Opening the black box of conservation philanthropy: A co-produced research agenda on private foundations in marine conservation

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In the ‘new Gilded Age’ of mega-wealth and big philanthropy, academics are not paying enough attention to private foundations. Mirroring upward trends in philanthropy broadly, marine conservation philanthropy has more than doubled in recent years, reaching virtually every globally salient marine conservation issue in all corners of the planet. This paper argues that marine conservation philanthropy warrants a dedicated research agenda because private foundations are prominent, unique, and under-studied actors seeking to shape the future of a “frontier” space. We present a co-produced social science research agenda on marine conservation philanthropy that reflects the priorities of 106 marine conservation donors, practitioners, and stakeholders who participated in a research co-design process in 2018. These “research co-designers” raised 137 unique research questions, which we grouped into five thematic research priorities: outcomes, governance roles, exits, internal foundation governance, and funding landscape. We identify issues of legitimacy, justice, and applied best practice as cross-cutting research priorities that came up throughout the five themes. Participants from the NGO, foundation, and government sectors identified questions within all five themes and three cross-cutting issues, underscoring shared interest in this work from diverse groups. The research we call for herein can inform the practice of conservation philanthropy at a time when foundations are increasingly reckoning with their role as institutions of power in society. This paper is broadly relevant for social and natural scientists, practitioners, donors, and policy-makers interested in better understanding private philanthropy in any environmental context globally.





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Gruby, RL, A Enrici, M Betsill, E Le Cornu and X Basurto (2021). Opening the black box of conservation philanthropy: A co-produced research agenda on private foundations in marine conservation. Marine Policy, 132. pp. 104645–104645. 10.1016/j.marpol.2021.104645 Retrieved from

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Xavier Basurto

Truman and Nellie Semans/Alex Brown & Sons Associate Professor

I am interested in the fundamental question of how groups (human and non-human) can find ways to self-organize, cooperate, and engage in successful collective action for the benefit of the common good. To do this I strive to understand how the institutions (formal and informal rules and norms) that govern social behavior, interplay with biophysical variables to shape social-ecological systems. What kind of institutions are better able to govern complex-adaptive systems? and how can societies (large and small) develop robust institutions that provide enough flexibility for collective learning and adaptation over the long-term?

My academic and professional training is based on a deep conviction that it is through integrating different disciplinary perspectives and methods that we will be able to find solutions to challenging dilemmas in natural resources management, conservation, and environmental policy. Trained as a marine biologist, I completed a M.S in natural resources studying small-scale fisheries in the Gulf of California, Mexico. Realizing the need to bring social science theories into my work on common-pool resources sustainability, I earned an MPA and a Ph.D. in Management (with a minor in cultural anthropology) from the University of Arizona and under the supervision of Edella Schlager. Following I spent two years working with Elinor Ostrom, 2009 co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, at the Workshop for Political Theory and Policy Analysis of Indiana University. Methodologically, I am familiar with a variety of quantitative and qualitative approaches and formally trained to conduct Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA or more recently fsQCA), that allows among other things, systematic comparisons of middle range N sample sizes and address issues of multiple-causality.

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