Philanthropy must advance climate justice now. Here’s how.
By Marion Gee and Gloria Walton
Originally published on April 12, 2023 by Inside Philanthropy.
Climate justice is taking center stage. The U.N.’s latest climate summit established a loss and damage fund in response to global climate injustice. Washington is spending record-breaking amounts of money on climate, and Biden-Harris administration policies aim to steer much of it to communities already feeling the effects of climate change. Public officials are on notice that communities of color and low-income communities have suffered first and worst from climate change and the dirty energy economy, and that these same communities offer practical solutions and perspectives essential to solving the climate crisis.
So why does only 1.3% of environmental philanthropic giving go to climate justice organizations? A just transition to a clean energy economy requires rapidly leveling the playing field and working to heal generational harm. In this critical period for climate action, philanthropy must do better.
And there are solutions. This article lays out four ways philanthropies can advance climate justice by quickly, efficiently and effectively directing funding 1) to grassroots groups, 2) to frontline alliances, 3) through trusted intermediaries, and 4) to community-controlled financial institutions.
Through these pathways, philanthropy can support effective, replicable solutions — from UPROSE’s community-owned rooftop solar project in Brooklyn, to Urban Tilth’s organic farm in California, to Native Renewables’ Indigenous-built solar arrays for off-grid Navajo and Hopi homes. Hundreds of initiatives like these are curbing climate change as they build resilient communities, influence policy and inspire imaginations.
Giving to grassroots groups
A few funders offer excellent examples of how to support frontline climate justice organizations.
- The Chorus Foundation awarded 10-year general operating grants to grassroots groups in neighborhoods bordering California oil refineries, Native communities in oil-rich Alaska, towns dotting the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky, and other communities dealing with fallout from fossil fuels and seeking clean energy futures.
- The Libra Foundation awards unrestricted multiyear grants to Black, Indigenous and other frontline-led organizations transforming their communities.
- The Kataly Foundation entrusts nine women of color (including this article’s co-author Gloria Walton) who are leaders in the environmental justice movement to make funding decisions, including rapidly sending resources to communities hit with climate-related disasters.
These funders defer to the wisdom and expertise of grassroots grantees, trusting them to know what will work in their own communities. Best practices include simplifying applications and reporting requirements, providing multiyear general operating support, and cutting red tape. Their results show that community-led climate solutions are ripe for scaling through replication across the country.
Supporting alliances and networks
Just as mutual funds offer a way to invest in a lot of companies at once, alliances and networks of frontline organizations offer diverse portfolios of climate solutions ready for investment, vetted by the communities that will implement them.
- In New York, over 300 organizations make up New York Renews, the force behind the passage of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The country’s strongest climate bill and the inspiration for the federal Justice40 Initiative, the act commits the state to 100% zero-emission electricity by 2040, with 40% of climate and energy funding invested in disproportionately disadvantaged communities.
- In Florida, the Miami Climate Alliance marshals 149 groups, largely based in Black, Spanish-speaking and Creole-speaking communities. They collaborate on climate justice projects including hurricane planning, disaster relief, home weatherization and advocacy for clean-energy funding and policies.
- Nationally, the Climate Justice Alliance (co-led by this article’s co-author Marion Gee) unites 89 frontline organizations, alliances and networks in moving away from the “dig, burn, dump” economy and toward sharable, scalable, sustainable solutions that build up communities.
Other active networks of grassroots organizations include Black Voters Matter, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, Indigenous Environmental Network, Native Organizers Alliance and Right to the City Alliance.
Working with trusted intermediaries
Funders like the JPB Foundation and the Kresge Foundation engage with intermediaries as part of multi-pathway strategies in their climate justice portfolios. Intermediaries that have spent years developing accountable relationships with grassroots groups and alliances can help bridge the gap between funders and the frontlines. In addition to facilitating funding, they respond to grantees’ requests for other assistance and develop shared initiatives that build capacity and the movement as a whole — from educational programs to collective communications efforts.
To demonstrate the power of this pathway, here’s an example involving one of the richest men in the world.
Bezos and his team reached out to The Solutions Project (TSP), an intermediary led by this article’s co-author, Gloria Walton. As a Black woman who grew up in Mississippi, led a community organization in South Los Angeles, and then took the helm at The Solutions Project — which funds and provides communications and other support to community-rooted climate justice groups — Gloria can speak with authority about both philanthropy and the frontlines of the climate crisis.
Gloria and Jacqui Patterson of The Chisholm Legacy Project educated the Bezos Earth Fund about the discrepancy between where climate investment is most needed and effective, and where philanthropic dollars actually flow. Rather than reinventing the wheel, BEF quickly moved $141 million to frontline communities through four trusted intermediaries, including TSP, NDN Collective, and The Hive Fund for Climate and Gender Justice, which in turn resourced hundreds of grassroots organizations.
CJA kept up public pressure on BEF. Together, CJA and TSP asked the big green groups that received the majority of BEF funding to direct resources to grassroots organizations, establishing what’s now known as the Fund for Frontline Power. The fund is 100% grassroots-governed, and is financed by 11 donors so far. This month, the grassroots leaders directing the fund will announce its first slate of grants to frontline groups.
Funding community-controlled financial initiatives
Funders new to climate justice should know that justice-oriented groups see most accumulated wealth — including philanthropies’ endowments — as largely linked to stolen land, exploited labor and unfair practices that benefit the richest few while leaving the environment and generations of vulnerable people worse off. Now, frontline communities are creating their own financial entities, including loan funds, land trusts and worker cooperatives — all designed to keep dollars circulating locally, keeping wealth in communities.
A few examples:
- Catalyst Miami’s North Miami Community Investment Cooperative empowers working-class residents of an area battered by climate effects to own and operate commercial real estate, instead of ceding control to outside developers.
- In Indianapolis, the Kheprw Integrated Fund offers loans and grants to businesses owned by people of color addressing community challenges, including climate justice.
- Nationally, community-led funds pool resources under the Seed Commons banner to support local cooperative businesses and community wealth-building.
- The Reinvest in Our Power campaign invites philanthropy to divest from fossil fuels and other extractive Wall-Street-style investments, and to reinvest that money in community-led projects that build up local economies, share the wealth, and protect people and the planet.
Our call for philanthropy
As climate justice funding flows from philanthropies and governments, there’s a danger that it will be siphoned off by big, well-resourced, top-down organizations before it reaches frontline climate communities. Philanthropy has a responsibility to support the grassroots during this potential green gold rush, and to see that the flow of funding doesn’t make inequities worse or weaken climate solutions.
Both of our organizations have experience advising philanthropies, governing funds and connecting funders to peer advisers. Don’t be shy about reaching out to us, or to other organizations in this article. Useful resources include Candid’s report Centering Equity and Justice in Climate Philanthropy, CJA’s Climate Justice Dialogue for Funders, and the Regenerative Economies Organizing Collaborative’s list of funder courses.
If we truly want to avoid the worst effects of climate change, we are rapidly running out of time to act. We call on philanthropy to speed funding to the frontlines, where climate change is already a reality — and where creative solutions are proving that we can restore the planet while also building a more just and equitable society.
Marion Gee is Co-Executive Director of the Climate Justice Alliance, which unites frontline organizations building a Just Transition toward resilient, regenerative, equitable economies. Gloria Walton is CEO and president of The Solutions Project, a nonprofit that funds and amplifies climate justice solutions created by frontline communities building an equitable, regenerative economy.