Human Journey

Using Data to Democratize Ocean Philanthropy

Given the swirling, complex, synergistic, and increasingly dire threats to the ocean (from climate change, to overfishing, to pollution), and the smaller and smaller investments the federal government is making in solutions, it is critical to effectively leverage philanthropic dollars. One of the most promising things that happened last year for ocean conservation was the launch of

Philanthropy plays a large role in ocean conservation, yet it is opaque to most people. Funding decisions are often made based on long-standing relationships between foundation staff and NGO leaders. In some ways, it’s an old boys network. New NGOs and new philanthropists alike can feel lost and under-informed, and great ideas and available dollars don’t connect as they should, which is a terrible shame.

Global map of ocean conservation grants. Screenshot from in February 2018.

In 2012, I suddenly found myself trying to get a handle on who was doing what in ocean conservation. As Director of Science and Solutions at the Waitt Foundation, I was managing a diverse portfolio of grants to ocean conservation groups, and beginning to make recommendations for where future funding could be directed. I had so many questions.

  • What were all the ocean organizations working on and where?
  • Where were the most promising opportunities for collaboration?
  • What field research gaps most needed filling?
  • What was the history of conservation efforts in various locations?
  • Who was funding similar work and could help with vetting?
  • Had similar projects been tried before that we could learn from?
  • And most important to me, which smaller NGOs around the world were doing stellar work in need of support?

As a scientist, my first instinct was to conduct an assessment of all the organizations working in ocean conservation and map these variables. However, I quickly realized that would be an enormous multi-year effort. Instead, luckily, I had access to experts across philanthropy, science, and NGOs who shared their insights and provided gut checks. But I shouldn’t have had to rely so heavily on luck and insider access.

Five years later, the map I dreamed of now exists. has crowdsourced and made freely available data on the who, what, when, and where of over 31,000 grants and over 7,700 bi- and multi-lateral disbursements, representing $7.7 billion in funding. This could be a particularly valuable tool for small organizations; it could help level the playing field for those without a full fundraising department.

This new platform created by the Foundation Center (a non-profit focused on improving philanthropy), in partnership with Marine Watch International, aims to “track, inform, and inspire ocean conservation philanthropy.” The “inspire” part is key since despite being 72% of the earth’s surface, and core to climate, food security, national security, and culture, ocean conservation receives only 0.55% of philanthropic dollars.

Constellation of grants for ocean conservation in New York. (Screenshot from in February 2018.)

We are in an era of open data, big data, data visualization, artificial intelligence, machine learning, lean start-ups, and on-demand everything. Allowing a heap of useful data to go unanalyzed and un-infographic-ed is anathema. Doubly so now that millennials and digital natives are getting more and more involved in both making philanthropic decisions and leading conservation programs.

Given the rapid rate at which both ocean conservation challenges and the available solutions are evolving, philanthropy needs to evolve too. Imagine an open-source, data-driven philanthropy, where the best ideas – no matter their source – rise to the top.

Now, I’m not a fan of technology for its own sake. And this tool still has a way to go – it’s only as good as the data that it contains, and there is a lot of data not yet included. But perhaps, will become a model for how to strengthen the role of data across the philanthropy sector. And maybe more openness about grantmaking can help foster a more diverse and inclusive ocean conservation community. And hopefully this data platform is the leading edge of a trend toward democratizing philanthropy and making it more meritocratic.

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, policy expert, conservation strategist, and Brooklyn native. She is founder and president of Ocean Collectiv, a consulting firm for ocean conservation strategies grounded in social justice. She teaches at New York University as an adjunct professor, and was co-director of partnerships for the March for Science. As executive director of the Waitt Institute, Ayana co-founded the Blue Halo Initiative and led the Caribbean’s first successful island-wide ocean zoning effort. Previously, she worked on ocean policy at the EPA and NOAA, and was recently a TED resident and Aspen Institute fellow. She envisions and works toward a healthy ocean that supports food security, economies, and cultures. Find her @ayanaeliza.

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