Carolynn Beaty is the Executive Director for the Sitka Foundation. She supports the granting program as well as provides strategic direction for the organization. Carolynn has a background in conservation biology and philosophy. Carolynn holds a BSc, a BA, and a BEd from Queen’s University, and an MSc from Imperial College London. She is also an educator with over fifteen years experience. Most at peace in the natural world, Carolynn enjoys hiking, long-distance running, and skiing with her family.
Interviewed by: Audrey Popa
Audrey Popa (AP): How did the Sitka Foundation come to be, who were the main actors involved, and where did the capital come from initially?
Carolynn Beaty (CB): Sitka is a relatively new private family foundation. Sitka was founded by Ross and Trishia Beaty and it was founded due to two things: 1) a deep love and concern for the natural world, and 2) a desire to not hold onto material wealth. The wealth they didn’t need was put into a Foundation to be stewarded as a family foundation, to then ultimately be given to leaders who are working in the environmental space. Our capital comes mostly from personal donations from a renewable energy company that is publicly traded. The organization itself is 13 years old and has granted about $53 million dollars to 200 groups. Some of these grants are participatory or pooled grant-making.
We’re small, four people work here, and we have a Board of four people. We don’t have any desire to centre our name or our story. The money in our Foundation is designed to support things that have no voice – biodiversity. We’re not a human-centred organization. The very word, philanthropy. translates roughly to the love of humans, and we don’t put our money into humans, which is why we’re in the rare 1% [of foundations]. I believe that humans are absolutely essential to fulfill our mission, so our philanthropy touches humankind but isn’t designed for humankind.
AP: Has this always been the social mission of the Sitka Foundation, or has your mission as a foundation evolved over time?
CB: The mission of the Foundation hasn’t changed, nor will it. It will always be focused on the promotion of biodiversity and the protection of the environment, but how we do that has changed over the years, as we’ve learned and grown. Our mission was collaboratively created, and our current strategy is mostly crowdsourced. It’s not from just our organization; we pulled it from many more people than just us, to land on certain focus areas to be able to have local and measurable impact. We plan to focus our money on the funding of protected areas and the protection of strategic ecosystems. We have a British Columbian focus, specifically, along the coastlines and the rainforests of British Columbia, but we are also quite flexible. We are responsive and can be place agnostic. If something is in alignment with our mission elsewhere it wouldn’t be a hard no. We have flexibility.
AP: Your strategic framework and core values as a foundation, are those also created through crowdsourcing, or from lessons learned as a foundation?
CB: Our values for the foundation are organizationally and family driven. Feedback for how we work has been generated through an anonymous feedback survey that we offered to our grant recipients, just to make sure that the way we engage in our philanthropy is aligned with the values that we subscribe to. Conservation is such a complex field, that I wouldn’t dare to dream that Sitka’s dollars are unilaterally going to achieve all our ambitions. We can’t achieve these goals without so much more: more environmental capital, more opportunities provided by governments, and more capacity from community partners.
AP: What are the Sitka Foundation’s ambitions for the future?
CB: At a high level, I hope for a more biodiverse world. I hope not to have to be talking about a twin climate and biodiversity crisis. But to do that, my ambition is to see a more biodiverse world, with engaged and inclusive leaders, leading the solutions. These leaders are stewards, they’re well-resourced by funders, they are supported by decision-makers, they feel validated by communities and community voices, they have what they need to create that biodiverse world, and are doing it in a just way.
AP: As you’ve mentioned, only 1% of philanthropic organizations work towards funding the environment and nature, making it a niche field. How is this area of funding unique compared to other areas of funding? What are some of the challenges of working in this charitable area?
CB: This is my lived experience, so it’s a niche, but it’s everything to me [in terms of Sitka having a very specific focus on biodiversity], and it’s hard for me to compare to other areas of philanthropy. For the environmental charitable sector, there is a huge scarcity of resources, but an abundance of passion and heart. There’s so much expertise from so many different communities and spaces, it’s quite incredible. This sort of philanthropy isn’t supporting human voices; this philanthropy is supporting those that have no voice [i.e., non-human animals]. Both are needed: we need to support humans and their needs, and we need to support non-human species and their needs and those who are stewarding that. We need to do both within the context of climate change, which is imperilling all elements of our world. The reason I first connected with PhiLab, was the philanthropy for climate pledge, which is such a beautiful example of how imperative it is for all of us to remember that climate change will inform, influence, and affect all things that touch us. Climate change and biodiversity [loss] are informing each other, exacerbating each other, basically due to the same reason, and the solutions to both are similar. Within the environmental space, the Canadian, the international, and the British Columbian funders community (both public and private) are all so collaborative. It’s such a beautiful community that is coordinated with similar values. Most importantly, they get it, that without a healthy ecosystem, we won’t have healthy anything. And then philanthropy itself will be stuck.
To address your second question, challenges include competing interests and complexity. One of the challenges is that as a society, we need to be a little bit less egocentric and be a bit more humble. There’s never one clear solution if you’re protecting, for example, salmon. You could look at flood patterns; the recent floods are such a good example of the devastation that is going to occur for wild salmon. You could look at climate change. You could look at forestry. You could look at fisheries and harvest. You could look at aquaculture and the impacts of sea lice. You could look at international fishing habitats. There are just so many things. Another challenge is, and again, it’s an important thing, but environmental charities have been very harmful. Historically, they have engaged in harmful activities within Indigenous territories and [harmful to] Indigenous peoples and other marginalized people. Overlay that with the forceful removal [of Indigenous populations] and the residential school system. I don’t think that the conservation movement has reckoned with the harm that it has done, and that needs to change. Going back to our strategic framework, everything in our strategic framework document is reliant on Indigenous permission, sovereignty, and leadership.
AP: How has the philanthropic community progressively responded to climate change over the years? With Sitka working in this space for 13 years, I’m curious to know how it looked 13 years ago and how that has changed.
CB: I believe it’s changed significantly due to two things. I think the philanthropic community has also changed as everyone recognizes the impacts of climate change in a more holistic way, and that there is an emergency response that’s needed. You have this concept of urgency, and what the philanthropic community is trying to do is be collaborative and inclusive and scaling up, providing more resources. Thirteen years ago, GHG reduction work done by leaders, funded by foundations, was just a marginal part of where charitable dollars were going, but things have changed for a few reasons. More dollars are going towards the engagement of a climate-engaged community or the creation of a climate-engaged community. There’s still not enough, but it’s happening. That, to me, is the democratization of solutions across communities and through different power levels of our society. That’s changed hugely in the last 10 years. The reason it has changed is that we have climate literacy. People understand how climate change affects them, they understand the science around climate change for the most part, and they see their elected officials and their agency in this. Internationally, the way to fight climate change has also changed significantly – we see this in the dialogues within COP and other international discourse. So, that was Sitka’s philosophy 10 years ago, and we had a GHG reduction climate mitigation funding program, but I have seen so many more resources in that space (and leaders, I should add), and it gives me hope amidst an emergency and a resource scarcity that at least I know that people get it.
AP: As a foundation, have you noticed some activities as more impactful when addressing your mission compared to others? Have you experimented with different forms of financing, like responsible investing, impact investing, and conservation finance?
CB: There’s a systems approach to answering your question. Nothing that we’re talking about is going to be solved in a 12-month grant cycle. Recognizing that complexity and being a long-term funder gets you to recognize the impact. To recognize complexity, I think we must decenter ourselves and remember others’ wisdom, others’ experiences, and that a fair bit of humility will help us hear and listen for solutions. At Sitka we listen to other voices, we fund for longer durations, and we reflect on the kind of philanthropy that works in a systems change arena. I do also want to point out that it’s essential to listen to Indigenous voices and provide abundant funding with few restrictions.
I am grateful that our foundation is nimble, and uses a suite of tools, instead of just our philanthropy. We try to address biodiversity issues across our organization. Our philanthropic capital, our investment capital, our social capital, we try to practice innovation in our granting, by funding things that can impact things like accounting principles. An example of this is, the Municipal Natural Asset Initiative, which is a type of ecological economics that marries natural climate solutions to government accounting principles, which is a type of conservation financing. We’ve also worked in conservation financing in a more conventional sense with initiatives like Marine Planning Partnerships in territories of the Great Bear Rainforest. We also work with impact investments. We endeavour to be a responsible investor, and we are significantly scaling up our mission-aligned investing across all the tools that we can. We have a low carbon portfolio, designed to support human transitions to a less impactful way of living. Our mission and objectives are applied across our whole portfolio, and we have plans to scale what we are doing in an aggressive way, through mission-aligned investing.
AP: Can you give an example of organizations or initiatives that you are currently supporting regarding your priorities as a Foundation, specific to animals?
CB: Let’s talk about salmon. I think of animals as emblematic of an ecosystem, so every time I’ve mentioned an ecosystem, I’m thinking about animals. Salmon are keystone indicators of a healthy ecosystem and a healthy watershed. I’ll give you three examples of organizations we fund that are connected to the salmon. The Pacific Salmon Foundation, Salmon Coast Field Station Society, and Watershed Watch Salmon Society. So those are just three examples, and we work with over 70 organizations a year. We work to protect wild salmon by supporting the incredible efforts of these groups – and others
. AP: How has Sitka worked towards the development or improvement of public policy specific to biodiversity? What are some strategies or objectives Sitka has?
CB: Sitka is just a funder, so we’re taking a lot of cues from leaders in the community. In British Columbia, there is definitely a dearth of protection through colonial policy, at least for animal protection, biodiversity protection, and marine and coastal protection. With that said, we do have to work within political windows, so mandates, and our strategy is informed by leaders. For us, it’s not just about getting a good policy, but regulatory application. So that’s our strategy: we fund the policy and then we continue to fund the regulatory application.
An example would be the CleanBC Roadmap 2030, which is guiding the province to meet GHG emissions reduction targets by 2030. Sitka funds the groups that are both helping and ensuring the government meets their promises and supports the system. We support industries who need help, making pathways clearer for regulatory clarifications. An example of our policy work with specific animals would be our work with the Provisional Water Sustainability Act, designed to look at water uses to protect ecosystems and for us, specifically, salmon. The Foundation works to make sure that there is understanding at a community level for how to implement those acts. In addition, strong policy must be understood by communities to allow for adoption and regulation.
AP: Sitka funds research on environmental issues, can you give a few examples of that?
CB: Research for us must have a practical application. Some examples of things we fund, include: The Beaty Biodiversity Museum and Research Center and a fellowship at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa. We support Indigenous Knowledge work with The Dena Kayeh Institute in BC. We support the democratization of data collection through iNaturalist, out of SFU with Dr. Brian Reynolds, and we supported the application of science in protected areas planning through key biodiversity area indicators, as a tool to gather knowledge to designate protected areas. Another example involves salmon. We help salmon by funding researchers who measure sea lice on juvenile salmon as they migrate through aquaculture areas. This research can directly impact nature, but also, can impact decision making around harmful practices.
AP: To conclude, can you speak to some of the lessons Sitka has learned in its quest to fund biodiversity and conservation?
CB: There’s a huge amount of complexity when protecting animals, and there should be. It would be silly to think that humans could fund and protect animals in a simple manner. Impact is hard to measure, but if we are noticing a more biodiverse world, then someone is doing something right. I think progressive philanthropic practices are helpful, and important in this space, given the complexity of the issues. Here at Sitka, we’re small, we’re nimble, we’re very much aware that we only know a fraction of what there is to know, and that’s ok.
AP: Great, thank you so much, what a lovely note to end on. Again, thank you for taking the time to talk to us at PhiLab about Sitka.