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Oak’s Environment Programme’s new five-year strategy: What we’re doing differently

Environment Programme / Programme news

Leonardo Lacerda’s eyes twinkle in enthusiasm above his salt-and-pepper beard as he talks about Oak’s new way of working. Over the course of 14 years, the 57-year-old director of Oak’s Environment Programme (EP) has been a partner in developing three iterations of Oak’s strategies, each successively building on the lessons of the last. “In 2020, as Covid-19 swept the planet and disrupted every definition of the status quo, we leaned into some fundamentally new thinking about the way we work,” says Leonardo. In this series of web stories, we will dive into the ways we are adapting Oak’s funding strategies and way of working to respond to the urgent challenges and opportunities of a world with a new perspective.  

They say necessity is the “mother of all invention”. And bold, risky, and innovative actions are necessary in our time of crisis. We can no longer isolate and target symptoms or sectors, we must disrupt, transform, and strengthen our energy, food and natural security systems.  

It is this guiding principle that defines the EP’s new strategy. 

“The ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos (χρόνος) and kairos (καιρός). The former refers to chronological or sequential time, while the latter signifies a proper or opportune time for action,” says Leonardo. “If every crisis is an opportunity and every failure is a lesson, then the world is brimming today with opportunity and lessons that make this the perfect time for action.” 

In the past, the EP’s Climate, Marine, and Wildlife teams have worked mostly independently, addressing issues through a sectorial approach. However, moving forward, the programme intends to support organisations that transform systems in ways that create multiple benefits. “We are looking for the Archimedes’ levers that will shift the world in the fields of energy, food, and natural security,” says Leonardo. “The projects we’re supporting today and will fund in the future are ones that have impact across multiple issues, from climate change to environmental justice to food security to plastic use to wildlife protection and marine conservation.”  

The projects and organisations that the EP will support intend to transform the energy, food, and natural security systems. These three systems overlap. For example, the projects that are transforming food systems also have wildlife and energy impacts. While the projects transforming cities are filed under energy, they feature efforts to localise food growth and distribution. And, efforts in natural security complement work with food security and energy independence.    

The EP’s strategy refresh was done against the backdrop of the tragic events of Covid-19, which provided a stark and bleak reminder of the urgent need to stop encroaching on our planet’s rich, diverse, and fragile systems. “As we were reflecting on the chaos that Covid-19 was wreaking on our economy and communities, we also absorbed the important lessons that had emerged from our recent evaluation of the Environment Programme (EP)’s strategic framework (2016-2020) – the value of listening,” says Leonardo. “We learned that our new strategy must be guided by deep consultation and genuine collaboration with people on the ground in communities that feel the everyday impact of global decisions. We also learned that we must co-create. Once, all we had was this kind of helicopter view of the landscapes where we wanted to make a difference. Like so many foundations and large not-for-profit organisations, we made some very top-down decisions about where to invest. And, this is not to say there is no value in that. But, so much of our work over the last decade has proven that the closer you can put donors, decision making, and resources to the people and the events you are looking to impact, the more powerful the result. The more you co-create strategies with local communities and civic organisations, the more impactful your strategies will be.” 
The pandemic also confirmed that the way of thinking about the strategy needed a thorough assessment. “It was clear from what was happening around us that taking a linear approach to our future work would not provide the tools or the frame to navigate and overcome the volatile challenges that Covid-19 exemplified and foreshadowed,” says Leonardo.  

In seeking to help transform the energy, food, and natural security systems, the EP is also committing to transforming its way of working. To this end, the EP is changing the way it sets goals, measures progress, adjust its path, and interacts with its grantee partners. “We will address equity, diversity, and inclusion, both internally and externally, including a focus on overcoming structural inequities and unconscious biases,” says Leonardo. “We will review and evolve systems and practices through racial, ethnic-cultural, language, gender, and class lenses to improve inclusivity – both because we must and because it makes our efforts stronger and more impactful.”   

The EP’s new strategy is not a plan for making the current system sustainable. It is a strategy aimed at transformation. It aims to: reinvent our energy system into one fueled by clean and natural abundance; reimagine our food system into an engine of human and planetary health; and rethink the way we protect the wilderness and wildlife that keep our planet healthy, fill us with joy and wonder, and make us more resilient. In addition, to complement our grant-making, we are launching seven campaigns to directly accelerate specific changes across all three transformational arenas.   

This is a strategy borne of disruption. It’s a strategy that was made for these times. 

Check out our website to read the full strategy