Skip to content

Environmental Funders: The Problem Isn’t Just Diversity. It’s Access to Money.


Lois R. DeBacker

Jacqueline Patterson

Jacqueline Patterson

Editor’s note: This story was first published by Inside Philanthropy.

For years, we’ve heard the calls for more diversity in the environmental movement. It’s certainly true that the “big green” groups—and their boards—remain mostly white. But the fact is, there is plenty of diversity among those who are fighting for a cleaner, healthier environment.

Across the U.S., environmental justice groups are shutting down coal-fired power plants, getting the lead out of drinking water, advancing access to sustainable and healthy housing, and engaging in other actions to address a plethora of environmental injustices. This includes efforts to mitigate climate change while preparing for its impacts. Rooted in Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities, environmental justice groups have a track record of wins, a deep bench of talent, and earned trust that enables them to mobilize the communities where they live and work.

What too many BIPOC and environmental justice groups lack is money.

Only about 1% of environmental grantmaking from 12 of the largest environmental funders went to environmental justice groups, according to a 2020 report by the Building Equity and Alignment Initiative. Research from scholars at Northwestern University found that half of philanthropic funding on climate issues goes to 20 national organizations; that data was then analyzed by the Solutions Project in 2019 finding 90% of those organizations to be led by white people, 80% by men.

Funders need to step up their investments in BIPOC-led environmental justice groups—not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the way to win on climate change and other environmental issues. Here’s why.

First, those closest to the problem are the ones who can identify solutions. People of color live in communities that are disproportionately affected by environmental problems—from air and water pollution to climate change. Residents of these communities hold a wealth of hard-earned wisdom: They know which streets flood when it rains and which local leaders have the people’s trust. Without the input and engagement of those on the front lines, even the best-intentioned solutions can be ineffective or harmful.

Second, BIPOC-led organizations have a demonstrated track record of success. With sophisticated strategies and tireless organizing, BIPOC-led groups have produced transformational action on climate and environmental racism. For example, environmental justice groups—including the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, PUSH Buffalo, and ALIGN—played key roles in passing New York state’s 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The act calls for 70% renewable energy statewide by 2030, and full carbon neutrality by 2040. Importantly, environmental justice groups won provisions that will make the act more equitable, including a target for disadvantaged communities to receive 40% of the benefits from state climate programs.

Third, BIPOC-led environmental justice groups take an approach that differs from the dominant green-group paradigm. These groups put people at the center of climate change and other environmental issues, advocating for change that improves lives in the near term. While attentive to the need for emissions reductions, an environmental justice approach to climate change emphasizes the health benefits of reduced air pollution and the promise of good jobs in renewable energy.

As they’re rooted in communities, environmental justice groups can talk about the issues in a way that resonates with people’s everyday lives. This more holistic approach is effective because, in the words of Audre Lorde, “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” People care about the planet and their paycheck; about the health of their family and of the natural world.

Given everything that BIPOC-led environmental justice groups bring to the table, why don’t these groups garner more philanthropic support? On climate change, at least, there’s a long history of focusing on the technical aspects of the problem while neglecting its human and political dimensions. And there is implicit bias in who funders think of as the “experts”—too many tend to favor those with technical skills over those with essential knowledge of place-based challenges and solutions.

Many funders also harbor misperceptions about the capacity of community-based groups to absorb funding. In our experience with environmental justice groups, there is no shortage of talented leaders and capable organizations that are ready for additional investment. These hard-working, multi-tasking leaders and groups are limited only by the hours in the day and the resources available for their work.

Finally, funders don’t know who they don’t know. Environmental philanthropy remains overwhelmingly white, as are funders’ personal and collegial networks. So when funders ask their networks about promising leaders and organizations, the answers tend to reflect the demographics of those doing the asking.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Last month, the Donors of Color Network issued a powerful challenge to funders, asking them to direct 30% of their grantmaking to BIPOC-led groups accountable to their communities. We fully support this approach. The Kresge Foundation is among 11 funders that have taken the pledge to date. And the NAACP is elevating the pledge while uplifting the work of communities and BIPOC-led organizations on the frontlines of addressing climate change.

There’s still more that funders can do. They can, for example, construct grantmaking portfolios that include the full set of partners needed to bring about change: front-line groups, mainstream organizations, and movement and environmental justice networks. They can commit to relationship building and access, and build deeper connections with environmental justice groups, grounded in trust. They can leverage the power of intermediaries as a complement to direct grants to community-based groups.

And they can walk the walk on dismantling structural racism by examining and transforming the cultures within foundations and grantmaker affinity groups. That means hiring diverse staff who bring new connections to the work. Ideally, it means requiring grantees to go beyond minimal DEI practices: standards for justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) must be transformative and ensure that internal and external practices are explicitly anti-racist.

Finally, funders can bring an equity lens to everything they do. The Kresge Foundation, for example, is explicitly incorporating racial justice into our strategy and aligning investments accordingly. Recently, Kresge earmarked $30 million in new grantmaking for racial equity work, building on existing commitments.

Today, however, most environmental philanthropy is not aligned with the greatest need, or opportunity, in our field. We can change that—not simply by advocating for more diversity in the “big green” groups, but by stepping up support for BIPOC-led environmental justice organizations that are fighting, and winning, the battle to protect people and the planet.

Lois DeBacker is managing director of Kresge’s Environment Program. Jacqueline Patterson is director of the NAACP Environment & Climate Justice Program. Follow their programs on Twitter at @kresgenviro and @NAACP.