Blog

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.

Nov 17, 2017

By Julia Woods, Development Assistant, Global Greengrants Fund

This was originally published on the Global Greengrants Fund blog.

Across the United States, a group of powerful, determined citizens are standing up and actively holding the government accountable for the future of our shared planet. They are fighting for their most basic constitutional rights to a healthy environment, and they aren’t backing down. The best part? Most of them are in middle school.

From Alaska to Florida, from the Marshall Islands to Boulder, Colorado, a powerful groundswell of youth climate action is gaining speed. Meet Our Children’s Trust, a driving force behind the U.S. Federal Climate Lawsuit.

Using a $10,000 grant from Global Greengrants Fund, the group filed the lawsuit Juliana v. U.S. in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon in 2015, together with organizational plaintiff, Earth Guardians. Their complaint states that through the government’s affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.

The lawsuit has endured its fair share of hurdles; the U.S. government under former President Obama along with representatives from the fossil fuel industry filed to have the lawsuit dismissed.

But in a groundbreaking decision in November 2016, Federal Judge Ann Aiken advanced the case to trial. This victory has garnered nationwide attention from the likes of The Washington Post, National Geographic, and well-known climate scientist James Hansen. The case could give the Trump Administration a run for its money in what many are calling the biggest trial of the century.

One particularly notable voice in this fight is 17-year-old indigenous environmental activist, hip-hop artist, and Youth Director of Earth Guardians: Xiuhtezcatl Martinez. On the power of youth in addressing climate change Xiuhtzecatl says,

“When it comes to climate change, youth are the future. We are the ones who will be experiencing the consequences from generations who came before us. We have the potential to think outside-the-box when it comes to effective solutions. Hearing youth voices in the conversation on climate change is essential to finding and implementing solutions, demanding actionable solutions from those in office, and leading grassroots efforts from the ground up.”

We are inspired by the wisdom of Xiuhtezcatl and the other faces behind the Juliana vs. U.S. climate case, and continue to stand in solidarity with their efforts.

What next?

The youth plaintiffs in this case, currently aged 10-21, and their attorneys are now gearing up for the trial scheduled to take place on February 5, 2018.

Young people can create the future we all want. Our children and grandchildren will inherit our mistakes. Investing in their solutions today is the most powerful way to create a sustainable world tomorrow.

Here at Global Greengrants Fund, we believe in and empower the next generation of youth leaders with a vision for change. Aside from Xiuhtezcatl and Our Children’s Trust, we’ve also supported youth-led climate projects in Kenya, the Philippines, and Ecuador.

Our future is in their hands, and because of them, our future looks bright. Global Greengrants Fund is honored to support these young leaders on the front lines of the global environmental movement.

Photo: Our Children’s Trust

Julia Woods

Julia’s passion for environmental sustainability, human rights, and mission-driven organizations led her to Global Greengrants Fund in October 2016. Prior to joining the Greengrants team, Julia worked for a renewable energy cooperative and an education-focused nonprofit in Los Angeles. She holds a B.A. in Political Science from Loyola Marymount University.

Oct 31, 2017

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

This was originally published on the GrantCraft blog.

How can funders be both strategy-focused and flexible? How can we be clear and consistent about our goals and priorities, but not risk missing big ideas that may not align perfectly with our assumptions of what the levers are?

Beginning in 2012, I invested some time on an idea that, at first, looked like a clear “no.” Since then, however, it has become an integral piece of how we and our partners spur our region towards a clean energy future.

In 2010, Barr developed a strategic plan for our climate change program that focused on the two largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions: buildings and transportation. Two years into working on this strategy, I received an invitation to hear a presentation about environmental research by Boston University (BU) professors. None of the topics seemed particularly on point to Barr’s new strategy. So, I passed. But as I looked into the presenters and their work, something caught my eye. One of the faculty members, Nathan Phillips, described his work as being focused on “urban metabolism.” It was a new term to me. Nathan defined it as the ebb and flow of greenhouse gas emissions in a city’s atmosphere. It struck me as a novel way to view the system (i.e., climate) we were trying to affect. I sent Nathan a note and asked for a meeting.

A few weeks later, at Nathan’s lab at BU, he graciously shared his research. One project really made me stop and think. Nathan is a tree physiologist and was concerned about street trees dying off in and around Boston. He wondered if leaking methane might be the cause – as methane starves trees of oxygen. In addition to the risk of explosion, methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that drives climate change at a much faster rate than carbon dioxide. So, Nathan and a former utility gas inspector, Bob Ackley, rigged sensors to a car and did some initial ad hoc exploratory drives in the Boston area testing the air for methane from the underground natural gas pipes where they came across dozens of leaks.

Addressing methane wasn’t explicitly articulated in our strategy at Barr. But, depending on the scale, I thought, this could be a big deal...

Fast forward two years. What started as an off-hand, possibly off-strategy conversation became a major shift of strategy for Barr, and for many of our partners. Most significantly, it also resulted in state-level policy changes with enormous implications for our energy use and emissions.

How did this happen? In hindsight, five steps helped me follow my intuition, and invest in a big opportunity despite its first appearance in unexpected packaging:

First, ask a set of basic questions. Was it in our plan? In the case of methane, no. Was the government already doing something about it? Again, no. Had thought leaders identified it as a priority? Not yet. In fact, the conventional wisdom at the time was promoting natural gas as a “bridge fuel” that, while still a fossil fuel, would help us limit our coal and oil consumption. Was it a big problem? Maybe. Did the foundation have a role to play? Perhaps.

Second, check your gut. My gut said yes, this could be a game-changing issue worthy of our attention – or at least serious exploration. Our president, Jim Canales, often speaks of the importance of philanthropy balancing focus and flexibility, and of being “tight on goals but loose on how to achieve them.” Holding tightly to our goal of addressing climate change, it felt important to be loose about this potential new pathway.

Third, tap key networks. I asked my grantees and other partners for their input and advice. There was a general sense that methane leaks might be a big contributor to climate change, but not enough data existed to make it a priority.

Fourth, invest in research. One of Barr’s grantees, the Conservation Law Foundation, agreed to work with Nathan to research the extent of the problem and develop a menu of policy solutions. How did it compare to other actions already being taken in the fight against climate change?

Finally, release the findings to those who can use the results. The resulting publication, Into Thin Air, revealed that there were 3,300 leaks in Boston alone. It also estimated that the state lost more gas through leaks than it saved through its nation-leading energy efficiency programs. The Boston Globe and several other newspapers and radio stations covered the story. Soon, a network of organizations launched a grassroots organizing campaign. Some were Barr grantees. Others weren’t. A year later, the State Legislature unanimously passed a law requiring utilities to classify and repair leaks in a timely fashion. And addressing gas infrastructure is now a top priority for climate advocates across the region.

Our collective efforts in daylighting the leaks in the distribution system catalyzed a great deal of grassroots activism that was later channeled toward calling to question the large gas pipeline proposals that would bring fracked gas from Pennsylvania into New York and New England. Advocates were concerned that the region would become even more dependent on natural gas and jeopardize the region’s ability to reduce GHG emissions – while wasting significant amounts of gas that accelerate climate change.

At their best, strategies are a set of hypotheses, based on a moment in time, about what will bring about change. But times change. New ideas and partners emerge all the time, and often in unexpected ways. So, it is important to remain humble and open about what the right answers may be. Otherwise, we may miss some of the most powerful opportunities to achieve our goals.

Mariella Puerto is Co-director of Climate at the Barr Foundation, managing grantmaking and other initiatives that catalyze the transition to a clean-energy economy. This includes promoting policies and practices that accelerate the adoption of energy efficiency and renewable power sources in the New England region and connecting to similar efforts nationally.   

Sep 5, 2017

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

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.

On the issue of funding racial equity – and the broader concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion – we at Quixote Foundation have a clear point of view. To begin, if equity work calls to you, go for it! Don’t be scared; don’t shy away. Whether you are explicitly focused on social or economic justice, or if you focus on education, community development, the arts, or the environment, we at Quixote think applying an equity lens to your work is one of the most timely and mutually beneficial paths a funder can take.

Our second point is more instructional. If you decide to embrace a strategy of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI or REDI as it is also sometimes referred to), don’t enter into it lightly. This is not just about adding a few boxes about staff and board diversity in your grant applications. Nor is it simply about re-stating your grant guidelines. DEI work is complicated, you can’t just throw a little money at the challenge.

Which leads us to the third point. To do REDI work correctly requires a fundamental shift in your external stance as a funder as well as a deep examination of your internal structures and processes. Embracing diversity, equity and inclusion is particularly challenging because ultimately it’s not just about race, or gender, or changing the faces at the table. It’s about power. It’s about privilege. And, it’s about confronting how power and privilege – warped by long-standing social and structural inequities – guide our work as funders. To do this right requires that we challenge the structures that perpetuate the status quo and re-imagine the relationships we have with our grantees, with other funders, within our internal teams, and with ourselves.

The bottom line is this: Funding equity demands sweat equity. You can’t just write a check. You need to step out of your comfort zone and roll up your sleeves.

If you engage in DEI funding with an open heart and mind, the result might be among the most rewarding and enlightening experiences you have as a funder. It was for the Quixote Foundation. 

As long-standing funders of the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) work on environmental equity, we decided to support their stated goal of becoming more reflective of the nation’s diversity in its leadership and membership. At first, we thought we were pretty smart. We understood that our job was to provide resources that support NWF’s vision and goals. We weren’t interested in asking them to simply report on their diversity statistics while we sat back and judged their progress. Knowing that this kind of internal change requires time and resources, we offered multi-year financial support that we hoped would set a solid base for achieving long-term DEI goals. We also worked with strong internal champions who shepherded the work forward.

As we checked off the list of DEI best practices, our instinct told us we were being “good funders.” Along the way, we checked in a bit, and generally liked what we saw. At one point, we participated in a powerful DEI workshop that NWF had commissioned for their regional leaders.

Then, at the end of the three-year grant in 2013, we received NWF’s final report. And the sweating began.

The report gave us the impression that NWF’s effort to reach their DEI goals had hit roadblocks. While progress had been made, certain objectives had not been met, and the report did not clearly communicate the path forward for advancing the work.

What followed were the real lessons we learned about what it means to support diversity, equity and inclusion.

The typical funder-grantee paradigm can be viewed as transactional. The funder provides resources and then the grantee “performs” by meeting the general or specific objectives of the grant agreement. After reviewing NWF’s final report, we were faced with a dilemma. Do we engage? Or do we step back and write off the grant as a disappointment, if not an outright failed grant? After all, even though the work appeared stalled, we knew from experience that when doing equity work, nothing is wasted. NWF had also undergone a major re-organization over the past year, and we thought that perhaps the committed focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion had gotten lost in the shuffle. Our dilemma was complicated by the fact that Quixote Foundation was in the final years of its strategic lifespan –our “Spend Up” – and we had no funding resources to use as an incentive for NWF to revitalize their DEI work.

Then we had our first epiphany. Funding NWF’s DEI work was not about the grant, or the Quixote Foundation, or even about NWF. It was about the urgent imperative for the U.S. environmental movement to reflect, engage, and mobilize the full diversity of the country. Not to get too high and mighty, but it was about saving the planet.

That sense of urgency enabled us to shed our role as funder, and instead engage with NWF in a more genuine way based on our shared commitments and values, not on the transaction of the grant. Ironically, by taking this approach, we were not just supporting NWF’s DEI goals; we were leaning into our own commitment to DEI. Not only were we prioritizing an effort to move DEI forward with a grantee, we were increasing our own ability to see our blind spots within the inherently unequal funder-grantee paradigm. Equity work is transformative because it shifts and widens perspective; we can’t change what we don’t see.

Of course, we would not have been at the table if we weren’t a funder. Our approach was not about denying the funder-grantee paradigm, nor its problematic components. It was about navigating it more deliberately and respectfully. We engaged in authentic conversations that acknowledged the power dynamic, and then re-focused our collective energy on a broader vision and goal. Together, we were operating within the lens of equity and inclusion, not merely viewing an issue with that lens.

In our sometimes-challenging conversations with the DEI champions, the NWF Board and the senior leadership team, we weren’t the heavy-handed funder with all the answers. On the contrary, we pulled the curtain back on Quixote’s own struggles in addressing DEI and engaged with empathy, patience, and respect. Ultimately, we used the report as a learning moment and point of entry.

The result of these shared efforts is that NWF’s commitment to build “a conservation army that includes and empowers the full diversity of Americanshas become fully activated. The last two years of annual meetings included a large-scale focus on DEI, with unconscious bias sessions on race and gender that resulted in packed rooms. Thanks to the determined efforts of some NWF women, the organization recently held its first Women in Leadership Summit. NWF is leaning in to change happening across the organization; progress on DEI, which will surely benefit the future.

Funders often pride themselves on the value of their strategic advice and guidance, in addition to the crucial financial resources. To be blunt, that model is a classic expression of white, male, upper-class supremacy. We have the money and the power, so therefore, we have the wisdom. What Quixote Foundation learned in comprehensively embracing diversity, equity and inclusion is that the value of our resources can be amplified many-fold when we combine those resources with a genuine commitment to the value of personal relationships. Even if they make you sweat a little.

Lenore Hanisch is a board member and the Senior Director of Engagement and Partnerships with the Quixote Foundation. Zarina Parpia is a a strategy and planning consultant to the Quixote Foundation.

Jul 31, 2017

By Holly Powers, Senior Program Officer, The Russell Family Foundation

This was originally posted on The Russell Family Foundation website.

For the past two years, Seattle has been the nation’s construction crane capital. According to Rider Levett Bucknall, a consulting firm that tracks cranes globally, there were 62 tower cranes in operation at various commercial, residential and mixed-use development projects throughout the city. That’s more than New York and Los Angeles combined.

To anyone who travels the I-5 corridor, this comes as no surprise; the cranes symbolize booming growth and all that comes with it (pros and cons). But, for those of us who support social and environmental causes, the proliferation of building sites underscores the importance of green infrastructure initiatives.

That’s because “green infrastructure” is so much more than the name implies. Permeable pavement and rain gardens are just part of the story. The big picture includes an array of multi-functional, eco-friendly support systems (including open and green spaces) that deliver numerous environmental, social, and economic benefits.

As a discipline, green infrastructure is still coming into its own as regional planning efforts shift from a traditional, project-centric practice to a holistic approach. This year, I have been honored to witness that process advance at several prominent events, which brought together experts from all sectors -- .edu, .org, .com, and .gov – to share their experiences.

In February, the 2nd Annual Puget Sound Green Infrastructure Summit* provided an in-depth view of green infrastructure innovations and their far-reaching benefits. The summit included presentations and networking conversations on clean energy, human-powered transportation corridors, park design, urban canopy management, land conservation, the needs of wildlife and much more.

The keynote speaker, celebrated urban revitalization strategist, Majora Carter, tied all these themes together by looking at “green infrastructure” from a community development lens. With compelling case studies, she showed how environmental improvement strategies have greatly enhanced nearby neighborhoods with higher property values, higher employment, and higher quality of life. Yet, as she made clear, local residents need to feel connected to the vision for it to come true.

At the Regional Open Space Leadership Forum in March, the focus was on protecting green and open spaces such as parks, farms and forests. Roughly 100 participants spanning academia, nonprofits, government, health, business, and community-based organizations shared ideas on how to integrate these types of open spaces into green infrastructure systems. The meeting also marked the completion of six years of work on the Regional Open Space Strategy (ROSS), which makes the business case for multi-jurisdictional planning across the open space system in Central Puget Sound.

The Green Infrastructure Leadership Exchange in May centered on the practical concerns of implementing green infrastructure solutions. This peer-learning event covered key areas of interest, such as technical expertise requirements, surmounting bureaucratic resistance, and enabling public/private partnerships. Through these honest, real-world conversations, participants gained a deeper understanding of costs, benefits, and interdependencies of green infrastructure programs.

The dialogue coming out of each of these events resonates deeply with The Russell Family Foundation. Our programs center on environmental sustainability, social equity, and encouraging community stewardship of local resources. Our commitment to clean water for Puget Sound is advanced through nonprofit organizations that work together to engage local governments, residents and private property owners. We believe this type of coordinated approach will increase the odds of success at both the policy and grassroots level.

That’s especially true when it comes to advocating for green infrastructure. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but we need sustained, collaborative leadership to ensure that good ideas for infrastructure enhancements are widely shared and implemented.

The Russell Family Foundation is continually searching for thought partners in this arena. If you are an expert or a newcomer to the green infrastructure movement, let’s connect to explore what’s possible.

# # #

* The Russell Family Foundation is a sponsor of the 2017 Puget Sound Green Infrastructure Summit

** Washington State Office of Financial Management’s 2007 population projections.

Jul 31, 2017

By Beto Bedolfe (Marisla Foundation), Carolyn Fine Friedman (Fine Fund), Shelley Hearne (Forsythia Foundation), Ruth Hennig (John Merck Fund) and Janet Maughan (Passport Foundation).

This post was originally published on the Health and Environmental Funders Network website.

The story of last year’s passage of the first major piece of new environmental legislation in 20 years, the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, is much like the story of almost any new legislation. Among advocates, we saw courageous risk taking, smart strategizing, and deep solidarity as well as strained relationships, crossed signals, and institutional infighting. Yes, the sausage making is always messy, and no one escapes the process without at least some gunk on their shoes.

Improving Our Game
But the question at the end of the day is always whether the gains outweigh the costs. Our foundations—the Forsythia Foundation, the John Merck Fund, the Marisla Foundation, the Passport Foundation, and the Fine Fund—joined together to evaluate years of funding and advocacy work leading up to the new law. We wanted to identify lessons that could improve all our work going forward. The Health and Environmental Funders Network organized and framed the evaluation and Tom Novick of M+R conducted it.

Just one of the findings that emerged from the dozens of interviews conducted for the evaluation was that even some of the law’s harshest critics concede that EPA’s enhanced authority to review chemicals, requirements to consider disproportionately exposed and disproportionately vulnerable populations, and legally enforceable deadlines represent a meaningful improvement over existing law.

Winning the Win
At a time when progress in Washington is measured in inches rather than miles, we and our funding partners congratulate the committed and tireless advocates who won this decade-long battle to finally give our toxics laws some bite. How much bite will depend on how effectively we all work to implement the law, which brings us back to the fallout from the sausage making: Recognizing that the coming regulatory battles will be determinative, we’ve already begun to see the environmental health advocacy community repair strained relationships, improve communications and coordination, and build on the momentum of this victory.

But in an administration that’s eviscerating public health and environmental protections, advocates and funders need to work harder and smarter and be more strategic and united than the other side. We need to continue to mobilize the broad grassroots and grasstops coalition that produced the law, marshal our best and brightest minds (particularly legal minds to enlist the courts), and communicate more effectively.

Urgency of Now
As funders and advocates, we need to do even more to recommit to working closely together—even when we don’t see eye to eye. The toxics advocacy community possesses extraordinary political and strategic resources—after all, it forced one of the world’s most powerful industries to the negotiating table and extracted meaningful concessions that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. In our experience, that strategic brilliance shines brightest when our small community works together identifying collective goals, sharing intelligence, marshalling supporters, and pooling contacts and relationships.

The new toxics law could be an effective tool for future administrations to protect the public from toxic chemicals. Whether those administrations will have that tool depends on what we do now. 

About the Authors

Herbert “Beto” Bedolfe, Executive Director of the Marisla Foundation, was one of Oceana's founders and led the organization from 2002 until 2008. Under his leadership, Oceana's efforts led to many victories for the oceans including the protection of over 640 million acres of ocean habitat from destructive bottom trawling.

Carolyn Fine Friedman is Chair of the Fine Fund, which supports organizations using complementary strategies to eliminate toxic chemicals from humans and the ecosystem. Carolyn is a steering committee member of the Health and Environmental Funders Network and a member of Rachel’s Network, which supports women using philanthropy to enhance their environmental activism.

Shelley Hearne is Forsythia Foundation’s Executive Director. She has a wealth of experience in building the environmental health and public health advocacy fields. She is also a visiting professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the senior advisor to the Big Cities Health Coalition, which represents the leaders of America’s largest urban health departments.

Ruth Hennig, Executive Director of the John Merck Fund, has worked in the environmental field for more than 25 years. Ruth’s philanthropic contributions include working in management roles at the Health and Environment Funders Network, the Environmental Grantmakers Association and the Consultative Group on Biological Diversity.

Janet Maughan is a veteran philanthropic executive and advisor with the Passport Foundation. In her work with philanthropies, she has concentrated on global environmental, sustainability and development issues, as well as public health and poverty.

Jun 15, 2017

By Paul Beaudet, Executive Director, Wilburforce Foundation

This was originally published on the Center for Effective Philanthropy Blog, as part of their Shifting Winds series

The Edgewater, constructed to accommodate visitors to the 1962 World Fair in Seattle, was always intended to be temporary, perched at the edge of what was then an industrial waterfront. In the months after the fair, its rooms sat mostly vacant. That is, until the Beatles arrived. Hotels that had hosted the Fab Four during their U.S. concert tour in 1964 quickly learned that they needed to defend their properties against masses of crazed fans. Many Seattle hotels refused to accommodate the British invaders, but not the Edgewater.

Built atop a pier that juts into Puget Sound, the Edgewater was easy to secure and the Beatles settled in behind a protective barricade. Soon thereafter, a photo of John, Paul, George, and Ringo fishing from their hotel window went viral — long before that term was even a thing. The Edgewater quickly became the stop of choice for other musicians, including the Beach Boys, Roy Orbison, Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin. That “temporary” hotel is still standing today.

As a foundation that works to protect places — albeit those that are wild and not urban — we at Wilburforce Foundation recognize that the fate of places can hinge on an historic event. The election of 2016 was just such a moment. Our grantees, who work to conserve important lands, waters, and wildlife in Western North America, are suddenly facing an administration that enthusiastically promotes the exploitation of public lands to extract oil, gas, and coal, with fewer environmental protections and little regard for endangered species or other ecological, economic, spiritual, or recreational values associated with wild landscapes.

After more than a decade of working with a federal government where at least one branch generally favored environment-friendly policies, most of our grantees have little or no experience working with decision makers in executive and legislative offices dominated by a party hostile to a conservation agenda.

The program teams at Wilburforce developed our own ideas about what we should do to assist grantees in this new context, and we wondered how we could test our assumptions with our partners. Surveys or interviews of key grantees might offer some insights. But these might fail to capture new creative thinking that arises when people come together.

And so this spring, Wilburforce worked with Training Resources for the Environmental Community (TREC), a capacity-building intermediary that provides services exclusively to the foundation’s grantees, to convene 56 conservation leaders at the Edgewater Hotel in May. This group included a sampling of national and regional grantees — from scrappy grassroots organizations to large green groups — focusing on place-based advocacy, community organizing, science, and policy.

Attendees met over three days, participating in sessions that were designed to assure that attendees were “talked at” as briefly as possible, and only to set the context for deeper conversations facilitated by TREC staff.

In keeping with the historic location, the arc of the event could be described musically through a well-curated Beatles playlist. For example, our attendees arrived in a state of elevated anxiety:

  • Help!
  • Tell Me Why
  • The Fool On The Hill
  • Misery
  • I Just Don’t Understand
  • I’m So Tired

We knew we could move to a more upbeat segment of the Beatles canon, one that featured relationships as the bedrock of the work we undertake. Our grantees’ relationships with us — and with each other — inform the types of capacity and program investments our foundation makes. We encouraged participants to use the convening to make connections, share ideas, and surface needs.

Imagine, if you will, the following playlist as the philosophical framework for what followed:

  • Come Together
  • Fixing A Hole
  • We Can Work It Out
  • All Together Now
  • With A Little Help From My Friends

Currently, we’re sifting through pages of notes, red-dotted priority lists, participant survey responses, and direct feedback from grantees. Wilburforce and TREC staff are already considering some investments in new programing. And we’ve uncovered a few key takeaways that should be useful to other funders, regardless of the issues upon which they work:

  • Don’t presume to know what grantees need. In our role working with large numbers of grantees, we often assume that our perch gives us a unique perspective; that grantees “don’t know what they don’t know.” Collectively, though, they know more than we do. While we could have guessed at some of the findings that came out of the convening, there were new ideas that we might have never conceived.
  • We’re not just playing defense. We may not advance a proactive policy agenda at the federal level, but we can continue to broaden our movements, break down partisan divides, and shift advocacy efforts to state and municipal governments where we may have more traction.
  • Relationships matter. Of all of the outcomes we had proposed, deeper connection was one that grantees seemed to value more than any other. New friendships were made, networks were strengthened, and ideas were shared across organizations and geographies. Foundations have the resources to bring people together. We should do it more often.
  • A new world may require new metrics. One participant lamented that though their context had changed significantly, many funders were still holding them accountable to deliverables and outcomes that were developed (or imposed) when proactive conservation strategies seemed likely to prevail. This concern was echoed by others, who affirmed that fewer restrictions and more flexibility could help them as they adapted to the new reality and identified fresh outcomes.

There are more specific recommendations flowing from this convening that will guide Wilburforce’s work. We’ll be considering ideas around strategic communications, skills building, and advocacy. We won’t be able to do everything we want to do, but we will do something.

In closing, I am confident that a more hopeful Beatles playlist will describe the future to which we aspire:

  • Revolution
  • Getting Better
  • Here Comes The Sun
  • I Feel Fine 

Paul Beaudet is executive director of the Wilburforce Foundation and a member of CEP’s Board of Directors. Follow the foundation on Twitter at @WilburforceFdn.