The “Serious” Environmental Grantmaker

posted on: March 6, 2012

When we began collecting data for our High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy (HISP) series of reports, I had one hypothesis that I’d hoped the data would confirm: “serious” grantmakers would invest in ways that intentionally benefit marginalized communities (such as lower-income communities, communities of color, immigrant communities, women and girls and other underserved populations) and in ways that intentionally work towards “social justice,” a convenient but important proxy for the kinds of systemic efforts that accompany tangible, lasting change.

My thought was that the “serious” funders of various sectors, the ones devote a larger share of their grantmaking to a given program area, would be more likely to target particular beneficiaries and to fund systems reform efforts in that area. To a community often motivated by the behavior of its peers, I could then say, “Look, the ‘serious’ funders do things this way. If you’re looking to get serious and get results, then it’s time to invest in these high-impact approaches.” So we looked at the available data, and I was surprised by what I found. 

In the world of environmental funding, it appears that the “serious” funders may need to change strategies the most to boost their impact. As noted in NCRP’s latest report Cultivating the Grassroots: A Winning Approach for Environment and Climate Funders, environmental grantmaking is upside-down: those that invest larger shares of their grant dollars in the environment are less likely to employ these high-impact strategies in their environmental grantmaking than those that invest considerably less of their portfolio in the environment. 

In fact, environmental grant dollars donated by funders who committed more than 25 percent of their total dollars to the environment were 10 times less likely to be classified as benefitting marginalized groups and 9 times less likely to be classified as having a social justice purpose than those environmental grant dollars given by funders that gave less than 5 percent of their portfolio to the environment. 

Optimistically, I would like to think that grantmakers with comparatively less of their portfolio to spend on environmental causes are consciously trying to get the greatest bang for their limited philanthropic buck. One can hope. 

However, for report author Sarah Hansen, the data reflect the field’s detrimental neglect of the grassroots

“For too long, national environmental advocates and scientists have been hanging pleas for environmental change on the apolitical hook of rational appeals, expecting decision-makers to do the right thing when confronted with powerful evidence. Yet, in many ways, complex political systems are like the human body. No matter how smart and articulate our agenda, our pleas for change will continue to be ignored if we lack the power to back them up. Even if we fund in single, focused-issue areas, we can benefit from a broader analysis of the systemic forces behind environmental crises and understanding how any one solution complements or contradicts others. We must make our demands for change impossible to ignore. That means working at every level of the system to achieve change, including the grassroots.” 

Hansen points out that, for all foundation resources devoted to protecting the planet (at least $10 billion in grants from 2000 – 2009), the movement has not seen the level of success “remotely commensurate with the level of funding invested toward these ends.” In his review of the report, David Roberts at Grist agrees: “The top-down, elite-focused strategy that has come to dominate the environmental movement is not working. Progress in D.C., on both policy and politics, has all but ground to a halt. There hasn’t been major green legislation passed since the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments.” 

If environmental grantmakers are comfortable with 22 years of holding down the fort, then there’s not much I can say, but, if funders are looking to get serious and get results, it is time to look again to the grassroots, to organizations that are working with and on behalf of those most affected by environmental harm, to test and build the will and resolve for national and even global reform. 

Roberts continues

“Environmentalism lacks political power because it is not backed by enough intensity at the grassroots level, particularly in non-coastal areas. Resources need to be diverted in that direction.

Environmentalism needs to connect with the working-class poor, minorities and other communities most directly impacted by environmental problems.

Environmentalism is in for a century of fights. It badly needs to take the long view and start laying down infrastructure, starting with a foundation of community-level support.

This kind of shift won’t be possible without the support of the philanthropic community.” 

It is time that serious grantmaking was defined as much by its embrace of inclusiveness and systemic effort as it is by its embrace of strategic focus and metrics. To continue to ignore marginalized communities and social justice activities is to pursue what Albert Ruesga, president of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, has called “philanthropy in bad faith:” 

“The persistent racial and other disparities in our communities highlight, in my view, the shortcomings of philanthropy-as-usual and prompt us to look for a new kind of giving. To make the same kinds of grants year after year to the same communities, to see the same disparities persist and even widen, and not to question one’s approach to grantmaking is, in my view, to do philanthropy in bad faith.” 

I’m not saying that the large environmental funders aren’t serious about the environment, but I am saying that good environmental grantmakers are serious about the grassroots. 

Kevin Laskowski is research and policy associate at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.