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Bringing Women to the Fore in Environmental Work

Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Deb Markowitz, director of the Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts.

Deborah Markowitz
Deb Markowitz, courtesy of Deb Markowitz

1. What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?

I come to the position of director of the Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts after a long career in public service. I was in my mid-30s, with three very young children when I was first elected Vermont’s Secretary of State. After serving for 12 years, I ran for Governor of Vermont, and although I lost the primary election by less than 500 votes, the person who won appointed me to serve as his environmental secretary. From this experience I learned a couple of things. First, if you stay grounded in mission and purpose, you can withstand the ups and downs of ones’ career. Second, nothing great is ever accomplished alone. Ask for help, cultivate trusted partners, and use your power and privilege to lift others.  

2. What is your current greatest professional challenge?

Our planet faces the dual crises of a rapidly changing climate and biodiversity loss. Massachusetts is on the front line of climate impacts, with sea level rise, extreme weather and heat waves, coastal storm surges, and floods. And, every year, thousands of acres of land that provide critical habitat for threatened species is lost to development and degradation. But I am optimistic that working together, we can meet these challenges.

Now, more than ever, we understand our interconnection with nature and the importance of a healthy environment to our wellbeing and the success of our communities. At TNC, we are leading the way with on the ground, scalable solutions that use the power of nature to address climate change and biodiversity loss.

I have been deeply impressed by the way people have come together across Massachusetts, even as we became socially distanced from COVID.  During the pandemic each one of us made personal sacrifices for the benefit of others. I am hopeful that this same ethos will enable us to turn the tide on the environmental crises of our time.

3. What inspires you most about your work?

What excites me about TNC is that, as a global organization, we think at a global scale, even as our work touches down locally. Everything we do is grounded in science, and we think about our work and deploy our resources in ways that recognize that ecosystems and environmental problems don’t end at state lines. We are also always looking to scale solutions. As a practical matter, this means that it is not enough that each of our individual projects stands up on its own. We use what we learn to inform our global science network, and our ultimate focus is on scaling long lasting solutions to the toughest environmental problems we are facing on our warming planet.

4. How does your gender identity inform your work?

Being a woman in leadership roles for going on 30 years has meant running into many people who aren’t used to working with women in positions of authority. I can’t even count the number of times I was the only woman at the table, or that I was told that my greatest asset was my smile, or when I was called by my first name while my male colleagues was addressed by their title. It’s frustrating, of course, but it also taught me that I could be both tough and gracious. As a result of my experiences, I have committed myself to helping other women succeed. One of my greatest pleasures has been to see my many mentees grow into capable, empathetic and empowered leaders who are making a real difference in the world. 

5. How can philanthropy support gender equity?

Quite simply, money talks. Foundations and individual donors can support gender equity by demanding that organizations they support with their philanthropy, and the financial institutions that manage their funds, have women in leadership positions, from the boardroom to the C-suite. It is just as important for this standard to apply to racial equity. There is mounting evidence that organizations that incorporate a diversity of perspectives and experiences are more effective in achieving their goals. So, when philanthropic supporters set a high bar for gender and racial inclusion, this not only helps to create a more equitable society, but it can also lead to improved organizational outcomes.

6. In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equity movements taking us?

It’s not enough to have women at the table. We must have women at the head of the table, setting the agenda, allocating resources and innovating. In the next decade, I expect to see more women, and in particular, women of color, in highly-visible leadership roles. I expect that the voice of authority will no longer be reserved for white men. That, in turn, can have a powerful influence over the unconscious bias we all share that has made it so difficult for women and people of color to achieve the highest positions of leadership.

More on Deb Markowitz:

Deb Markowitz is the State Director for The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts. She was elected Vermont’s Secretary of State six times, serving from 1999-2011. After running for Governor of Vermont in 2010 and narrowly losing in the primary election, Markowitz was appointed Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) in 2011, where she served until 2017.

Before joining The Nature Conservancy, Markowitz served as the vice president of programs at Ceres, overseeing the organization’s Climate and Energy, Water, Food and Forest, and Capital Market System programs. Before that, she taught environmental policy and leadership at the University of Vermont and was the Director of Policy Outreach at the Gund Institute of Environment.

Deb Markowitz has been recognized nationally with a Lifetime Achievement Award from EPA, Region 1; an Aspen Institute Rodel Fellowship; and the Kennedy School of Governments’ Cahn Fellowship in Public Leadership. She graduated from the University of Vermont and Georgetown University Law Center, magna cum laude, and received a Certificate in Public Leadership from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.   

This interview has been minimally edited.

In The News

Author: Julia Travers

I often cover innovations in science, the arts and social justice. Find my work with NPR, Discover Magazine, APR and Earth Island Journal, among other publications. My portfolio is at
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One-third of donors directed half their giving to disaster relief | Philanthropy news

Last year, 37 percent of American donors gave half or more of their charitable contributions to disaster relief efforts, and 64 percent gave to a charity they had never supported before, a survey commissioned by Vanguard Charitable finds.

Conducted by the Harris Poll on behalf of Vanguard Charitable, the survey of more than 1,300 American donors found that the top reasons American donors gave to disaster relief included wanting to assist those impacted by humanitarian crises (46 percent), feeling overwhelmed by a situation and wanting to help (33 percent), seeing charitable giving as the only way they could provide support (30 percent), and having a personal connection to the disaster/crisis (30 percent). The survey found that donors who contributed to disaster relief efforts gave more overall, meaning that disaster relief giving did not take away from, or occur in place of, ongoing giving. 

“From COVID-19 to a devastating humanitarian crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, we’ve seen donors respond to disaster relief needs in inspiring and meaningful ways,” said Vanguard Charitable president Rebecca Moffett. “In fact, this data reflects that disaster relief support is an integral part of the giving landscape, often increasing total generosity as donors look to give when and where support is needed most. And because the money in donor-advised funds has already been set aside for charitable purposes, donations from DAFs tend to be more responsive in moments of crisis, and more resilient during moments of economic uncertainty.”

(Photo credit: Getty Images/Drazen Zigic)

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Trust in nonprofits fell slightly last year, survey finds | Philanthropy news

While there is room for U.S. institutions across the board to increase public trust, a majority of respondents believe nonprofits will do what is right for society, a survey conducted by Independent Sector finds. 

Conducted in February in partnership with Edelman Data & Intelligence, the third-annual Trust in Civil Society survey found that 56 percent of Americans said they trust nonprofits, down 3 percentage points from the 2020 benchmark study (59 percent). Trust in philanthropy edged down from 36 percent to 34 percent during the same period. According to the survey, financial well-being and education are major drivers of trust, and trust of nonprofits among women fell during the pandemic.

Given the findings, Independent Sector recommended that nonprofits work to make greater progress to support and strengthen the country, for example by leveraging trust in the social sector to strengthen U.S. democracy, deepening engagement with communities and institutions, and upholding public expectations of government accountability.

“Increasing public trust of institutions and the social sector is a pressing issue for the U.S. We all benefit from strong public trust,” said Independent Sector president and CEO Daniel J. Cardinali. “Trust is the priceless currency for nonprofits, philanthropies, business charity programs, and all of us to build a healthy, equitable society. We see what happens when trust breaks. Our 2022 Independent Sector Trust in Civil Society report elevates important data and recommendations for conversations about how the social sector can engage more deeply and do better so everyone in our country thrives.” 

(Photo credit: Getty Images/SDI Productions)

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Digital, other channels of giving are expanding, study finds | Philanthropy news

Emerging trends in the United Kingdom and Brazil reveal an expansion of digital and other types of channels for giving, including online giving, crowdfunding, charity rounding up, and social impact publishing, a new research series from the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI finds.

The research series, Digital for Good: A Global Study on Emerging Ways of Giving, builds on the school’s Global Philanthropy Environment Index and Global Philanthropy Tracker and will be released in phases over the next five months. The first two studies examine philanthropic engagement in Brazil and the UK prior to and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, with profiles of China, India, Kenya, Singapore, South Africa, and South Korea to follow.

Based on an analysis of three case studies in Brazil, the first profile found that prominent emerging ways of giving include charity rounding up, crowdfunding, and social impact publishing, which involves the production of inspiring, revenue-producing editorial content. Donations collected through rounding up for charity via Arredondar increased from BRL1,091 in 2013 (equivalent to $590 in 2021, adjusted for inflation) to more than BRL1.6 million in 2020 (equivalent to $330,186 in 2021, adjusted for inflation). In addition, the study found that the most successful initiatives prioritized transparency and accountability in giving.

Based on an online survey of nearly 3,000 individuals in the UK, the profile found that prominent expanded methods of giving include online giving and crowdfunding. Among donors interviewed between May and July 2021, 60 percent reported that gifts they had made in the past year had been made online, with the most common way being through a third-party app. In addition, researchers found that 63 percent of people who used social media to request donations also made requests in person.

“The results of the first two country profiles suggest an evolution in giving practices and highlight a significant expansion of digital giving practices and peer-to-peer giving,” said Amir Pasic, the Eugene R. Tempel Dean of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. “While these findings are the first in a series, the documented growth in digital giving and shifting donor expectations in the UK and in Brazil reinforce existing evidence that digital practices can help democratize the practice of philanthropy. Digital innovation makes philanthropy accessible and fosters greater transparency and accountability for how gifts lead to impact.”

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