the context of rapid economic growth in Amazonian countries, we saw the opportunity to support territorial zoning by focusing on affirming the creation of protected areas of different types: from co-management of communal reserves or extractive reserves to national parks with strict protection. In this phase, we also focused more intentionally on investing in effective management of protected areas and indigenous territories, often through capacity building and conservation financing mechanisms.
Finally, in the most recent phase of work, we’ve started to engage more directly on the drivers of deforestation, with a focus on transparency and governance of road and dam infrastructure projects.
Mongabay: What have been the biggest achievements of Moore’s support in the Amazon to date?
Aileen Lee: Since 2001, we’ve helped conserve over 170 million hectares in the Amazon – an area more than four times the size of California – supporting the designation and management of protected areas and indigenous lands. We’ve also helped strengthen the effectiveness of national level systems of protected areas by helping to launch program like the Amazon Regional Protected Areas Program and Peru’s Natural Legacy.
Mongabay: How has the foundation viewed the recent developments in the Amazon? And what has the foundation learned from these developments?
Aileen Lee: The recent setbacks in the Amazon are a sobering reminder that the gains we’ve made in the Amazon are still fragile, and much more must be done to secure them. But they are also a reminder that opportunities to advance conservation persist at the level of sub-national jurisdictions and indigenous territories even when national level geo-politics turn against our objectives, and our grantees have made the most of these.
At the same time, our grantees have turned their attention to support international alliances that can open opportunity space for conservation, such as the Science Panel for the Amazon and the Leticia Pact.
As the Foundation’s grantees have adapted their strategies, we’ve learned about interventions that can strengthen our overall conservation toolkit, for example, litigation capacity in service of indigenous rights or new capacity building efforts to address the problem of fires in the Amazon.
Mongabay: The Moore Foundation was born out of a Silicon Valley tech fortune. How does the foundation view the role of technology in supporting conservation efforts?
Aileen Lee: I would say the Foundation views technology as an important tool in a diverse conservation tool-kit. But at the same time, it’s not a “silver bullet”, and I’m wary of technocratic approaches that try to make it one.
I think the key is finding ways to put technological tools in the hands and at the service of the conservation practitioners who are already driving change on the ground and on the waters. With innovations making technology cheaper and more accessible, we are seeing an important shift – from conservationists being largely passive and opportunistic consumers of technology developed by industry and government, to conservation practitioners being actively engaged as drivers and innovators of specialized and customized solutions for the sector. By putting conservation users in the drivers’ seat in this way, we have the potential to accelerate technology innovation for the benefit of conservation. We’ve supported organizations like Conservation X Labs to help facilitate this shift.
Mongabay: What technologies are you especially excited about in the context of conservation?
Aileen Lee: Innovations in earth observation instruments, visual and audio field sensors, environmental DNA, and machine learning are increasingly being combined in ways that can provide us with a much more robust understanding of what is happening, in near real-time, with biodiversity and ecosystem function in the places we care about. By itself, that would be exciting for conservation management by practitioners in the field. But in combination with platforms that make the data accessible to a wide range of stakeholders – such as citizen scientists who can illuminate threats and advocate for change, corporate decision-makers who can guide supply chain sourcing decisions based on the information, or policy makers who will shape land use planning and practices – this revolution in earth informatics can be especially powerful.
Mongabay: The pandemic has had significant impacts on conservation efforts worldwide. What have you been hearing from grantees in terms of the effects of the pandemic? And how has the pandemic affected the foundation’s work?
Aileen Lee: Sadly, the human toll of the pandemic on many of our grantees has been quite painful. In our Amazon Initiative, which operates in countries that have been severely impacted by the pandemic, many of our grantees, their partners, and their families have suffered devastating losses. In the First Nations and Inuit communities where our Marine Conservation Initiative works, the pandemic has taken the lives of elders with rich cultural knowledge, important language skills, and foundational community wisdom. And even for those grantees who have been spared COVID-19’s most devastating effects, the challenges of dealing with the unanticipated struggles of remote work and additional family care burdens has been hard to manage.
At the same time, I’ve been in awe of how focused many of our grantees have remained, despite these harsh realities. In some places, they’ve risen to the challenge of taking on mounting environmental threats fueled by irresponsible governments adding insult to injury by rolling back environmental protections in the name of pandemic response. In others, they’re motivated to take advantage of new opportunities that have emerged as enlightened policymakers and/or private sector actors have responded to the pandemic with greater resolve to take on the systemic challenges around nature loss, climate change, and inequity. And though the disruption of the pandemic has delayed progress and made execution more challenging across the board, it has only strengthened the Foundation’s resolve to stay the course on these long-term conservation priorities.
Mongabay: Kathy Reich of the Ford Foundation recently wrote an op-ed that said the crisis has caused some foundations to adjust their funding parameters to provide greater flexibility to organizations. Is this something that’s being discussed among the funders the Moore Foundation collaborates with?
Aileen Lee: In the various funder affinity groups and also informal collaboratives that we are participate in, there has been a lot of discussion about how different foundations are responding to the pandemic. There isn’t necessarily an easy, one-size fits all answer, but it’s always valuable to learn from other organizations and take inspiration from their approaches.
At Moore, we debated some options and ultimately decided that the right approach for us was for our program staff to work with individual grantees and tailor the remedies accordingly. Our grant portfolios tend to contain such a varied mix of organizations and projects, with very different needs and challenges, that this seemed more appropriate than uniform, across the board grant supplements or extensions. Fortunately, Moore’s longstanding governance policies give our program staff a good deal of flexibility to adaptively manage grant budgets and timelines when warranted.
Mongabay: The Moore Foundation is a member of the Climate and Land Use Foundation (CLUA). Do you see these sorts of collaborations — where funders come together around common objectives, provide a common application process for grantees, and coordinate funding on an issue area — as a trend in philanthropy?
Aileen Lee: I’d like to think that one of the reasons philanthropic collaborations are on the rise is because funders are increasingly aware that the systemic nature of the complex problems we’re trying to tackle means that we need to be able to work across silos in order to drive transformational change at scale. We can see the nature of this challenge but also face the reality that at many foundations our silos are well-defined and hard to reshape. This is certainly the case at Moore, where our Programs and Initiatives are highly focused by design. But donor collaborations can help us overcome this limitation, by connecting our highly focused efforts with those of other donors who have prioritized different intervention points in the same overall system that we are all trying to impact. The Climate and Land Use Alliance is a great example of this, with some funders being more focused primarily on climate, some on rights/equity, and some on nature/biodiversity. By bringing our efforts together, we have a better opportunity to move the system towards the equitable, climate-neutral, and nature-positive future that we all seek.
Mongabay: One of the major criticisms of traditional conservation is it has often failed to be inclusive, especially of historically marginalized communities. Do you see conservation becoming more inclusive of diverse voices and constituencies? And is this a topic that gets much attention now in philanthropic circles?
Aileen Lee: As I mentioned earlier, I think the trend in this direction over the past decades has been one of the most important and positive developments in conservation. And I would certainly say that the rising awareness of racial justice issues over the past years have made it more topical than ever in philanthropic circles. But while I think the direction of travel is positive, and we’re making important progress, it’s also clear that we still have a lot to learn and a long way to go.
Mongabay: The Biden administration has made environmental sustainability and addressing climate change priorities. What do you see as the best opportunities on the U.S. policy front for making progress on the areas and issues where the Moore Foundation works? For example, protecting the Amazon.
Aileen Lee: The Moore Foundation works domestically on oceans and internationally in places like the Amazon and Arctic. On the domestic oceans front, our grantees have been working tirelessly for many years to be ready for this moment, where they can transition from playing defense to securing important gains in terms of fisheries management and marine protected areas. The Biden administration has a ripe opportunity to take leadership in advancing ocean protection in U.S. waters, and our partners are committed to helping make that happen.
Internationally, the leadership of the Biden administration could also make a big difference in a place like the Amazon. President Biden has certainly signaled a willingness to make the Amazon a climate and conservation priority, proposing on the campaign trail to mobilize $20 billion for its protection. And though direct talks between U.S. and Brazil around incentives to stem deforestation seem unlikely to yield an agreement with sufficient safeguards and accountability, the Biden administration has many other options for deploying conservation funds effectively and motivating Brazil to stop deforestation. For example, aligning with steps that the U.K. and E.U. have taken to leverage their trade policies and to get products associated with illegal deforestation out of supply chains would send a powerful signal. And of course, as the Biden administration embraces a leadership role in international climate negotiations in the run up to the UNFCCC Glasgow COP, they can also play an important role in ensuring that forest conservation is prioritized by calling on countries to establish NDCs with quantitative targets for land use emissions reductions, ideally backed by spatially explicit low-carbon development plans.
Mongabay: What would you say to young people who are distressed about the current trajectory of the planet?
Aileen Lee: I have two school-aged children who are truly passionate about the environment and downright angry about the current trajectory of the planet, so this is a conversation that I have at home every so often.
I guess the first thing that I usually say to my kids is that they are right to feel angry. For starters, it means that they are paying attention and that they understand what’s at stake. And it’s really their future that we’re talking about after all, so they have every right to want to fight for it. And then I remind them that if they want to fight for their future, they have to do more than just be angry. They have to figure out what steps they can take, big or little, to make a difference toward building the world that they want. I talk with them about how the successful social change movements that we’ve seen are always made up of individuals who have the courage to take action and try to make a difference even in the face of seemingly long odds. And I tell them a story or two about one of our amazing grantees who are doing just that – I’m fortunate to have so many good stories to choose from. And finally, I remind them that if they make the choice to act, they won’t be fighting for the future alone. They’ll be part of a larger ecosystem of people and organizations that are already doing amazing things to push the system in the right direction, and that’s what starts to build a movement.
I might be a terrible mom, because it it’s never quite enough to make their anger or concerns go away. But it does seem to be enough to keep them fighting for the future they want, and believing that what they choose will matter, and I suppose that’s all I could ask for any young person today.
Disclosure: Mongabay received a contribution from the Moore Foundation in 2018 to support a reporting project in Argentina, which ended in 2019. The foundation is not a current funder of Mongabay’s work.
Header image: Oxbow lake and a river in the Amazon. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler