Mongabay Features

Interview with Bridgespan’s Sonali Patel

Environmental causes have traditionally attracted only a small share of philanthropic support in the United States: Between 1-3% of annual giving, depending on how the issue area is defined. But that may be changing as the impacts of climate change worsen and awareness of the links between a healthy planet and healthy society rises.

Sonali Patel, a partner with The Bridgespan Group, which advises nonprofits and philanthropists on strategy, told Mongabay that she’s seeing more interest among donors in climate issues. She said that philanthropy can be particularly impactful in the climate space by supporting innovative ideas that may be too risky for investors or governments and putting resources into areas that may not otherwise attract attention.

“Currently only 1% of spend on climate change comes from philanthropy,” she told Mongabay during a recent interview. “Philanthropy can play a unique role in funding where either the risk is too great or there is a whitespace.”

Of those gaps, Patel cited ocean acidification and climate equity as examples.

“The entire [ocean alkalinity/ acidification] field has about $5M of investment but the potential in the field is large,” she said.

On climate equity, she pointed to the gains that could be realized by strengthening Indigenous peoples’ rights.

“Indigenous peoples are the best stewards of current sinks and have few legal rights to their land. Protecting their rights and livelihoods can have significant impact on preserving our natural sinks and increase the economic productivity and support the communities who will be most impacted by climate change.”

Indigenous Tikuna man in the Amazon rainforest
Indigenous Tikuna man in the Amazon rainforest

Patel’s insights are informed by helping clients ranging from India’s Tata Trusts to the Rockefeller Foundation to the National Geographic Society design and scale programs to maximize their impact in the areas where they work. Before joining Bridgespan, she worked at Bain & Company, a management consulting company, where she focused on healthcare.

Patel said that her background in management consulting, both via an MBA and her time at Bain, helped prepare her for a role that involves working with organizational leaders to design, develop, and implement strategy.

Sonali-Patel of The Bridgespan Group
Sonali-Patel of The Bridgespan Group

Having sound strategy in place can help position NGOs for what Patel could be the start of a trend that emerged during the pandemic: A rise in donors providing unrestricted funding to organizations they trust. That approach enables recipients to put donor money to work where it can be most effective, while reducing some of the management costs associated with oversight and evaluation.

“Funders are now engaging in more trust-based philanthropy, which does not require hefty reporting requirements that take up significant amount of staff time,” she said. “We have for years been advocating for more unrestricted funding, and during COVID we saw a number of donors move in that direction and hope it will continue.”

Patel spoke about these issues and more during an August 2021 conversation with Mongabay.


By Rhett Ayers Butler

Rhett Ayers Butler is the Founder and CEO of Mongabay, a non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform. He started Mongabay in 1999 with the mission of raising interest in and appreciation of wild lands and wildlife.