By Tate Williams
Original article in InsidePhilanthropy on April 4, 2019
Climate change is a notoriously underfunded issue. But climate philanthropy has also been narrowly focused, both in terms of strategy and grantees. We’ve seen some diversification, but grassroots organizations and climate justice work, in particular, still receive a small share of the funding pie.
One bright spot—or series of bright spots—has been the rise of intermediaries, organizations that help foundations and donors move money into underfunded corners of the climate movement. We highlighted the work of these outfits in our annual IPPY awards this year, and have covered many individually, but haven’t really taken stock of the field until now.
There are a few reasons for this roundup (aside from helping me keep them all straight). For one, while most of these intermediaries still have relatively small budgets, they have the capacity to manage a lot more money should larger foundations or emerging major philanthropists decide to engage. The green intermediaries are also funders that climate fundraisers should have on their radars.
In many cases, these grantmakers are attempting to offset imbalances in environmental, and more recently, climate philanthropy.
One such imbalance is the lack of representation from people of color in the environmental movement, and limited support for low-income communities and communities of color. One recent analysis of 2011-2015 giving from the top climate funders found that around 3 percent went to climate justice, including minority, indigenous and low-income communities. A 2016 report on green giving found that only 11 percent advanced “structural change on behalf of those who are the least well off politically, economically and socially.” As with environmental justice, climate justice work focuses on the people who are hit “first and worst” by the consequences of climate change.
“By empowering these local actors to create and share their own solutions for resilience, we aim to build a world where those hit hardest by climate change lead the way to a more just and equitable future for everyone,” says Heather McGray of the Climate Justice Resilience Fund.
There’s also the strategic goal in engaging a more diverse coalition, and in elevating climate solutions that draw from the lived experience of people grappling with the problem. So another related disconnect has been limited green funding for grassroots groups and movement building overall. Proponents argue this is where the level of transformation needed on climate happens.
“Ultimately, we don’t have any other choice,” says Lindley Mease, coordinator of the CLIMA Fund. “The research and the practice show that grassroots solutions can effectively shift the path of our planet. As we all know, we don’t have more time to waste.”
Other areas targeted by some of these funds involve environmental leadership among women, youth, those in harm’s way as a result of their activism, and work happening in specific geographic locations.
There’s a number of possible reasons funders don’t support more grassroots climate work. Larry Kramer of Hewlett has argued that narrow funding strategies have been to some extent a function of the small amount of climate philanthropy, and that bringing more funders to the table will be important to diversifying approaches. CLIMA recently commissioned a report that addresses why grassroots solutions are overlooked. For example, there are perceptions that it’s time and labor-intensive, success is difficult to measure, and grassroots work is often perceived as not scalable.
“In pursuit of leverage and our fear of climate catastrophe, these funders have prioritized scale above all else. And in doing so, the funder community has largely missed significant opportunities deemed too small or too dispersed to matter,” the report states.
The Role of Intermediaries
Intermediaries aim to remedy some of these concerns, which are often surmountable matters of logistics or unfamiliarity. In fact, there are actually quite a few small or mid-sized foundations—Wallace Global Fund, Surdna, NCF, Libra, Chorus, and more—that prioritize and are quite good at moving money to the grassroots. But we often see larger funders sending the bulk of dollars to larger NGOs or coalitions.
In the case of larger funders that are used to giving six- and seven-figure grants, giving several small grants to community groups might seem cumbersome. By contrast, a funder like Hewlett, for example, can give a large grant to an intermediary like Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund, which is looking to support some 50 grantees this year.
Grassroots work can also be complicated, varying widely from place to place. “One of the greatest challenges in funding at the grassroots is the complex and rapidly changing landscape of local organizations and leaders that are rooted in local relationships, history and cultural context,” says Ryan Strode of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, and head of the steering committee for Midwestern grassroots intermediary the Heartland Fund.
As Global Greengrants Fund’s Allison Davis points out, grassroots giving that doesn’t grasp the context in a given community can actually make things worse by injecting money and power dynamics into authentic movements or undercutting solutions that are in the works. Greengrants has been around since 1993, and has longstanding ties in the regions the group funds, going so far as to yield funding decisions to people on the ground.
“Brilliant grantmaking can happen when an intermediary funder has knowledge and trust with a local coalition of actors who have legitimacy to represent communities, and partners with them in trust,” Davis says.
Intermediaries can offer their expertise to funders and authentic connections to grantees. They can also help out grantees, of course, insulating them from the headaches and bureaucracy of the philanthrosphere.
Limits and Alternatives
Intermediaries are far from a cure-all solution to the power dynamics of the philanthropic sector, however. As Davis at Global Greengrants points out, an intermediary still has potential to be a gatekeeper, wielding power over who has access to funds and who doesn’t. “Strong participatory research and assessment, peer review, monitoring and triangulation are important.”
And Mease notes that intermediaries “can just as easily perpetuate the same power dynamics as private foundations or government funding bodies. Intermediaries need structures to democratize decision-making and/or build accountable relationships between funders and grantees.”
In other words, they can be closer to the communities that funds are trying to reach, but they can also be just another layer of power between people dealing with the problem and people holding wealth.
One compelling option that could reduce the pitfalls of gatekeeping is directly funding environmental justice networks, regional and national, that are formed by community groups themselves. That’s one approach taken by the New York Community Trust, which has a fund devoted to the environment led by Program Officer Arturo Garcia-Costas. The fund backs the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and the Midwest Environmental Justice Network, for example, on environmental and climate justice issues.
In 2017, Garcia-Costas wrote an essay for the Environmental Grantmakers Association, praising the accomplishments of the philanthropy-backed environmental movement since the 1960s, but now calling on funders to turn their attention to such networks. When community organizations link up, they “can strategically pool their knowledge and resources to make things happen,” he writes.
“To advance a more inclusive and effective movement, we must patiently build up the national and regional environmental justice networks that frontline communities have created.”
As these entities are established, another pitfall is that they’re open to the same competition for funds—on both the fundraising and grantmaking sides—that can sow tensions in the movement. And yet, as Sarah Shanley Hope of The Solutions Project points out, there’s a lot more money that can move into these outfits, and there’s one for just about any strategy a funder would want to pursue. “The barriers to actually moving the money are gone: the case for support, the clear need, the vehicles for investment at the grassroots are all there.”
Climate Funder Intermediaries
Here’s a list of entities that in one way or another are working to move climate and/or environmental funding closer to the community or ground level. Some of these funds are not limited to climate or the environment, and, of course, this list is not comprehensive.
BEAI Fund:Building Equity and Alignment for Impact is a coalition of large greens, grassroots groups, and philanthropy that was formed in 2013 to build a “more powerful, diverse, and inclusive climate justice and environmental movement.” The initiative formed a fund to ensure the grassroots sector has the resources it needs to expand its impact, and has a grassroots-led grantmaking team. Managed by Grassroots International, its goal is to move $10 million.
CLIMA Fund:Launched in 2016 by Thousand Currents, Global Greengrants Fund, Grassroots International and Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights, CLIMA’s focus is offering support for indigenous, women, and youth-led work building climate resilience and mitigating climate chaos. CLIMA has raised more than $500,000 to date, and plans to grant $400,000 in 2019. Major backers include Packard, Whitman Institute, Libra Foundation, Swift Foundation and Wallace Global Fund.
Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund:This one started in 2016 as a project of the Democracy Alliance as a way to fund grassroots and communities of color to lead on climate solutions in key states. It’s currently funding in five states—Florida, Minnesota, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Virginia—and plans to expand to two additional states soon. CCEEF’s budget is projected at $4.2 million for 2019. Backers include the Hewlett, MacArthur, Kresge and JPB foundations.
Climate Justice Alliance: CJA formed in 2013 to unite frontline communities and build power in the climate movement, with a focus on just transition principles. The alliance has become an organizing force, having a large presence in the People’s Climate March and climate justice events around the Global Climate Action Summit. Not really a grantmaker, CJA does participate in funder organizing, has a resource-sharing process with members, and does some regranting to grassroots organizations.
Climate Justice Resilience Fund: This is one of the larger intermediaries, thanks to support from its founding donor and one of the wealthiest movement-building climate funders out there, the Oak Foundation. Also supported by the Kendeda Fund, it has a budget of $18 million over a span of about five years. Focused on women, youth and indigenous peoples, it’s currently backing work happening in the Bay of Bengal, East Africa, the Arctic, and globally.
Environmental Defenders Fund: This pooled fund launched in 2017 in response to the rising threat to environmental activists and civil society, making rapid response grants and backing trainings, organizational security, litigation, and community-based campaigns. Housed at the Biodiversity Funders Group, it moved $610,000 in its first year, with funders including Wallace Global Fund and the Marisla and Overbrook foundations. (For more info, contact Alison Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Global Greengrants Fund:This is a long-running grassroots intermediary (started in 1993) moving money to support land, water and resource rights, along with climate justice, with special focus on women’s environmental action. One of the most impressive things about this outfit is its participatory grantmaking approach, by which it hands over grantmaking decisions to well-connected locals dealing directly with the problems at hand. It’s got a grantmaking budget of about $7.5 million, with major backers including Ford, Novo and Libra foundations.
Heartland Fund:This one’s pretty new, and unique in that it is focused on communities in the American Midwest. It’s a donor collaborative that’s run by funders with roots in the Midwest, national funders, and an advisory committee of grassroots leadership from the communities the fund supports. It’s not limited to green issues, but has an interest in energy and environmental justice. Heartland’s budget for 2019 is $1.5 million, with funders including Wallace Global Fund, Open Society Foundations and Franciscan Sisters of Mary.
Midwest Environmental Justice Network (MWEJN): Another regional network, this one was founded by three grassroots groups in 2009 to coordinate environmental justice work, support leadership development, and build organizational capacity. MWEJN is looking to back more than 100 environmental groups through trainings and information sharing, along with a Small Grants Program. Early funders are the Argosy Foundation, Overbrook Foundation, and New York Community Trust.
Rachel’s Network: Rachel’s Network is a little different in that it’s a donor circle for women in environmentalism, so it’s more of a community of donors that’s almost like an affinity group. But it does some interesting “co-funding,” pooled giving efforts with a budget of $200,000. For example, the network has an annual award for women environmental leaders of color, and recently backed some work opposing the U.S. border wall.
The Solutions Project:The Solutions Project became an influential passthrough funder for grassroots climate work, particularly around the Standing Rock resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline in 2015 and 2016. Initially all about 100 percent renewable energy, the outfit recently announced it would also be devoting its resources to climate justice, and overwhelmingly to organizations led by women and people of color. It’s about to cross the $5 million mark in grants made to date, and also specializes in media and communications support. Funders include the JPB, Nathan Cummings, Surdna, and Leonardo DiCaprio foundations.