Blog

Apr 23, 2018

Ashley N. Bell is a doctoral student at Tulane University, and was a 2017 Environmental Fellow placed at the New England Grassroots Environment Fund

Prior to becoming a 2017 Environmental Fellow, the concept of “environmental philanthropy” was foreign to me. In fact, my first thoughts upon receiving an email from a friend regarding this opportunity was “Environmental philanthropy? What is that?” I would like to believe that I am an academic. When there are topics that are of interest to me, I research, question, and attempt to attain as much information as possible. Naturally, my first step upon receiving the email was to google the term expecting the search to return a dedicated Wikipedia page that would provide me with a simple, concise definition. Instead, the search returned several different pages that had some variation of the words “grants” or “giving” in the title. Based on this information it was logical to conclude that “environmental philanthropy” was essentially giving funds to environmental causes. Assuming this to be all there was to it, I did not understand how this could be a career. However, the focus of the fellowship, “diversifying the environmental field, in order to create a more equitable and inclusive environmental workforce” intrigued me. The environmental field (academia, advocacy, political, etc.) has traditionally been a white space, which is at odds with reality, because poor black and brown people are disproportionately more likely to be the victims of environmental degradation and experience adverse health outcomes as a result.

As fellows, we were placed with non-governmental organizations, nonprofits, policy institutes, and foundations throughout the country. In my case I was placed with the New England Grassroots Environment Fund in New Hampshire. I did not have many expectations going into the fellowship, but I wanted to absorb and learn all that was possible. I will admit, I had some reservations, the main one being, “How am I, an African American student, supposed to explain to professionals, that diversity in this field (a field that I just became aware of) was important?” I was pleasantly surprised when I met the staff and realized that I did not need to be the diversity advocate. After one conversation, it was apparent, that while working there, my role would not be to convince them that the voices of the marginalized are important. It wasn’t my role, because it was not needed. As a whole, the New England Grassroots Environment Fund “got it.”

For my summer project, I worked specifically on environmental justice and equity issues and how they were or were not incorporated into projects that addressed land and water issues throughout the New England area. While conducting this research, I got a first-hand view of how void the field is of people of color. When confronted with this information, many organizations provided some variation of the response “They (people of color) aren’t going into these types of fields.” This standard response acknowledges that the field is void of people of color, and inadvertently absolves those in the field of the responsibility to actively recruit and engage diverse voices. Consequently, many of these organizations were not specifically considering environmental justice or equity when addressing land and water issues.

One space this summer where I was able to see the connections between equity, justice, and environment was at the Environmental Grantmakers Association Fall Retreat. This was my first retreat and I did not know what to expect, except, that outside of the fellows within my group, there would not be many people of color. There were approximately 500 attendees, with less than 100 of those being people of color. This is a relatively small percentage, however, the issues that disproportionately affect black and brown people, were on full display. Virtually every speaker addressed issues through the lens of environmental justice and equity, social issues, or racism. Many speakers expounded on how important it is to have diverse voices not only at the table but given equal weight as well. All of the speakers spoke with conviction and passion. They were not reserved in their delivery or rhetoric even though they were presenting to a room full of grantmakers, many of whom they more than likely have requested funds from. I greatly appreciated this because it showed to this small segment of the field, that black and brown voices are important, they are needed, and most important, they/we are here.

Prior to this fellowship, I knew I wanted to work on environmental justice and equity issues. I knew that I wanted to work with traditionally under-represented communities. Coming from the world of academia, I assumed that the way to do this was through academia and research. I, indeed believe there is a place for this, but participating in the fellowship showed me that while it is vital to get resources to the community, it is essential that the environmental field reflects the community that it serves. That is what I hope to bring to the field of environmental philanthropy. I hope that when the community sees me, it sees themselves. I hope that those currently in the field, recognize the importance of diverse voices and actively work to engage these voices and make these spaces welcoming. The excuse that “they are not pursuing these types of careers” is no longer valid. We Are Here!

Ashley Bell is a PhD Student at Tulane University where she is pursuing a degree in Global Environmental Health Sciences. She hopes to focus on action at the community level to address environmental justice issues. She received both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Animal Science and Agricultural Sciences from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. The original life plan was to be a veterinarian, however after completing a study abroad program in South Africa, she realized that her degrees could be better used in service of improving public health via environmental health. It was at this time she discovered the concept of One Health and it really resonated with her because of the interdependency of animal, human and environmental health that it champions. Her passion within environmental health is environmental justice. The merging of social and environmental issues is right up her alley because she wholeheartedly believes that quality of health should not be geographically or status dependent. In her spare time, she likes to listen to music (Justin Timberlake), read a book (that’s not school related), play with Mylo (her mini dachshund), or get outside and “live in nature”. 

Apr 6, 2018

By Chris Kieran, Program Associate, William Penn Foundation

This was originally published on the William Penn Foundation blog, as a part of the "Penn-ing Progress" series where staff shares information, stories and perspectives to illustrate the Foundation's commitment – and that of many others – to enhancing the quality and vitality of life in the Philadelphia region.

More than 14,000 farms make up over 20 percent of the land in the Delaware River basin. Since what we do on the land impacts the health of our rivers and streams, agriculture presents a huge opportunity to conserve clean water in the region. Water running off farm fields can contain bacteria, pesticides, fertilizers, and sediment that pollute streams, posing public health risks, killing aquatic life, and increasing drinking water treatment costs. Conservation practices on farms can prevent much of this pollution, but they cost money. A new partnership between the Rodale Institute and Stroud Water Research Center is focusing on a suite of farming practices that are good for clean water and also good for business.

Stroud Preserve, in Chester County, PA, is the site of new cutting-edge research to reduce pollution caused by agriculture runoff and improve the health of our waterways. The site is owned and managed by Natural Lands. Photo by Nicholas Rohr.

In the book Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature, The Nature Conservancy CEO Mark Tercek and Jonathan Adams wrote about the value of nature through the lens of business and investing: “Concepts such as maximize returns, invest in your assets, manage your risks, diversify, and promote innovation are the common parlance of business and banking. These are rarely applied to nature, but they should be.” In fact, these concepts are also the common parlance of regenerative organic farming, in which production systems are designed to regenerate natural resources like soil and water, rather than depleting or degrading them.

Farms are interesting places to think about applying business principles to conservation because, more than many other businesses, their work is so closely tied to the land. The soil is where water is infiltrated, nutrients are retained, and carbon is stored. It is also a crucial business asset for a farm. Healthy soils increase returns, manage risks, benefit from diversification, and improve resiliency. Promoting innovation in soil health can improve farm profits as well as environmental benefits.

Organic farming in particular presents a compelling case study of how market forces hold potential to drive environmental benefit. Farmers use practices that benefit the environment because their customers want it and pay for it. With year after year of double-digit growth, organic is now the fastest-growing sector of the food market, achieving over $43 billion in U.S. retail sales in 2015. Much of that food is produced in Pennsylvania, which ranked 2nd in the nation for organic sales in 2016. Depending on tillage and other practices, organic farms in theory have healthier soils that retain more nutrients and infiltrate more water, reducing polluted agricultural runoff. It’s the story of a growing industry that leverages environmental benefit as a product feature and monetizes it.

"Organic farming in particular presents a compelling case study of how market forces hold potential to drive environmental benefit [...] It’s the story of a growing industry that leverages environmental benefit as a product feature and monetizes it."

The William Penn Foundation’s Watershed Protection Program seeks to maximize the benefits of conservation for clean water, and conservation on farms is a major element of the work we fund to improve our streams. The Foundation recently approved a grant of nearly $6 million to support a long-term research collaboration between the Rodale Institute and Stroud Water Research Center, two world-class research organizations located right here in the Delaware River watershed. These two partners are each leading experts in their own right. Rodale’s 38-year Farming Systems Trial is the longest-running side-by-side comparison of organic vs. conventional farming in North America. Stroud, a National Science Foundation-designated site for Long-Term Research in Environmental Biology, is renowned for its seminal research on the importance of forested stream buffers in mitigating agricultural runoff. Combining their expertise, this new partnership will elevate a research focus on the relationships between soil health, stream health, and business health, illuminating new ways to scale up conservation.

We recently sat down with Jeff Moyer, Executive Director of the Rodale Institute, and Bern Sweeney, Distinguished Research Scientist at the Stroud Water Research Center, to learn about their work.

As leading experts in different facets of the agriculture industry, through this grant Stroud and Rodale will work together to advance our understanding of the relationships between soil health and stream health. How do you view the state of the science currently and how will your research advance it?

Jeff: We can never have too much scientific data and back end support for the many decisions farmers and consumers must make on a daily basis. From long-term systems trials at Rodale Institute and other locations across the country we already have interesting results on how changing farming practices can make dynamic changes to the soil, and that those changes can impact interactions with water. Now we want to expand our work to definitively address the important impacts farm practices will have on the water resources we all need and enjoy. By expanding from detailed plot research to field scale trials at Natural Lands’ Stroud Preserve, we will be able to identify specific practices and define the extent of the impact soil changes will have on surface and ground water.

Bern: From the water side of this project, there are few published quantitative data regarding how some agricultural practices impact water quality. These impacts could include the ability of soil to infiltrate and retain rain water for crop usage, or the effect of certain farming practices on the quality of water flowing from the crop field as surface runoff or as subsurface flow toward underground aquifers. Our project will fill this void by measuring the quantity and quality of water inputs and outputs associated with four agricultural methods. The methods will span from conventional tillage farming with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to no-till regenerative organic. We will also evaluate farm productivity and financial balance sheets. The project will provide farmers with hard facts (both environmental and financial) upon which they can base their present and future choices of preferred farming practice. We propose that those facts will show that farming practices that increase soil health conserve both water (quantity and quality) and farm productivity and thus lead to more sustainable and more profitable farms.

Beyond the nationally significant research you plan to undertake, a major component of this project is about educating consumers, farmers, and farm service providers on what you know already and what you learn from the new research. Why is that work so important and how do you plan to go about it?

Jeff: Research without outreach cannot have the necessary impact we want and desire. In order to make lasting changes within the extended farm community, we need sound scientific data coupled with a dynamic education, training, and outreach program. Like any business, farmers need customers. We will have an outward facing communications effort that targets the general public to inspire them to support changes in farm practices by changing their food purchasing decisions. We will also have a farmer-facing communications component that targets regional farmers and growers, giving them the information and tools they need to move from the current farming practices to those that are more water friendly.

Bern: Everyone knows that farmers who grow food for which there is no market go extinct. If we want to help farmers move along the gradient from conventional to organic farming, then we need to grow the market for more nutritious, healthy, and environmentally friendly food. This does not necessarily require additional data. It does require packaging those data in very different ways. For example, cover cropping can reduce the need for synthetic pesticides. These data incentivize farmers to undertake the practice because it reduces costs and increases profits. The same data can incentivize consumers because the food is more pure and nutritious and has potentially less side effects regarding consumer health. Credible scientific information can and should provide the basis for messaging to both the producers and the consumers, and the communication needs to be direct.

What kinds of barriers, financial and otherwise, do you witness preventing more farmers from using practices that benefit our water?

Jeff: This is a serious question that could take hundreds of pages of text to address. We have in place a complex set of systems geared toward supporting a “status quo” production system within our farm community. These systems include government policy, banking and insurance industries, social norms, peer pressure and others. This project is envisioned as one step in expanding our work to address the many facets of barrier reduction. Rodale Institute has already taken steps to organize organic farmers on a national stage to impact policy decisions through the creation of the Organic Farmers Association. We expect to use information generated through the work of this project to address financial barriers to transitioning from conventional production strategies to organic and water friendly practices.

Bern: Farmers, like most individuals, often don’t like change. Conventional farming is straightforward and simple. It is almost like following a recipe in a cook book. Things get more complex as one moves along the gradient from conventional to regenerative organic. The degree of strategic planning increases along this gradient. This can be confusing and frustrating for some and exciting and invigorating for others. This is one barrier. Another is that plows and disks will become obsolete and new, specialized, and expensive equipment will be needed for the transition to non-conventional farming practices (e.g., inter-planters for planting cover crops among cash crops, roller crimpers for avoiding pesticide burn down). Financing and incentives will be needed to overcome this added expense.

What most excites you about this new partnership?

Jeff: Like all industries, agriculture is dynamic and subject to change as the future unfolds. There hasn’t been a time in recent history where this change is being driven by consumer demand and a real change in farm management as our aging farmer population hands over the management decisions to a younger generation. This new generation of management has different expectations and outcomes in mind, and will be responding to shifts in consumer purchasing decisions. To remain viable, change will be inevitable. What excites all the individuals involved in this project is the possibility to be a catalyst for real change. Change that improves our soil health, changes that improve the quality of our water resources, and changes that can impact our own personal health.

Bern: The project connects food and water in a way that is novel. I’m excited about the increasing recognition that conservation of land and water are not independent, mutually exclusive disciplines. And the opportunity to demonstrate that farming can be a solution rather than a cause of the current water crisis at a local, national, and global scale. 

Feb 28, 2018

By Eddie Torres, President and CEO, Grantmakers in the Arts

This was originally published on the Grantmakers in the Arts blog, as a part of an onging series of posts from Eddie Torres.

Grantmakers in the Arts has just returned from the Affinity Equity Summit and the Solidarity Defense & Action Funder Briefing, a two-day summit in mid-February, in Oakland, California in which over 20 philanthropy-serving affinity organizations and their members came together across issues and disciplines to build a collaborative path forward for the philanthropic community with equity as our shared guiding value.

GIA was a Summit co-sponsor and was invited to speak to our work in support of racial equity as a core mission and primary focus. Nadia Elokdah, Deputy Director and Director of Programs and Roberto Bedoya, board member and Cultural Affairs Manager for the City of Oakland, joined me in representing GIA.

Through our time at the Summit, we made the case that any philanthropic investment in social change should also include investment in arts and culture. This engagement with our peers is a natural extension of GIA’s Thought Leader Forums, which explore member supported case studies of the overlap between art and other content areas such as health, the environment, or emergency readiness. We approached the Affinity Equity Summit in a similar manner, aiming to inspire other parts of the philanthropic community to invest in arts and culture as part of their social change strategies.

We explained that GIA values equity as an investment in peoples, communities, and their cultural forms. With this position established, we discussed that the three often conflated strategies – diversity, equity, and inclusion – are in fact three separate strategies with three different points of intervention and three different outcomes. By increasing alignment of values across discipline and sector, equity, particularly racial equity, can be advanced across many facets concurrently. Therefore, investments in communities and peoples must include investments in their cultural forms and their ability to express themselves creatively. This is central to taking an asset-based approach to communities and their residents. Otherwise, we are treating people as nothing more than a collection of problems to be solved.

Throughout the Summit’s plenary and breakout sessions, we found that many different fields recognized the value of the arts. The strategy of investing in communities resonated with conference participants who similarly value asset-based investments in communities as a strategy toward environmental justice, civic engagement, and LGBTQI rights, among other focus areas.

A particular point that resonated for all of us was targeted support for rural regions. So often, we classify rural cultural forms as “folk” as though they are less important than forms within the Western European cannon. This classification as “folk” – and other like terms – too often serves as a means to diminish whole groups of people, just as we find with exclusionary terminology that refers to ALAANA communities’ forms and organizations as “culturally-specific.”

When we fail to affirm the best of any group of people, we risk losing them – losing their perspectives, losing their insights and solutions, and too often losing them to ideologues. Across all our disparate disciplines, we recognized that losing the perspectives of peoples by failing to value them on their own terms was a loss too great to accept. We agreed that arts philanthropy plays a central role in affirming and supporting the creativity and cultural forms of different people and their communities.

We found that many of our peers in philanthropy want to include art in their strategies. But they often don’t know how to work with artists and arts organizations or at what point to involve them. As part of our mission to advance racial equity through collective actions, GIA will continue to work across disciplines to show the value that the arts play in all social change efforts. We will continue to share case studies and facilitate dialogue across disciplines, sectors, and fields. And we commit to continued advocacy for the inclusion of arts and culture in the toolkit of supports utilized by the entire philanthropic community.

I am grateful that this effort was so well received by our followers on social media. GIA live-tweeted the summit and received some of our highest levels of participation, delighted with the appetite for collective action toward equity and justice among our network.

We consider it a privilege to serve as a valued colleague to our peers in the philanthropy community and, in such a role, take seriously our mission to establish the arts as an essential component of positive social change.

Affinity groups involved in co-sponsoring this effort to-date are:

  • Biodiversity Funders Group
  • Blue Sky Funders Forum
  • CHANGE Philanthropy
  • Confluence Philanthropy
  • EDGE Funders Alliance
  • Environmental Grantmakers Association
  • Funders' Committee for Civic Participation
  • Funders Concerned About AIDS
  • Funders for LGBTQ Issues
  • Funders for Reproductive Equity
  • Funders' Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities
  • Funders Together to End Homelessness
  • Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees
  • Grantmakers in Arts
  • Health and Environmental Funders Network
  • Hispanics in Philanthropy
  • Justice Funders: Powering Philanthropic Transformation
  • Human Rights Funders Network
  • Media Impact Funders
  • National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy
  • Neighborhood Funders Group
  • Northern California Grantmakers
  • Peace and Security Funders Group
  • Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement
  • Smart Growth California
  • United Philanthropy Forum
Feb 23, 2018

By Lenore Hanisch, Senior Director of Engagement and Partnerships, Quixote Foundation

This was originally published on the National Center for Family Philanthropy Blog, as a part of the latest in a series of posts from the leadership of the Quixote Foundation.

One of the gifts of Quixote Foundation operating within a strategic lifespan? The opportunity for reflection about the field of philanthropy. The insights I have today about the complex and layered power dynamics of philanthropy are different than they were when I was a direct and active participant in those dynamics. In this piece, I explore how the assumptions we make about wealth, race, gender, and family can inhibit our ability to do the work we set out to do, including connecting with others who share our vision of resourcing positive change.

I’m working at home when I receive an email from the Membership Engagement Director of a nationally known philanthropic association. I’ll call them PHIL for short. It’s an invitation for myself and a second Quixote Foundation board member to join their community. At the end of the second sentence, I pause. Then reread it:

“PHIL is continuing to evolve and deepen our focus on racial equity and we’re looking forward to the new CEO bringing passion and focus in this work. There is much to do, and I’m enthusiastic about the direction we’re heading.”

This is great! This mostly white and highly privileged organization is stating explicitly their intent to do serious work around race and inclusion. Not only will this bring about new growth opportunities for their members, board, and staff, but because PHIL funds grant-seekers, hopefully, this renewed dedication to racial equity will also affect their philanthropy, which could potentially affect systemic change beyond them toward a racially just world.

But wait a second. I don’t see the third and final member of the Quixote board included in this invitation. I recheck the recipient email addresses, the salutation,

“Hi Lenore & Erik…”

I go back to the body of the email and read on. No, there’s no mention of June Wilson, Quixote’s African American Executive Director. She’s also our third and final board member in our management triad.

I finish reading the email to make sure PHIL doesn’t mention being in communication with June in some other way. Given she’d participated in a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training series they offered, it’s possible. Maybe they’ve already asked her to join them in shaping this next stage of their DEI work? Back to the email. No mention of June. I double-check with June to make sure there isn’t a separate invitation to join PHIL in her inbox or junk mail. Nope, there’s nothing.

I scramble for my phone to call the sender of the email—then stop. Calling one individual at one organization isn’t the answer. The problem is bigger than that. Likely, this Membership Engagement Director, in trying to be efficient in their job, missed the opportunity in front of them.

Putting down the phone, I pause again. This, I realized, isn’t only about one person’s assumptions. It also isn’t only about race. It’s about a field that ostensibly funds change in the world, yet often excludes people based on the problematic (and often prejudicial) assumptions of whether or not that person has money to give, controls the money to give, or plays a direct role in those decisions regarding said funders’ control, possession, and/or access to financial resources.

In addition to the racism at play when PHIL invited only the white board members of Quixote to join them, another reason June likely wasn’t included is because, like me, she’s also seen as non-family at Quixote. One of the reasons I’m likely included on the email is simply in hopes that I’ll have influence on the person who most consider to be actual family, the founder’s only child, Erik Hanisch, my husband. This is one of the many funder pecking order distinctions the philanthropic community makes, especially family philanthropy.

To be fair to PHIL’s Membership Engagement Director, these are efficient assumptions made in an attempt to meet their internal recruitment and development goals.

The problem with efficient assumptions, unconscious or conscious, is they often lead to inefficient results. In this instance, for example, PHIL is passing up an opportunity to racially diversify their membership.

For any mostly-white philanthropic organization such as PHIL, it will take deep work to re-imagine their strategies to becoming an entity operating by DEI principles. We did this work internally at Quixote under June’s leadership and we still have a ways to go even as we enter the final stretch of our strategic lifespan. For example, I learned through our DEI training that as a white woman, I often will not intervene in the face of a racial slight occurring at the expense of a person of color in order to avoid saying or doing anything because I might not say or do it well. My fear is that in speaking up I’ll only make it worse. How could I possibly re-imagine a potential DEI intervention that would make something better in the moment, or even in the future? Instead of working through those layers, I default to doing nothing. That’s easier. Efficient. My assumption assures me I can’t re-imagine a successful intervention. DEI work has taught me I must always try.

In PHIL’s example though, an obvious miss happened when it invited the two white people who’d barely ever interacted with their community and passed over inviting the African American who had. It takes slowing down, way down, to change how you go about making up invitation lists that are different than the ones you’ve made before, especially if you are working to train yourself and your organization to be racially equitable and inclusive. 

However, it’s difficult to be truly inclusive of all people in the field of organized philanthropy because it’s a system built on exclusivity. You have to be an entity giving money away to be considered a philanthropic organization or in philanthropy; writing checks is our main criteria of inclusion/exclusion. We don’t count volunteering, thought leadership, or goods; we count cash.

I’m guilty of this as well, and need to constantly watch myself so that I don’t fall back into exclusionary assumptions. For example, I’m a member of the Women Donors Network, a community of progressive women philanthropists. I know I could be better at letting potential members know about the chance to join WDN but I often don’t mention it in situations where I’m unsure of the individual’s financial situation. I can also forget to mention WDN and its work when I’m in non-philanthropy spaces where I feel even more unsure about the financial dynamics. I recently found out that I’d offended a nonprofit activist I know because I didn’t introduce her to WDN. When she learned about WDN elsewhere and that I’m a member, she decided I didn’t tell her about it because I didn’t want to include her. I’m glad she’s considering WDN, plus their work around Reflective Democracy is for everyone, but obviously I messed up. Even if it was unintentionally, I excluded someone.

That’s the wrong way to go about inclusion, and as a proud WDN member, it should be easy to work the opportunity to be a part of this community into the majority of my conversations, despite my lurking insecurities about navigating money conversations. I can and will be braver about sharing information and letting potential WDN members make their own decisions about joining. To be more inclusive means slowing down to check my own assumptions, where these assumptions are coming from and doing my own internal work to build up my emotional intelligence on this front.

The root words in philanthropy basically mean: love humans. How can family philanthropy or the larger field change the world for the better if we’re only loving and including the humans that are perceived as potentially able to write checks? We can’t.

The work of becoming inclusive means including staff, more people of color, all family, whether by blood, chosen, or adopted. Let’s put the “I” into DEI. Let’s work as much at the practice of inclusion as the work required for diversity and equity. We can’t assume if we do diversity and equity, inclusion will naturally follow. If we don’t thoughtfully set out to include, we’ll end up excluding, like PHIL and I. We can be an entity/campaign/network/person that invites belonging. The most capable partners don’t sit solely in positions of power. We examine who we haven’t included and make a choice to rectify that.

In order to hone our inclusion skills, let’s give up assumptions. If our objective is to bring resources to organizations (time, treasure, or talent), let’s practice identifying and breaking down places of assumption. Inference is not reality. Let’s apply this to race, gender, giving potential, etc. then experiment with finding more and more places of assumption; then break those assumptions apart. We share this work internally and externally. Rinse. Repeat.

We do the work on all parts of DEI, the work of philanthropy: Love all the humans. It’ll be different. Hard. Heck, extreme introvert that I am, I hardly like being around anyone at all, but if I can give it a whirl, so can you.

Jan 29, 2018

By Mariella Puerto, Co-Director of Climate, Barr Foundation

This post was originally published on the Barr Foundation blog.

At the Barr Foundation, many of our longest partnerships are with community-based organizations, some of which are led by people of color. Grounded in our belief that solutions reside with those we serve, we invest in leaders who drive change from the bottom up. This funding approach is inspired not only by an attentiveness to diversity, equity, and inclusion, but also by a conviction that diversity in our funding portfolio is an imperative for impact.

I recently had the opportunity to explore these ideas in a webinar titled "Diversifying Your Portfolio: Funding Through the Lens of Racial Equity and Social Justice." The webinar was sponsored by Biodiversity Funders Group and Environmental Grantmakers Association, and was part of InDEEP a professional development series for environmental philanthropy practitioners. I was joined by Community Labor United executive director, Darlene Lombos, who is a member of the newest class of Barr Fellows, and whose organization Barr has been supporting for over a decade. The following is adapted from my remarks, in conversation with Darlene.

Community Labor United brings together some of the strongest base-building community organizations and unions to build strategic campaigns to protect and promote the interests of low- and middle-income working families in the region. When Barr started funding the organization, we still had a very broad environmental sustainability program, with one line of funding directly targeted towards environmental justice.

In 2010, Barr made a shift to focus on climate change, and my piece of the portfolio became clean energy. While we no longer describe environmental justice as a standalone funding area, I continue to see an important role for organizations like Community Labor United. The transition to a clean energy economy requires broad public support, including diverse voices from across varied communities that work to ensure that all communities benefit from clean energy. Just as important is the consideration that groups like Community Labor United have the experience and credibility necessary to reach decision makers across the state.

Barr’s first grant to Community Labor United under its new climate strategy was for planning that ultimately helped catalyze the Green Justice Coalition, a network of community-based organizations that work together to build a broader base of support for a sustainable and equitable clean energy economy.

Through its effective campaign and constituency-building skills, the Green Justice Coalition was able to cultivate broader support for clean energy policies both at the state level and local levels. It successfully worked to expand access to energy efficiency programs, and improve wages and conditions for workers, earning the respect of the energy industry as well as policymakers. Green Justice Coalition members have led efforts to replace coal powered plants with clean energy, and organized local ordinances to fix gas leaks and implement community choice energy. The Green Justice Coalition has also been instrumental in engaging African American and Latino elected officials to support clean energy solutions.

In reflecting on this longstanding partnership, I offer four key takeaways:

  1. Broadening a grant portfolio to invest in community-based organizations allows you to access the talent, networks and leadership needed to achieve important wins. We have been able to achieve key policy outcomes because of the leadership–and engaged membership–of frontline organizations.
  2. Progress depends on taking a long-term view, investing for the long term, and being patient. Coalitions take time to organize, especially those that are committed to building power and leadership in the community and ensuring that community voices are authentically represented. All of this work–the education, the consensus building, the development of strategies–take time. Therefore, the funding cannot be episodic. We need to recognize the importance of investing over several years regardless of what the “campaign” is, in order to build a durable movement that can work on a range of issues.
  3. Know that circumstances and needs will change, and be responsive. There was a period when the coalition struggled to take advantage of opportunities to exercise its collective power. Because of the trust we had built, we were able to work together to pinpoint the challenges, and provided support to help the Green Justice Coalition refocus its strategy from the bottom up.
  4. Demonstrate that community-based leadership and engagement are critical to impact. Green Justice Coalition members are now leaders on clean energy and the climate field writ large, and have played a vital role advancing clean energy policies. Their presence in the debate has also spurred collaborations across the sector, resulting in other organizations recognizing the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion to their own agendas. While it is heartening to see these positive changes, the field–including funders–still has a long way to go in making diversity, equity, and inclusion a priority. In the years ahead, I will look for ways to help move this agenda forward.

The current national context of unrelenting policy rollbacks on environmental protections and climate action, along with attacks on immigrants and communities of color, presents a very challenging environment for many nonprofits. Now, more than ever, we must demonstrate and increase our commitment to the principles of inclusion, equity, and opportunity through our grantmaking, and in the other ways that we support all of our partners.

Dec 22, 2017

By Nancy Stoner, Water Program Director and Senior Fellow, Pisces Foundation

This was originally published on the Pisces Foundation blog.

As a young girl growing up on the banks of the South River in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, I had easy access to swimming in clean water, boating, tubing, fishing, skipping rocks, and feeding the ducks—all pastimes that Americans have enjoyed for generations. As a child, I only knew water as fun, but it is so much more than that.

Water is essential to life and to the health and well-being of every plant and animal on the planet, including humans. It is difficult to overstate its importance, but nevertheless we tend to take it for granted—until it is depleted or contaminated. As Ben Franklin said, “When the well’s run dry, we know the worth of water.

South River in the Shenandoah Valley (1)

At the Pisces Foundation, we know well the worth of water and support efforts to unite people around our shared commitment to safe, clean, affordable water. We believe that new thinking, technologies, and ready-to-go solutions can provide us with safe water from every tap, farms that grow food without polluting waterways, cities strengthened by cleaner lakes and rivers, and enough water for both people and nature.

Our waterways are at risk and threaten clean, safe, and abundant water for all communities, today and into the future. However, there are promising efforts to turn the tide.

One of the efforts we support, the Clean Water for All Campaign, is hard at work building the coalition for water resource protection we want and need to provide clean and safe water for all communities. Created in 2017, the campaign seeks to build a broad, diverse, national movement to drive change around the shared causes of:

  • Defending and expanding clean water protections;
  • Expanding investment in sustainable, equitable water infrastructure; and
  • Reducing nutrient pollution for positive public health outcomes and stronger ecosystems.

This campaign is broad and inclusive. It includes not just environmentalists and outdoor enthusiasts, but also people working on social justice, public and community health, sustainable businesses, labor, and faith-based issues. A broad coalition of all parties with a stake in this fight is critical to advocating for the key protections we want and need.

Over the course of the last 45 years, since the creation of the Clean Water Act in 1972, protections have been adopted with fair public involvement to ensure the safety of drinking water flowing out of taps in our homes and schools, protect the clean water sources used to keep commerce and industry productive in our communities, and recharge natural water resources for ecosystems and our collective enjoyment.

Yet programs that protect water bodies, large and small across the nation, are now in danger of being eliminated and legal protections for those waters are being rolled back. Even the most iconic waters—the Great Lakes, Puget Sound, Chesapeake Bay, Gulf of Mexico, San Francisco Bay, Lake Champlain, Long Island Sound, and the Everglades—are not immune to these threats.

The Great Lakes, Puget Sound, and Chesapeake Bay (2)

Recognizing that resource priorities vary geographically, the Clean Water for All Campaign is flexible and adaptable, with clear regional and local benefits, in addition to its national policy goals. The campaign is working to:

  • Reduce the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest ever measured
  • Minimize toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie that destroy fisheries and threaten drinking water sources
  • Restore depleted groundwater supplies in the West and Midwest
  • Clean contaminated drinking water in our cities
  • Support strong protections at the federal level as well as the local level to address these threats to our nation’s health, livelihood, and security

Clean Water for All is built on the values and vision for the future that Americans share. Clean, safe, abundant water is essential to our economy, to our quality of life, and to the health of our communities and the natural world.

At the Pisces Foundation, we are proud to support Clean Water for All’s goal of ensuring everyone in the U.S. has access to safe, clean water. The Clean Water for All Campaign represents a major undertaking by a diverse group of stakeholders to begin the process of creating a national movement of the breath and magnitude needed to overcome the challenges of today and those to come.

To form the diverse coalition we need, we must be willing to coalesce, to learn about each other’s needs, and unite for a common end. As the oceanographer Sylvia Earle famously said, “Without blue, there is no green.” To live and grow requires safe, clean, and abundant water. We must act now to ensure future access to this most important resource, using the best talents, tools, and resources we have to protect our waters against all threats. This important work will help ensure that people and nature can indeed thrive together.

(1) Photo credits: Shenandoah River Tubing and NBC29
(2) Photo credits: Lake Superior (Bryan Hansel), Puget Sound (ECOconnect), and Chesapeake Bay (Washingtonian)

Dec 6, 2017

By Farhad Ebrahimi, Founder and Chair of the Chorus Foundation

This blog was originally posted on the National Center for Family Philanthropy Blog, as a part of the latest in a series of posts from the leadership of the Chorus Foundation.

Two years ago, I wrote a piece advocating an approach to philanthropy grounded in a place-based, social movement strategy for systemic change. For the Chorus Foundation, this approach began with a critique of business as usual in climate-driven funding, but it has since led us to a broader critique of philanthropy as a whole. Even when we aspire to fund the right things, the ways in which we provide that funding run the risk of undermining the transformative potential of such work. As funders, we desperately need to learn how to let go and get out of the way.

With all of this in mind, my original piece focused on making the case for long-term, general operating support as a concrete tool for letting go. It also made brief mention of the fact that the Chorus Foundation is spending down; our final year of grant making will take place in 2023. Now, I’d like to take a step back and talk about why we’re spending down – both in terms of our immediate approach to the work, as well as our long-term vision for philanthropy as a whole.

As always, my thinking has been informed by two underlying assumptions about the nature of transformational philanthropy: First, if philanthropy as a whole requires the presence of systemic inequity, then truly transformational philanthropy must directly challenge the root causes of that same inequity. Second, if progressive philanthropy aims to acknowledge and address the power imbalances inherent to our work, then truly transformational philanthropy must explore what it looks like to hand power over entirely.

Authentic transformation, of course, can be challenging stuff – downright uncomfortable, even. I should be transparent in saying that this piece has the explicit goal of pushing philanthropy out of our collective comfort zone.

The Chorus Foundation — Invitation to Collaborate from Chris Landry on Vimeo.

The Seeds of an Idea

As with so much of the Chorus Foundation’s work, our thinking on spending down has gone through over a decade of reflection and revision. Each phase of revision was inspired in some way by conversations with our peers in philanthropy. I’d like to acknowledge the Gill Foundation, the Beldon Fund, the Quixote Foundation, and the Fund For Democratic Communities for their willingness to share their own insights on spending down.

Even at the beginning, when Chorus was just an idea, there was never any intention of creating an institution that would exist in perpetuity. As the primary donor, I’ve never had any interest in burdening others with the task of determining whether or not a given activity aligns with my founding intentions. Quite to the contrary, I’ve always believed that the process of personal wealth redistribution is something that I need to take responsibility for and see through within my own lifetime.

Beyond my own personal beliefs, we were also wary of what can happen when our insatiable appetite for institution-building risks conflating form with function. We’ve all seen examples where “existing in perpetuity” has become a mission in and of itself, and we wanted to do everything we could to inoculate against that particular scenario.

As we deepened our work, the urgency of the climate crisis provoked us to refine our thinking around spending down. We are approaching a dangerous ecological tipping point – in fact, we may have passed it already – and there’s simply no excuse for withholding resources until it’s too late. With this in mind, our vague intentions to eventually “sunset” became a concrete plan to spend down the entirety of our corpus within a ten-year time frame.

At the risk of being too much of a downer, I'd argue that something similar could be said of our current political and economic crises as well. They too have their own tipping points beyond which we risk spiraling out of control. The climate crisis may be a poster child of the failings of our current economic system, but it is certainly not the only one, and it behooves us to trace the connections between them. 

Putting Ourselves Out of Business

Throughout all of our work, the Chorus Foundation has been guided by the transformative vision of our grantees, especially those working under the banners of just transition, new economy, and an overall call for systemic change. This vision has led us to revisit our thinking around spending down once again. When our most inspiring social movements proclaim that another world is possible, we must ask ourselves: what does this mean for philanthropy?

It is our deeply-held belief that philanthropy – at least as it's conventionally defined – requires the extraction and consolidation of wealth. Which is basically just a long, fancy way of saying that philanthropy requires systemic wealth inequality. This feels like it should be a totally uncontroversial statement, and yet it remains uncomfortable for many of us in philanthropy to say out loud.

And so, when we speak of “another world,” it's clear to me that we’re referring to a world in which this extraction and consolidation of wealth no longer takes place. In a truly just and equitable world, the pressure release valve of philanthropy would not only find itself with fewer demands, it would also find itself with little to no pressure to release in the first place. Philanthropy is needed to compensate for the inherent flaws and injustices built into our current economic system. Our goal, and that of our grantees, is to create a system in which we can safely put philanthropy out of business.

If we’re going to have any hope of bringing such a world into being, then we’re going to need to start learning how to return consolidated wealth to the communities from which it was initially extracted. And, by spending out, we believe that we have the opportunity to model what this might look like. In that sense, we see our work as a form of reparations. We may not see mainstream philanthropy joining us any time soon, but we believe deeply in the power of demonstrating what's possible.

There is an Alternative

We’re not under the illusion that any number of foundations spending down will somehow erase the need for financial resources at the community level. Instead, we want to challenge our collective assumptions about what the mechanisms for resource allocation ought to look like. And, as usual, it is our grantees who are leading the way.

Not surprisingly, this quickly becomes a conversation about investment capital just as much as grants. For example, many of our grantees are actively building their own democratic, politicized, and networked financial institutions. Some, such as The Working World, are international in scope and have been active for over a decade. Others, such as Cooperation Richmond, Cooperation Buffalo, or the Boston Ujima Project, are place-based and are just getting started. Some, such as those listed above, are based on a financial cooperative model (essentially a cooperatively controlled revolving loan fund). Others, such as Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, have pushed the community development financial institution model in promising directions.

Instead of casting ourselves as smart investors who can “do good and still make money at the same time,” we're supporting our grantees to build their own financial institutions so that capital can be handed over to them permanently. That way they get to be the smart investors, and the return on investment stays in their own communities for guaranteed future use. For us, this is the ultimate expression of what aligning investments to mission can look like: let your capital become the community’s investment.

In the meantime, as we work collectively to bring this new world into being, we’ve been exploring ways of democratizing our grant making processes in our current world. We seek guidance from our grantees on any major decisions, we make new funding commitments based on their direct recommendations, and we support the creation of community-controlled re-granting mechanisms that allow the resources to be handed over directly. We’ve even gone as far as to re-write our mission statement based on candid grantee feedback. While we still hold the power, it’s important that we learn to share it as much as possible. 

But What Do We Really Hope to See After Ten Years?

If the community-controlled financial institutions described above had already existed when we were first considering what to do with the resources that I'd been given, then it may not have made much sense for us to start our own foundation. Why build a new organization – with new structures of decision-making, new processes for resource allocation, and new challenges around accountability – if such structures already exist on the ground? Given the Chorus Foundation’s mission, it would have made much more sense to simply hand the resources over to direct community control.

Our hope is that, by the time Chorus makes our last grant, our grantees will have been able to bring a number of these community-controlled financial institutions into the world. Together, we will have been able to shift the conversation around how consolidated resources should be (re)deployed for community benefit.

The full vision of philanthropy putting itself out of business may not come to fruition anytime soon – perhaps not even in my lifetime – but we believe that it remains an absolutely critical point of reference nonetheless. Without a long-term vision of what's necessary, we will never be able to make the most of the short-term opportunity of what's possible. Our goal is to have effectively demonstrated that handing resources over to direct community control is possible, equitable, and strategic.

Where Are You in Your Journey?

While the concepts above may be crystal clear to us, forging the path forward will always be a process of reflection and revision. And, knowing that ours is but one approach, we're always curious to hear where it resonates with others (as well as where it doesn't).

With that in mind, I’d like to end this piece with an invitation to my peers in philanthropy to think about how far along in my recounting of our story you were still with me. If I took a step outside your comfort zone at any point, please bear with me; that doesn't mean that the earlier assertions no longer hold!

Can you find that point? Where are you in relation to that point now? What would one step further look like for you? How would that feel, and what would it take to get there?

I’d absolutely love to talk about any of these questions. And, as always, thanks for reading!

Farhad Ebrahimi is the founder and chair of the Chorus Foundation, which works for a just transition to a regenerative economy in the United States.Farhad also serves on the boards of the Democracy Alliance and the Wildfire Project.