Now That BP Has Stopped the Gulf Spill, Grant Makers Face a Crucial Task (Chronicle of Philanthropy)

Now that BP has finally stopped the flow of hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, grant makers must focus on ways to help the struggling region recover from its latest catastrophe and forge a new conversation and movement on building a sustainable future for this region and for us all.

Even though only 26 percent of the spilled oil remains unaccounted for, according to federal agencies, that still represents more than four times the amount of oil spilled in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, from which both surrounding communities and natural resources are still trying to recover. And that figure doesn’t count the toll of the methane in the oil, which is especially toxic, or the effects of the drilling mud and dispersants poured into the Gulf since the explosion.

While the public may stop paying attention to the Gulf’s needs now that the worst of the crisis is over, this is the moment when philanthropy’s focus and long-term view are most crucial.

For a potential lesson, we need not look very far: When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita swept through the region five years ago, it shook the consciousness of many Americans and prompted many foundations and other donors to re-examine their grant making. Foundations and networks of grant makers created the Gulf Coast Fund and several other efforts to bring together a disparate set of grant makers from across the country.

That work helped strengthen the nonprofit institutions that work in the Gulf Coast, which will make it easier for donors to find effective solutions this time.

While the latest disaster in the Gulf requires a complex response, it is clear that grant makers will need to provide new money and coordinate their activities effectively if they hope to help the region—and our nation—seize this moment and meet the demands of this prolonged crisis.

It is all too easy in situations like this for good intentions to be squandered. Grant makers must interject themselves carefully. If the response is poorly executed, well-intentioned grants could leave people in the crisis zone feeling even more abandoned and overwhelmed, amid damaged natural systems that can no longer provide the economic and other support that Gulf Coast residents depend upon.

The first step for grant makers and nonprofits is to hold BP accountable and for the federal government to fulfill its obligations to protect and rebuild the affected region.

State and local budgets were already stressed by drastically reduced revenue in the wake of the recession. Now tax coffers will be depleted even further, both because the local economy has been damaged so badly and because demand is rising sharply for food, medical and mental-health services, and other needs of the newly displaced, as well as environmental testing and monitoring.

As in the Katrina response, grant makers with diverse types of expertise and philanthropic priorities will need to provide financing for an array of needs.

Just as important, grant makers must ensure that the nation doesn’t lose sight of the real message of this tragedy: the need to create a green economy and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Spills are commonplace around the globe, and we all share responsibility for these disasters if we don’t decrease the demand for oil.

President Obama used his first Oval Office address to emphasize the need for a new green economy. Many foundations already support efforts aimed at reaching that goal, but now it is time for grant makers to do more. It is also important to remember equity in building this economy, ensuring opportunities for upward mobility for low-income people and minorities.

No matter what grant makers want to do—protect wildlife and the coastal marshes, support the people of the Gulf, or show the path to a new green economy—collaboration will maximize the effectiveness of their investments. Sharing information and identifying gaps that would benefit from grant-maker support is an essential step in using scarce foundation resources well.

My organization has taken a first step by creating a list of projects grant makers recommend to allow other donors to readily identify what can or should be done. Another helpful resource is a page devoted to BP at the site of the Health and Environmental Funders Network. But nothing is more important than making sure grant makers take a comprehensive view of the problems facing the Gulf.

A wide array of social, economic, health, and environmental issues now face the United States because of the BP oil disaster, and, just like in the case of Katrina, it is important that foundations don’t get drawn into focusing on just one priority in isolation from other concerns. At the national and international levels, that means supporting efforts to increase accountability in energy extraction and enforcing laws already in place to safeguard the health and well-being of people and natural resources, whether in coal mining, natural gas-extraction, or oil drilling.

In the Gulf of Mexico, it will be a long time before we know the extent of the damage to its communities and its natural resources. Grant makers need to be ready to support nonprofits that will analyze and research just how much harm has been done and to monitor whether things are getting better. Foundations should make grants to local organizing groups that can help citizens push for needed action. And they must also support organizations that will ensure that the United States and other countries take the concrete actions needed to protect the environment.

While many grant makers already support such causes, more money and attention will be needed to ensure that when the story of this disaster is told, it is remembered as the moment when our nation started a new path to a more sustainable world.

Rachel Leon is the Executive Director of the Environmental Grantmakers Association