Caroline Gabel


Caroline Gabel is the President and CEO of The Shared Earth Foundation, which she founded in 1999 to protect endangered species and their habitats, and biodiversity. Caroline is a former board Chair of Defenders of Wildlife and Rachel’s Network, and current Chair of the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, D.C., Snow Leopard Conservancy, and Queen Anne’s County boards.

When did your philanthropy begin?

Philanthropy for me began long ago when I was receiving so many solicitations in the mail, and I would give a small amount to any cause that gave me an envelope. Then I gradually realised that this was not making any difference, and decided to concentrate more on a few really good organisations where I could help make an impact. So I narrowed my focus and then when I retired in 1999 I decided to set up a foundation. I was sitting in a Starbucks trying to think of a mission and what I’d call it, and then it came to me. I called it The Shared Earth Foundation because I believe we have a responsibility to share the earth with our fellow, co-equal creatures – it was really quite simple. So that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

I give to organisations here in the US and all over the world – from Papua New Guinea working with tree kangaroos; to Borneo with elephants, rhinos, orang-utans, sun bears and forest birds; to the Himalayas with snow leopards; from lions in Africa to  jaguars, turtles, frogs and many more. 

How did you decide to focus on enviornmental causes and particularly biodiversity and endangered species?

I loved animals almost from birth – as a child I always played with toy bears rather than dolls, and had lots of pets from a young age – and that love has endured until now. So, as I had more resources, I felt a personal responsibility to do something for these animals and also to be a part of what the organisations are doing. I wanted to be a participant, not just to go to Papua New Guinea, or to Borneo to see orang-utans, but to contribute to the work there.

For example, I went with the Snow Leopard Conservancy to India and we did actually see a snow leopard, who clearly felt he was safe because of the work the Conservancy had done. These are creatures that you never see, and there he was lying there on a rock, no more than a football field away. He looked at us, and he went to sleep. He had no fear. Here, at least, he was safe and he knew it. What better testimony could you get than that? I felt that I really wanted to be part of the work to save these beautiful, rare creatures, and I joined the board and became its Chair.

What do you enjoy most about your philanthropy?

I enjoy meeting the people, seeing their work first hand, and the pride and dedication they bring to what they’re doing. They get it, even if other people in other countries don’t.  Most of the work I support is in places like the Himalayas and the people are mostly indigenous, so just getting to know them and the places where they work is fascinating. It’s a glorious experience to see what they’re doing and how they are putting the theory of human and animal conflict into reality, and making it work in practice in so many different ways.


It’s a lot more fun to spend it now than to leave it to someone else to give away.

How do you find the organisations that you support? How do you manage your relationship with them?

I’m no longer accepting any new organisations. I now fund about 50 non-profits that I know about, that I’ve heard about, that are doing work that is close to what I want to do. A lot of these people are scientists whom I have met in the US as well as abroad. I guess I’m not the most scrutinising person. I do some due diligence, I know these people personally and I go to see the work on site, so I’m not worried about them not living up to expectations. You do have to be careful, of course, as the heart doesn’t always make the wisest choices alone, but it is important.

Have any of the donations you've made really stood out to you? Are there any you are particularly proud of?

Well The Snow Leopard Conservancy is one, because I’ve had a major role in it, and there are a couple, more recently. There is a group called Upstream Alliance which works to teach and mentor young, emerging environmental leaders, and I was able to provide the seed money for that. I’d known the man who set it up for many years, and had high confidence in his work.

I’m also Chair of the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation's Capital, so I have gotten to know film makers and I’ve been a major funder of several of them at the start-up stage. I’m very proud of these films as they are reaching a much wider audience that you really can’t reach, organisation by organisation, place by place, species by species, by supporting one project at a time. So I’m putting more money into environmental film as I believe it is a way to magnify what I’m doing at the same time as bringing out the best in film makers. You give them a chance to really put their mission out there.

I’m moving more in that direction because I believe it can make a bigger impact in a shorter time, and we don’t have time to wait for another generation. We have to be strategic. For example, I also give to WildAid, which works on the demand side of the ivory and rhino horn trade. Everyone seems to be giving to Africa to try and deal with the supply side, and that’s worthy and good and sometimes it works, but I think going after demand is far more strategic.

What are your plans for developing your philanthropy in the future?

I don’t intend to leave a foundation behind and I’m thinking that in about three years I’m going to start spending down, because it’s a lot more fun to spend it now than to leave it to someone else to give away. But I will need to think carefully about how I do that, as I give to a lot of smaller organisations who can only handle a certain size of donation. I need to think through how much I give, to whom, and to specify a purpose for the funding, which I don’t normally do. I mostly give unrestricted funds because this is what the organisations really need. It’s easy to raise project money, but they also have to turn on the lights and pay the phone bill. It’s just plain common sense, but so many foundations don’t do it.

You’ve been part of Rachel's Network for many years. What do you think is the role and value of philanthropy networks?

You can get a lot of ideas from the women in the network who share your specific issues, and you can partner with them. In particular, there was one instance with some work on frogs, where the scientist from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute was at a Rachel’s Network event. He had a project and I told him that I’d match-fund if he could find another donor. Another member of Rachel’s network came up and said ‘I’ll match-fund too’. So we became partners.

What they’re doing is inspiring and it gives me ideas, even if I don’t end up partnering with someone.

And Rachel’s Network is a place where you can talk about the challenges of wealth, which is not an every day conversation you have with your friends. It’s a place where you don’t have to pretend about having questions around giving or anything else.


I think we do have a responsibility to give back, especially in today’s world

How does philanthropy relate to the way you think about wealth?

I think of it as an opportunity to help make a difference, but I also can’t imagine what else I would do with it. I have no children, so there’s no point building up a big estate. I’m very pessimistic about the survival of animals – and pessimistic about what I do, in fact – and someone asked me, ‘Why do you do it, then?’  And I said, ‘Well, it’s just what I do. I have to do it, I don’t have a choice’. I could not imagine doing anything else. I can’t think of anything that I would be prouder doing.  I am just grateful that I am able to support endangered species, who have so few defenders in the philanthropic community.

Most of my friends see it the same way. I meet them through the non-profit world and we have the same idea of what to do with wealth. And my friends are bringing their children into the philanthropy process. My father was a giver, although he also had a family and believed in leaving an estate. He was very generous with his wealth and that’s the way I feel too. My siblings are all involved in philanthropy; we’ve all inherited that trait. 

What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned over the years?

I learned that once in, it’s hard to get out! Especially when I started the foundation, I was accepting lots of groups. Some I have carried through to today, and some I have stopped funding along the way as I’ve refined my mission. I’ve also learned that if you’re giving operating funds, it’s very difficult to get out. It’s hard to say, ‘sorry, I’m not giving any more’.

I also learned, or already knew, to call the people I work with my partners, and I mean it.  They know what to do. I just help them do their own work.

The other thing I learned is not to focus on numbers. I’m appalled to see the burdens of application forms and reporting requirements that some of the organisations I support have to take on in order to secure grants. I don’t require a lot of reporting. What I do focus on is governance, especially given that I’m a member of many boards. Is the organisation training its staff? Are they paying them adequately? Do they have a strategic plan? Do they have a mission they really understand and believe in? I also ask them very pointedly about their board’s giving, because as a board member I give very generously, and why should I give to an organisation whose board doesn’t do the same? So in a sense, I’m trying to give the executive director some power to go to the board and say ‘this is important’. Sometimes you get more entranced by projects and you expect the staff to work for nothing and you don’t set aside money for training - which not all boards can afford to do, of course - but you need to focus on sustainability and pay people so that if you have good staff, you keep them. 

So those were the hard lessons I learned by giving, going, watching and listening. I still have a lot of learning to go! 

What advice would you give to someone who has the capacity to give at this level and is embarking on their philanthropy journey?

Well, as I’ve already said it is more fun to give than to set up something in perpetuity. You need to know to whom you’re giving – visit the sites, learn more about the organisation by visiting and getting to know the people rather than just by looking at cold numbers. Remember to whom you’re giving, don’t overly burden small organisations.

Beyond that, I think we do have a responsibility to give back, especially in today’s world where the balance of life of other species hangs in the balance and it is very frightening to see what is happening. In Bhutan, for instance, glaciers are melting and snow leopards have to go higher and higher to find the right habitat, until there’s nowhere else to go. There is an urgency in what we are doing and whether we can really live without these other species. It’s easy to say, ‘well I don’t need polar bears’, but when the polar bears are gone, it means the arctic and climate is gone, and that will affect all of us. We saw that in Yellowstone, when they brought back the wolves, the whole ecology changed to revert to a more natural landscape. And this then benefits everyone. Restoring forests, for example, will help to slow down or prevent climate change. 

What do you think could be done to encourage more philanthropists to support environmental causes?

I don’t know. If you’re not an animal person, and you only look at benefits for your own species then I think it’s terribly limited, but that’s what people see. It’s easier if you give to a university or medicine to get your name on a building but it’s a lot harder to help a species!

But we need to understand that people and animals depend on each other. One of the wildlife filmmakers I’ve funded in Myanmar has just finished making a film designed to help the villagers to live alongside the elephants. It’s not going to be a best-selling movie but it will have an impact. It shows that we can live with other species, if we just learn how. And it’s not just far off in Myanmar - one of the human/wildlife conflicts we’re working on in the US is trying to help ranchers live with wolves, and another of the small things we have helped with is to educate and persuade people living on the southern coast to turn off their city lights at night when the sea turtles are nesting.

Are there any other reflections on philanthropy you would like to share?

I look at this as a great adventure – doing things for the first time, going to far-off places, meeting indigenous people. How wonderful is that? It is always an adventure, the giving and the going and figuring out what you want to be doing. When I look at where I want to put my money, I think of my donations as being like investments. I feel it’s better to give to organisations that are doing good work than to put it into a volatile stock market that can wipe out your entire investment overnight, as we have seen. What better investment can you leave your children than a healthy planet?

Across all countries covered in this report there is a wealth of experience of major philanthropy. We asked donors to share their advice on giving donations of $1m or more.

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