Aug 12, 2015

By Antoine Lucic, EGA Intern

For a long time, climatic variations have shaped and influenced civilizations across the world. While traditional examples have often relied on the distant fall of the Mayan Empire to demonstrate the link between environmental stresses and political turmoil, a growing number of studies on contemporary cases demonstrate an ever stronger link within the climate security nexus.

Research conducted by the Center for Climate and Security (CCS) suggests that both Syria and Egypt have experienced direct, indirect and multiplier effects of climate change on their food, water and energy supplies. Despite certain challenges within the field when it comes to advancing unprecedented connections, the field has witnessed an increasing number of research centers, NGOs and initiatives. As time gives place to more evidence, resources must follow the assessments made by the research community. As it stands with other dimensions around climate change, non-action will cost much more, and in this case, involve much larger risks in terms of national, international and geopolitical security across the world.

Over 70 percent of the world’s governments have explicitly acknowledged climate change as a national security concern. A recent report commissioned by the UK Foreign Office, claimed that the power dynamics around climate change should be similarly assessed as the ones of nuclear proliferation. The Pew Research Center recently published a study placing Climate Change along ISIS and cyber criminality as the world top security threats. The US Department of Defense has weighed in the argument with another report to Congress affirming that climate change is a security risk “because it degrades living conditions, human security and the ability of governments to meet the basic needs of their populations.” Whether behind closed doors, or under different appellations (Energy and Security, or Disaster and Conflict), discussions around climate and security are happening across sectors.

Within the philanthropic community, collaborations between two affinity groups, the Environmental Grantmakers Association and the Peace and Security Funders Group exemplifies the growing interest of big donors in these subtle but very pertinent connections. Such discussions were highlighted by the importance of the coordination of efforts as well as the additional funding towards research. 

While the media coverage remains limited on the discussion happening, we are constantly reminded of the effects of climate change. This builds on the idea that climate change is not only a problem of future generations but is and will increasingly be one of the present. Today, certain geographic regions line up directly with zones of higher instability and effects can be witnessed across the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia. Not only will climate change directly affect these zones through climatic events, indirect effects will be amplified by the local population’s inability to cope with them. This will have devastating effect in which the very core of governmental structure, social services and basic needs of these nations and neighboring ones, will be at risk. 

From a growing population, rising demands for water, food and social service, to threats of both flooding and desertification, Egypt is typical example of a developing country highly vulnerable to climate change. In 2010, a drought in Russia had devastating effects on Egyptian wheat reserves, in part sparking the Arab Spring. On another front, the Los Angeles Times recently published a piece divulging the historical irony of drought-devastated Mali in transforming cattle-farmers into Jihadists. “To understand why cowboys would go to war, simply look at the dried-up land around them”.

The instability and threat caused by the intensification of climate change on populations and regions is forcing people to seek a better living across borders. Figures are exploding the roofs in terms of migrants fleeing the global south to the global north, from coastal lands to inner regions. From island nations in Micronesia, to the case of Bangladesh, climate refugees are increasingly facing hostility from isolationist foreign policies.

Both the urgency and multi-dimensional aspects of climate change have called upon the attention of global leaders around the world. From summits hosted at the Vatican to growing political pressure in the world’s largest emitting countries, the interdependencies that characterize our globalized world puts at risk even the most stable regions, ironically imitating the instability driven from natural feedback loops. This shift of language in which climate change is measured in terms of national security, might very well be the extra stake that animates the fast approaching COP21 discussions planned at the end of the year.

Jul 20, 2015

By Mariella Puerto, Senior Program Officer, Climate at the Barr Foundation. This article first appeared on the Barr Foundation's Blog.

A $1.3 billion boost to their economies. 14,000 new jobs. $460 million in savings from lower electricity and heating bills. According to a new report by The Analysis Group, an economic research firm, these are among the benefits enjoyed by the nine Northeast states that participated in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) from 2012-2014.

RGGI is the first market-based regulatory program in the U.S. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Participating states collectively set a cap for carbon emissions allowed from the power sector, and sell these through auctions. Proceeds are then invested in a variety of ways – determined by each state – and typically include energy efficiency, renewable energy, and other consumer benefit programs. Since the program’s inception, it has contributed to a decrease of 33% in carbon emissions. The infographic below features the key elements and impacts of the program through 2014.

The report also found that RGGI has helped keep more dollars circulating in the local economy, as the amount of money sent outside the region to pay for imported energy has dropped. RGGI reduced dollars flowing out of state to pay for fossil fuels imported from outside the region by over $1.27 billion, from 2012-2014. Meanwhile, the states’ use of RGGI auction proceeds has boosted the purchase of goods and services in the regional economy, for everything from solar panels and insulation to engineering services for energy audits to labor for efficiency retrofits.

Barr joined a diverse group of funders to support this report, including the Merck Family Fund, Energy Foundation, The Thomas W. Haas Foundation at the NH Charitable Foundation, Sandy Buck, Fritz and Susan Onion, Seal Bay Fund, Anna Marie and John Thron, Peter Lamb, and the Orchard Foundation. Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed its Clean Power Plan, which aims to limit carbon emissions from power plants. As states across the country consider how best to respond, this new report makes it clear RGGI is worth a look, and that it is possible to meet emissions goals in ways that also strengthen local economies.

Learn more about the report and impact of the RGGI program by reading recent press coverage:

Jun 16, 2015

By Ashley Seyfried, EGA Intern

Two years ago, Community Food Funders held a panel discussion on risk and resiliency preparedness after Hurricanes Irene and Sandy. Last week, North Star Fund hosted a follow up discussion to see what has changed, and what still needs to be put into action.

Since 2012, there has been increased communication between vital groups, and many plans have been made that shed light on what needs to be addressed in the face of climate change. Despite this good news, many new guidelines still need to be put in place, especially before the upcoming hurricane season, as well as in the next few years to prepare for the effects of how quickly our climate is changing. 

In the aftermath of hurricanes Irene and Sandy, food accessibility became a devastating issue. New York City has enough food to provide for its citizens for only 48 hours—after a hurricane, that is no time at all. In 2012, after Hurricane Sandy, the City was in a state of emergency for weeks with many citizens without access to necessary food, water, and supplies. With climate change worsening the effects of hurricanes and tropical storms as well as increasing the frequency of these disasters, the panel stressed that we need to be increasingly prepared with food and supplies by altering the way our food system operates currently. 

The panel kicked off with Jeff Thomas—who oversaw disaster recovery in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina—defining key terms and outlining where we need to improve within the food community. We need to become more resilient, and we need to collaborate to address the problem of resiliency. Not only do the extreme weather events of climate change pose a substantial problem, but the subtle changes in weather/climate patterns effect food production tremendously; a small frost after a warm streak in the spring can result in many farmers’ crops dying. When we think of farming, we usually only think of the ground and the land, but in the face of storms and overfishing, fisheries need to be included in the discussion as well. Natural disasters hit the coast first, where the majority of fisheries are, and in planning for the future, we need to focus more on fisheries, as they provide for 1.2 billion people every day. 

Not only do we need to become more resilient, but we also need to change the narrative around food to be more inclusive. Instead of asking who the next generation of farmers will be, we need to ask where the Latino, Black, and other minority farmers fit in. In the face of a disaster, lower Manhattan is first to be brought back to its feet, while most of the poor neighborhoods of the Bronx and Harlem are left suffering a lot longer. In order to be more prepared for the next hurricane, we need to make sure we do not have communities where people live their lives in extreme situations where they never have enough food, and we need to identify the people that are disabled, low income, homeless, or need more help than others, and make sure to more quickly provide food and supplies for them during natural disasters.

New York City’s infrastructure, including the transportation and storage of our food supplies, need to be altered as well. In order to make food more readily available, New York City distribution centers need to be decentralized and dispersed into mini hubs around the City. Brooklyn currently has zero hubs, and in a natural disaster where transportation is often cut off, many people will face food shortages. Additionally, New York City needs to be able to map out who is on the ground, where transportation units are and where they are going, to be better prepared when a disaster does hit. The panel insisted that community kitchens and housing areas for destroyed homes need to be identified well before a disaster hits so that when one does occur, we can utilize the space for communities.

Many advancements still need to be enacted for not only New York City, but for the rest of the world to be prepared for climate change. In order to do this, the panel stressed that organizations need to focus on both planning and funding. There also needs to be more coordination between philanthropists, government, and community organizations. By working together, we can make a concrete plan for concrete change, and from there, we can start implementing these changes to be better prepared. 

With climate change comes a change in how our world operates. Our food supply needs to be readily prepared so that citizens have access to this necessity not only during extreme weather events, but in everyday life.

Jan 8, 2015

This post is by Shorey Myers, Program Manager for the Jenifer Altman Foundation. This article first appeared on HEFN's Blog.

You may have heard post-election predictions that trade agreements are one of the only topics on which the President and the Republicans think they can find common ground. In fact, the proposed trade deals are about a lot more than “trade,” and they would be a disaster for public health and the environment.

A coalition of foundations are working with advocates monitoring this fast-moving train and defending the public interest from deals heading down the wrong track. We welcome other partners in learning & action! Our first of a series of informational calls for funders will take place January 21, 2015; contact me for more information.

Here’s a brief rundown of concerns about these trade deals – and what can be done.

  • No transparency or public accountability. Two trade deals are being negotiated in parallel with an unprecedented level of secrecy and no mechanism for public input. One is being negotiated between the US and the European Union (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a.k.a. TTIP or TAFTA) and the other between the US and Pacific Rim nations (Trans-Pacific Partnership, a.k.a TPP). Who has access to these negotiations? Only three negotiators per nation and over 600 corporate ‘trade advisors’. The only method by which the public and NGOs have been able to assess the potential damage of the trade deals have been through multiple leaks.
  • Corporate legal overreach. One provision of the proposed deals (Investor State Dispute Settlement, or ISDS) would expand the ability of multinational corporations to sue nations in private courts for claimed ‘loss of future profits’ due to regulatory action, including policies intended to protect the health, safety, environment, labor or democratic rights of the citizens. Nations – and taxpayers -- are frequently the losers in these costly court battles, even if the case is dismissed. Read real cases of corporations winning millions of dollars from nations for undermining investors’ “expected future profits.” Expanding ISDS would interfere with current environmental and health regulations and discourage new legislation.
  • Regulations “harmonized” downward or nullified. A “Regulatory Cooperation” chapter of the proposed trade deals seeks to set up an official body, comprised of regulators and advised by industry, which would ‘harmonize’ national regulations that differ in approach, likely to the lowest possible level. The harmonized policies approved by this official body could set a ceiling on the level of protection that is allowable in legislation and abrogate regulation, from the local to the federal level, that exceeds the harmonized standard. Chemical regulations, particularly the European Union (EU) REACH chemicals policies and progressive US State chemical regulations, are prime targets of this provision; chemical manufacturers are projected to be the second biggest financial beneficiaries of the lowered standards. Pilot projects addressing prioritization and classification of chemicals based on this chapter are already underway.
  • From “buy local” to “buy multinational.” A major EU objective is to force the US to open public procurement programs to transatlantic competitors. Public procurement programs allow criteria such as environmental sustainability or living wages to be included in broader economic programs. Currently, such programs support local farmers and locally sourced renewable energy, construction and supplies, benefiting local producers, businesses, workers and consumers, including school and hospital systems. Opening these contracts to multinational corporations could help drive local producers out of the market and inhibit the growth of small-scale sustainable food systems. In a 2014 EU-Canada trade deal the EU achieved ‘unconditional access’ to procurement contracts at all levels of Canadian government, a result the EU would like to replicate in the EU-US agreement.
  • More gas exports, less renewable energy. Renewable and clean energy policies are in danger of roll-back as a result of trade deal provisions. Measures intended to support energy efficiency, including labeling standards, fuel efficiency standards, and emission standards for cars, appliances and airlines, as well as tax credits for climate-friendly fuels may all be eliminated through the trade deals. Additionally, the US Department of Energy may lose the authority to determine whether natural gas exports to Europe are in the public interest. This could green-light a significant increase in drilling and open an LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) superhighway to the world’s largest importer of natural gas. The ISDS provision mentioned above is another avenue by which petrochemical corporations hope to force open the market.

Solution Strategy: Stop Fast Track. This threat to democracy and government in the public interest is made possible in the US by a procedure known as “Fast Track.” Fast Track is designed to allow the executive branch to accelerate trade agreements and insulate them from scrutiny, “fast tracking” them through Congress with severely limited debate, allowing no amendments and only a straight up or down vote.

While Congress has constitutional authority over international trade, Fast Track shifts that authority to the executive branch, virtually ensuing that the public and Congress will have no real voice in trade deals. The time has come to stop Fast Track, to bring some sunlight into an otherwise deeply opaque process, and returning basic democratic process to a critical area of public policy.

Shorey Myers is Program Manager for the Jenifer Altman Foundation. Shorey has been with the Foundation since 2010. Her work over the past decade includes a strong focus on global environmental health and justice issues, as well as philanthropic support of critical social services. Her email address is

Dec 16, 2014

By Joshua Cohen, Member Services Program Manager, EGA

In November, EGA continued its journey of meeting in places that matter by bringing funders to San Juan and Vieques as part of a co-hosted learning tour focused on equity and environmental sustainability in Puerto Rico. Collaborating with the Neighborhood Funders Group (NFG), the trip highlighted community-based strategies for resilience focused on social, economic and environmental justice. Throughout the two day tour of the main island, we heard from activists and community members from three distinct areas, all spearheading innovative solutions to address local challenges. With a population of 3.6 million, inequity is a significant social issue in P.R.; the poverty rate is 45.4% (using the U.S. Federal definition) and the official unemployment rate is 13.5%. Despite these staggering numbers, P.R. is a gap area for funding due to its geographic and political status (territory vs. state); national funders tend to overlook them as non-U.S. whereas international funders consider them domestic. This status – as neither here nor there – has left them often ignored and without much philanthropic support. I found this small island to be ripe with opportunity. The Open Society Foundation has listed them as a priority place and on December 3rd the Rockefeller Foundation announced that San Juan was included in their next round of resilient cities.

Our learning tour represented diverse foundations (with roughly 40 funders who were split 50% local and 50% non-local, many from the New York area) focused on a variety of issue areas (e.g. equity, health, climate, etc.). A few funders remarked that they hadn’t met many of the attendees before, evidence that our collaboration with NFG could really lead to future cross-cutting funding strategies among often separate and distinct funding areas.

We began the tour in an art deco room in the historic Banco Popular building in Old San Juan overlooking the harbor, with a view of a vibrant port industry. This building, completed in 1939, was the first high rise in the region with an elevator. After an enlightening and sobering panel discussion on demographics, inequity and the changing economy of the island, we departed for nearby Caguas to visit the first public housing project on the island and hear from José Gautier Benítez and Las Gladiolas community members about battles over displacement and subsequent efforts around housing reform.

These efforts have led to successful outcomes that include a microbusiness incubator called EcoRecursos Comunitarios and a recycling business called EcoReciclaje, Inc., employing local residents. Other organizations we heard from included Las Gladiolas Vive and the Liga de Cooperativas de Puerto Rico. It was inspiring to witness the energy and dedication of many strong women community leaders along this tour, and to see such diverse funders – some focused on equity and civic participation, others on environmental justice – really engage with the content and local activists.

We then boarded the bus for Casa Pueblo in the central mountain village of Adjuntas. This family-run community center grew out of the local environmental movement in the 1960s in response to proposed copper mining. Today, Casa Pueblo continues to rail against local development around a gas pipeline that would have crossed the region, while offering several local programs. They help preserve nearby Bosque del Pueblo (People’s Forest), a model forest that is community-managed, while running education programs for local youth focused on music, arts, science and the environment. Shade-grown coffee is roasted on a recently-acquired roaster and a small shop sells the coffee, along with local goods and books on native flora and fauna and Puerto Rican cuisine, to support the center’s work. We were excited to discover that the founding director, Alexis Massol-Gonzalez, was a 2002 Goldman Prize recipient.

The next day the tour visited the Caño Martín Peña, a canal in the heart of San Juan surrounded by homes, many lacking basic sanitation infrastructure and subject to regular flooding, ill health (read this recent health impact study) and transportation challenges. The eight neighborhoods (known as the G-8) along this San Juan Bay Estuary system have rallied in recent years through the ENLACE Project to develop an innovative community land trust to address the lack of land titling through collective ownership. The U.S. EPA, Region 2, has been active in supporting these impressive efforts, along with a few philanthropic foundations who participated on this tour, though much is still needed to support these local initiatives.

I then headed to Vieques, an island-municipality about eight miles to the east of the P.R. mainland, to attend a Vieques Sustainability Task Force meeting. With a current population of around 14,000, it has a challenging past as a former U.S. Navy bombing and testing ground. When the Navy withdrew in 2003, much of the island was designated as a National Wildlife Refuge. From sea turtle nesting grounds (including Hawksbills, Leatherbacks, and Green Sea Turtles) to Puerto Mosquito, one of the brightest bioluminescent bays in the world (which recently experienced a blackout due to an usual dry period), to migratory birds, Vieques is critically important as a conservation frontier in the region.

At the task force meeting, community members came to express their concerns and participate in working groups focused on such areas as community-based development and natural resource management, public safety and health, private sector opportunities, Superfund clean-up efforts and sustainable infrastructure. I learned that in 2000, 72.2% of those on Vieques lived below the Federal Poverty Standards (much higher than the already high 45.4% for P.R. as a whole), and that the island has a higher cost of living than the mainland, as well as a greater dependency on welfare; improvement in these areas has been slower than many would like to see. There is currently no organized agriculture on Vieques and potable water comes via pipeline under the sea, making local residents heavily reliant on outside infrastructure and support. It was a heated conversation and was very emotional for many in the room.

Through community efforts, support from the U.S. EPA and from the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico (Stuart Delery, the recently appointed Department of Justice Co-Chair of the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico was in attendance), island infrastructure challenges and local voices are being heard. At the meeting they announced funding for a solar hot water heater installation program for 100 homes on the island, coordinated by Energy Affairs in P.R. Clean up continues through the Superfund Program with unexploded munitions and contamination of part of the island. Tourism continues to be a significant revenue generator for the island, but problems with ferry service pose challenges to this each year; this same travel challenge prevents island residents from getting to affordable health care in Fajardo on the main land. Though the task force was focused initially on environmental outcomes (e.g. Navy clean-up), the community has expressed a clear need to address access to health (e.g. the island has high cancer rates). As the island is becoming a significant tourist destination (many celebrities own homes here), I found there to be a divide between local residents and visitors in access to basic services. There is a clear need for philanthropic support around environmental health programs.

To dive deeper on environmental issues, we organized an evening tour of the Puerto Mosquito bio-bay, followed by a day-long tour of Vieques. We began at the Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust (VCHT), a local organization focused on preserving the local flora and fauna (they maintain a small aquarium and run the MANTA Youth Education Program) as well as cultural assets (they also host a mini-museum of historic artifacts). In addition to seeing the incredible natural beauty of the island’s mangrove lagoons and beaches, we visited the shell of an old school (acquired to develop into an environmental education center with boarding for visiting scientists), 62 million year old rocks (beside which the oldest human skeleton was found in the Caribbean) and a 300-400 year-old Ceiba tree.

Being somewhat familiar with P.R. through visiting friends who live in San Juan, my experience was mostly focused on the biodiversity and natural beauty of the region. On this tour, however, I was really able to witness on the ground activism in action and met many community leaders fighting for equity and community resilience on this enchanted island. I see great opportunity, and need, to support these considerable efforts in community resilience, civic participation and environmental justice and education. 

Aug 5, 2014

This article first appeared on The Chronicle of Philanthropy

By Diana Campoamor, President, Hispanics in Philanthropy

Young people often show up at the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles because they and their parents face horrific choices.

For instance, a 14-year-old client appeared after his father was murdered by gangs in Honduras. His mother was so traumatized from witnessing the murder that she is confined to a psychiatric hospital. Then the thugs tried to force the youngster to join their criminal enterprise and beat him up.

"It’s either stay and die, or risk and come," said Martha Arévalo, executive director of the center, which helped the young boy with legal services after he entered the U.S. without immigration documents.

At least 90,000 youngsters like that 14-year-old have arrived unaccompanied in the United States this year, part of a mounting crisis that has been building since 2008. As the situation becomes more dire, the need is growing for nonprofits and foundations to get involved in dealing with the crisis.

Already many charities and foundations have pressed for a humane response to the growing number of children caught on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border and sought increased funding for economic-development projects and efforts to help migrants and refugees who are part of the Latin American diaspora. Many are also seeking changes in the immigration laws that are at the heart of today’s problem.

But there is more that we can all do. Among the key steps nonprofits, grant makers, and others should consider:

Advocate for the humane treatment of refugees everywhere. While migrant children from Central America to the U.S. are now getting the spotlight, many parts of the world are dealing with people trying to cross borders, and the treatment of migrants often violates basic human-rights principles. The United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its Protocol together formed the cornerstone of global human-rights policy, and most countries are party to them. They grant refugees protection against persecution, and nonprofits and donors can do much to speak out for better treatment of refugees.

Insist on fair treatment for every unaccompanied minor. Children involved in Arizona’s immigration-hearing process through a remote hookup, appearing before an immigration judge in Utah, or answering dozens of questions from a Border Patrol agent in San Diego should be guaranteed the benefit of paid legal counsel.

Urge the government to fix the immigration system. It must emphasize family reunification when it is safe to do so, institute fairness, and guarantee respect for human rights.

Fund services to support local nonprofits that provide legal and human services to unaccompanied minors. These groups find and vet sponsors for the children and provide the temporary housing, meals, and transportation that may not be covered by federal aid.

Invest in human capital. Programs to create jobs, help young people develop skills, and provide better education and vocational training must be expanded in Central America if we expect to develop communities and eradicate violence. Dedicating resources to building human capital in Central America and around the world is an essential investment in human rights.

Jul 1, 2014

This post first appeared on the "What is a Justice Funder?" blog of the Bay Area Justice Funders and is reprinted with permission.

For me, being a justice funder means that the money and other resources I help move into world supports long-term efforts, rooted in communities and lived experience, to transform economic, social and political systems so that they advance the right of all people to live healthy, happy, secure, dignified, respected lives. It means constantly asking: Who wins? Who loses? Who decides?

There’s also a personal element to this. Like everyone, my experience of reality is shaped by personal identity. My journey as a funder, an activist, and a human being is a struggle to understand how being a white-woman-baby boomer-middle class-heterosexual shapes how I am perceived and how I perceive. (There’s more to me than that, but those facts are especially important here.) That’s meant several decades of learning to question my every assumption about everything -- and being hit upside the head sometimes.

When I started my social justice career four decades ago, I thought change started with a few dedicated people working really hard to point out what’s wrong and to put forth solutions. I thought changed = federal legislation. That’s why when I graduated from UC Berkeley, I headed to DC to work for the US EPA as an intern. I ended up staying in DC for more than a decade, working in the burgeoning public interest nonprofit world there.

I got hit upside the head big time in the mid-1970s when I was working with the National Family Farm Coalition (a predecessor to, but not the same organization as, today’s NFFC). A bunch of DC- based activists, me included, had crafted a vast federal omnibus bill aimed at saving the family farm from both agribusiness and a USDA whose motto had become “get big or get out.” Our family farm bill addressed farm subsidies, credit, organic agriculture, land use and conservation, direct marketing, ad infinitum -- all aimed at keeping small family farmers on the land and encouraging new farmers.

Then I met Joe Brooks (yes, that Joe Brooks), at the time the executive director of the Emergency Land Fund in Atlanta GA. ELF fought to keep African American farmers on their farms. I learned that Black farmers were losing their farms at rates four to five greater than white farmers –and that African Americans made up only a tiny fraction of the farm population in the first place, far smaller than their numbers of the overall population and almost entirely in the South.

So if white farmers were getting a bad deal, Black farmers had always gotten a bad deal, which was getting worse. (It’s kind of like when civic participation funders talk about “restoring democracy,” and a colleague, usually someone of color, notes that the task is to actually create democracy for the first time. But I digress.) The bill we had created, sitting in our poorly funded DC organizations talking earnestly to one another, was aimed at fixing the system, but would never actually work because we didn’t really understand the system we sought to fix, in large degree because we had not acknowledged or understood the structural racism that created it. And we hadn’t talked to anyone but ourselves. 

There’s a lot more story here that I don’t have room for, so I’ll will cut to the chase: That experience taught me a lesson about assumptions and the need for me, as a white middle class social justice activist, to question ALL my perceptions of reality. To listen to people. To question underlying assumptions. To disaggregate data. To find out what data are missing. To find out who is at the table, and who is not. To not sit at tables that leave people out. I learned that “who decides” is the most important question of all.

I took these lessons with me into philanthropy, but to be honest, 25+ years ago, when I got my first job in this field, if asked what social justice philanthropy is, my answer might have been the same as it is today, but it would have been framed in terms of policy outcomes and agendas – policies and agendas created by the communities they were aimed at “helping,” but still agendas and policies. Like many funders, I was more concerned about smart solutions than transforming power relationships and supporting determinative political power building.

Over these two plus decades, thanks to some remarkable funder colleagues and activist/advocacy organization leaders, I’ve come to believe that how you get there is as important as where you get to. We can’t achieve a democratic, progressive, just, equitable, fair society with only some of us at the table because that’s not democratic, progressive, just, equitable or fair. And besides, we can’t know what the problems are, what the solutions are, or build the determinative power that makes transformation possible. I know from my own missteps and those of others that you can’t skip any steps or cut any corners.

While I hope I do a lot less corner cutting and flawed assuming than I used to, the world of philanthropy is still full of both. Too often, those flawed assumptions guide the distribution of tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars. I believe that the most important things I can do as a justice funder are to challenge assumptions, be open to information that blows assumptions away, and support colleagues in philanthropy and outside to do the same.

A real life example: just last week, at the See Forward Fund lunch, during a fantastic panel on power building in California put together by Ludovic Blain of the Progressive Era Project, Dr. Lisa Garcia Bedolla of UC Berkeley presented some mind-altering data about “the gender gap.” Nationally, 56 percent of women (who made up about 42 percent of the electorate) voted for President Obama in 2012 as compared to 45 percent of men. Big gender gap, right? But dig deeper: 40 percent of white women voted for President Obama as compared to 79 percent of women of color. Here in California, about 50 percent of white women voted for the President, but 95 percent of Black women, 76 percent of Latinas, and 72 percent of API and others voted for him. The gender gap suddenly becomes a race and gender gap. So why, if building long-term determinative political power is the goal, aren’t women of color the focus of most progressive integrated voter engagement (IVE) programs? Why do progressive funders continue to support IVE programs that make “women” the focus, and women of color an underfunded afterthought?

If I want to call myself a justice funder, it’s time for me to start posing those questions to funder colleagues and donor clients, and to leaders of organizations in the IVE field.

Catherine Lerza has spent more than four decades in the social change movement as a grantmaker, writer, advocate, and researcher, working with many progressive nonprofits and foundations on environmental justice, economic policy, civic engagement, food and agriculture, and women's rights and reproductive justice. She was the executive director of the Shalan Foundation and the Beldon Fund, and a senior philanthropic advisor at Tides. Since 2010, she's been a consultant; her clients include the Alki Fund, the California Wildlands Grassroots Fund, the Underdog Fund, and the Groundswell Fund.