NRCP: [BLOG] How Can Philanthropy Support Leaders of Color in the Environmental Movement?

How Can Philanthropy Support Leaders of Color in the Environmental Movement?

posted on: February 10, 2015

EnvironmentalMovementEven those outside the nonprofit sector are starting to notice the glaring lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the environmental movement’s leadership. In fact, one recent headline from The Guardian asked, “Why are so many white men trying to save the planet without the rest of us?” Some observers accuse mainstream green groups of having a race problem or “green ceiling.” Despite growing awareness of the disparate impacts of pollution and climate change on low-income people of color, large environmental organizations remain fairly homogenous. The situation raises important questions about the role of philanthropy in the environmental movement. Do grantmakers encourage their environmentally-focused grantees to conduct outreach to communities of color for hiring and recruitment, and do the same themselves? Does a lack of foundation funding for environmental leaders of color and grassroots initiatives, including funding for leadership development, contribute to the problem?

Two years ago, NCRP published Cultivating the Grassroots: A Winning Approach for Environment and Climate Funders as part of our “High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy” report series. Author Sarah Hansen, executive director of the Environmental Grantmakers Association from 1998-2005, advanced moral and strategic rationales for increased funding for grassroots environmental efforts that engage communities of color, and for more diversity in the racial composition of the movement. Moreover, based on an analysis of data from the National Center for Charitable Statistics, NCRP found that “funding resources generally go to larger, national organizations, even while the number of new grassroots environmental groups has grown significantly.”

The report outlined how environment and climate funders tend to favor top-down approaches to grantmaking and public policy by funding larger, well-resourced organizations. NCRP maintained that environmental funders need to invest more in high-impact grassroots organizing so that communities can mobilize and demand environmental change from the bottom-up. To support environmental justice, steps that foundations can take to support environmental justice include :

  • Directly funding grassroots initiatives led by and for marginalized communities.
  • Pushing for greater diversity among their staff and that of their larger environmental grantees.
  • Motivating large mainstream organizations to partner with grassroots organizations.

For example, Inside Philanthropy just reported on the Libra Foundation’s application of a justice lens to their environmental philanthropy – part of a growing trend in which “more climate funders are getting attuned to the role of low-income groups in climate work.”

In addition, Grist recently published an interview with Rhea Suh, the new president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), who brings experience as a program officer at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The daughter of Korean immigrants, she is the first woman of color to lead a major mainstream environmental organization. Her hiring reflects growing awareness of the need to hire more people of color and target diverse populations to find talent. In the interview, Suh comments on the role of philanthropy and states, “I think it is both the responsibility of foundations – which have, in some ways, the luxury of thinking about trends, perspectives and opportunities – to think about where they’re going to get long-term gains and significant opportunities [from community-based organizations].”

Both Hansen’s report and NCRP’s “Strengthening Democracy, Increasing Opportunities” report series, which document the impacts of advocacy and organizing, found that grassroots environmental groups, especially those led by communities of color, tend to be the most under-resourced and fragile. A more equitable distribution of philanthropic dollars among environmental justice nonprofits could help ensure equity at all levels of the fight for a more sustainable and environmentally sustainable future. As Hansen noted in NCRP’s report, “especially going forward, environmental advocacy cannot succeed if its leadership does not reflect the communities it seeks to mobilize and benefit.”

For this reason, it’s no surprise that many have welcomed the October announcement of Green 2.0, an innovativecollaboration between GuideStar, Green 2.0 and the D5 Coalition. The initiative will gather diversity data on environmental nonprofits to supplement current data on operations and finances, and bring more transparency to the environmental movement. Support for the initiative was pledged by philanthropic leaders from the Kresge Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and W.K. Kellogg Foundation, in addition to the NRDC’s former president, Frances Beinecke. The collaborators urge organizations to pledge to submit data on the gender, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity and ability/disability of their board members, staff and volunteers by the end of this month. Both green groups and their funders can take advantage of this opportunity to diversify the movement and hold each other accountable by providing this information.

Do you think reporting will lead to greater diversity? What do you think it will take to bring more leaders of color into the environmental movement? Tell us what you think!

Caitlin Duffy is the project associate for Philamplify at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Follow @NCRP and @DuffyInDC on Twitter and join the #Philamplify conversation.

Photo of People’s Climate March by Overpass Light Brigade.

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