Synchronicity Earth: redesigning grant-making for locally-led conservation actions

Founded in 2009, Synchronicity Earth targets overlooked and underfunded conservation challenges for threatened species, regions and ecosystems. Its trust-based philanthropic approach widens access to funding, redresses power imbalances between donors and grant holders, and builds long-term relationships, so conservation action gets off the ground and benefits both people and nature.

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Two men surveying a hilly landscape.

Members of the GreenViet team undertaking survey work in Phu Ninh, Vietnam (Photo: GreenViet)

This UK-based charity, which evolved from the Synchronicity Foundation, researches conservation gaps and under-funded priorities, often in complex situations, then channels donor funding through carefully nurtured long-term partnerships. It softens the normal donor-grantee power paradigm and redesigns grant mechanisms so they work for locally-led actions and local decision making.

Synchronicity Earth recognises that short-term project funding, usually accompanied by detailed and burdensome reporting requirements, combined with eligibility restrictions and the high cost of securing funding, creates formidable barriers to effective conservation action.

To address this, Synchronicity Earth builds lasting relationships with a wide range of people and organisations including small, local NGOs (some individually run), large NGOs, alliances and coalitions, and even international bodies such as the IUCN.

Two men setting up a camera trap in a wood.

Maicon Elcenbach and Alexandre Krob (Instituto Curicaca) setting up a camera trap in Parque Estadual do Turvo, Atlantic Forest, Brazil (Photo: Chris Scarffe)

Broadening access to funding

Synchronicity Earth is particularly interested in funding grassroots and locally- or Indigenous-led organisations, which often lack access to grants. Currently, 64% of funding goes to local or national grantees (termed partners), and the aim is to increase this to 75% by 2027. 

In order to broaden its reach, Synchronicity Earth does not set specific criteria for receiving funding. Instead, a trust-based philanthropic model identifies partners who align with the charity’s values and programme goals, and who can collaborate effectively with other organisations. 

Since 2009, Synchronicity Earth has provided over GBP£15 million in grant funding to more than 180 organisations. And over the past 10 years, funding has supported approximately 600,000 marginalised or under-represented people, protected 690 million hectares of terrestrial, ocean and freshwater habitats, identified or listed 170 Key Biodiversity Areas, and monitored and researched 1,200 species.

Synchronicity Earth’s due diligence process is designed to reduce the burden on partners by limiting excessive paperwork and documentation. Much can be done through conversations. These flag potential risks, rather than rule partners in or out of funding. Simple application forms in multiple languages help partners to develop proposals.

Trust-based flexible funding

Around 80% of partners receive core and flexible funding, allowing them to define how grants are best spent to create impacts. 

Synchronicity Earth sees locally-led initiatives as the most effective solution to conservation challenges. It believes grassroots organisations, local communities and Indigenous Peoples are the most effective agents of change. 

Co-founder of Synchronicity Earth Jessica Sweidan told Unearthodox in an interview: “We can't compete with local knowledge and expertise, we just can't. Beyond funding, our job is to listen to [Indigenous and local communities and youth]. We make ourselves available for consultation and offer acumen as desired – things like finance, safeguarding or communication training. But really, I feel our job is to help create the enabling conditions so that our partners can thrive. And sometimes that means getting out of the way”.  

The charity’s programmes team carries out in-depth research and scoping to develop strategy and identify effective partners. Synchronicity Earth makes all the charity’s research available free to anyone interested in providing funds. 

The charity recognises that local groups often lack access to funding, so it creates enabling environments for grant applications, whilst also mitigating risks. For example, Synchronicity Earth typically begins a new partnership with a small seed grant, and then scales up funding over time once a relationship is established. Where investment risk is exceptionally high, it can focus on reducing this by helping build organisational capacity. 

Where small, local organisations lack formal legal status, Synchronicity Earth will consider funding through small consultancy contracts or grants made directly to an individual with legal status. If the organisation is interested in developing into a registered NGO, Synchronicity Earth can support organisational development.

Three people sitting on the ground with a pile of potatoes

Floro Ortiz Contreras (Asociación Pro Fauna Silvestre – Ayachucho) talks to members of the Tircus community, Ayacucho, Peru (Photo: Chris Scarffe)

Smaller burdens, bigger impacts

Rather than requiring log frames and milestones from its partners, Synchronicity Earth supports them to develop and adapt their own monitoring, evaluation and learning indicators. The emphasis is on cultivating an environment which allows for genuine learning, enabling partners to achieve their goals rather than reporting against rigid pre-set formulas. 

When gathering monitoring data from partners, Synchronicity Earth uses flexible methods. For example, partners can give updates via Zoom rather than submitting written reports or can provide written updates in their own language rather than English. 

Synchronicity Earth consolidates partners’ reports and communicates overall impacts to donors, again reducing reporting burdens.

It is also building an increasing presence in countries where it supports partners, by hiring local consultants (which it calls affiliates) to work closely with partners and also identify new opportunities.

Head and shoulders photo of Janine Duffy.

Janine Duffy ([email protected]) is a researcher (nature, rights and wellbeing) with IIED's Natural Resources research group