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Even With All Eyes on Racial Justice, Few Green Funders Are Sharing Their Data

June 10, 2021

June 10, 2021


By Michael Kavate, Read on Inside Philanthropy

Over the past eight months, Ashindi Maxton and Danielle Deane-Ryan have spoken to 36 of the nation’s 40 largest climate funders. The pair, who are executive director and senior advisor of the Donors of Color Network, respectively, asked them all the same question: What percentage of the institution’s funding goes to Black, Indigenous and people of color-led organizations?

Their inquiries came as a summer of uprisings sparked by George Floyd’s murder, a pandemic and a rising crisis of climate inequity pushed philanthropies, including green funders, into action for the first time on racial equity. Yet Maxton and Deane-Ryan found that most could not answer their question.

“One thing that has shocked me is how few people have actually calculated the data, especially [since] it was the year 2020, and if you have ever talked about racial justice, you’re talking about it now,” Maxton told me. “There is a lack of rigor around the racial equity approach to this work, very much symbolized by the fact that they did not know their number.”

Those conversations were part of the Donors of Color Network’s new Climate Funders Justice Pledge, a campaign that kicked off in February with the aim of getting the nation’s top 40 climate funders to direct at least 30% of their U.S. climate grants to BIPOC-led justice groups within two years, and to publicly share their institution’s percentage. Now, four months after launch and eight months since the group began its outreach, the first data is in. Only seven foundations, including two from the top 40, have shared what portion of their 2019–2020 U.S. climate funding fell under the pledge. 

Three give at double the threshold or more: Grove Foundation (81%), Libra Foundation (87%) and Seventh Generation Foundation (65%). A couple exceeded the 30% threshold by a bit: Kresge Foundation (33%), which is one of the top 40 funders, and Open Society Foundations (36%). Finally, two (with admirable transparency) have released their data even though they are well below the threshold: Meyer Memorial Trust (19%) and Pisces Foundation (17%), another of the top 40 funders. Meyer indicated that its share rose to 33% in 2021.

Obviously, not much time has passed. And more data is on the way. A total of 20 foundations, including five additional top 40 funders, have pledged to provide their numbers. Each has three months from the time of the pledge to provide their data. 

Yet the overwhelming response so far has been silence. Nearly two-thirds of the nation’s top 40 climate funders have either not decided whether to pledge (16 institutions), declined (five) or didn’t bother to respond to the group’s messages (four). It calls to mind the sadly typical response to Green 2.0’s long-running effort to collect data on the demographic makeup of the nation’s major environmental funders. In 2020, just 11 of the top 40 funders provided their diversity data to Green 2.0. 

In the first year of an absolutely critical decade for climate action, and following a rash of statements from top funders and pledges for transformation, the lack of response makes it clear that even transparency is a battle, let alone equity in funding. For Maxton and many others, this state of affairs represents a profound strategic mistake.

“The field is not accomplishing what it needs to accomplish,” she said. “We’re not including communities that are first and most impacted by climate change in the direct action piece of the work.”

Why don’t foundations know their number?

Over the past year, many of the top 40 climate grantmakers issued statements on diversity and inclusion. Others issued statements on Black Lives Matter, George Floyd or racial justice, as the Climate Funders Justice Pledge has tracked. A bunch of environmental foundations held diversity, equity and inclusion training for staff. Funders like the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation have appointed DEI directors for the first time. Some have made significant pledges on racial equity from other portfolios. 

Yet again and again, Deane-Ryan and Maxton found that the funders they spoke with were calculating what percentage of their dollars went to BIPOC-led groups for the very first time.

“If you’re doing all this work and recognizing there’s a problem, and you’ve said it on your website, and you’ve made a few grants more, which is nice, but you haven’t actually looked on a net basis at how your funding breaks down, then that tells me there is one of four things going on,” Deane-Ryan said.

First, she went on, it could be “carelessness bordering on malpractice.” Second, unconscious bias—“You think you’re doing the right thing, but you have blind spots.” Third, outright racism. Fourth, a different vision of what the movement needs.

Of that final group, Deane-Ryan said, “They have a theory of change that [says], you know, ‘I don’t think that putting significantly more funding into people-of-color-led organizations is critical on the path to success.’ That’s misguided, and sad and dangerous.”

Deane-Ryan pointed to postmortems of the failed foundation-backed push in 2010 for cap-and-trade legislation in the United States. Two influential reports argued that one of the leading errors was an over-dependence on deal-making by Beltway insiders rather than focusing on building a broad base of grassroots support for legislative change. Over a decade later, some funding has shifted, but not dramatically. And the same typically white-led groups remain top recipients.

An oft-cited 2020 study led by Building Equity and Alignment for Impact found that just 1.3% of climate philanthropy from 12 major national grantmakers went to environmental justice organizations. Analysis by ClimateWorks Foundation came to a similar conclusion. By its count, only $60 million of the $1.6 billion in philanthropic funding for climate mitigation in 2019— 3.8% of the total—went to support “climate justice, just transition to a low-emissions economy, grassroots mobilization, and equity.”

Many say the largely white and male leadership at top climate funders is a major part of the problem. Roughly 78% of senior leaders and 76% of board members at major environmental funders and organizations were white in 2020, and the latter figure has not changed since 2018, according to Green 2.0. Men accounted for 46% and 59% of those leaders, respectively. (Green 2.0 did not provide data for foundations alone.)

According to Maxton, climate funders typically said their climate grantmaking was aimed at reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. She agrees with the goal, but says reducing the climate emergency to a math equation without a racial equity lens is a recipe for failure.

“How do you do that if you don’t actually have the people that you need behind you to back that change?” she said. “There has been a real tunnel vision about a certain set of players, the big greens, and a particular set of approaches, and a particular group of people, largely middle-class white people, who have been mobilized, and it has not built the power into this movement to succeed.”

A perspective from the field

Seventeen years ago, Miya Yoshitani began her career at Asian Pacific Environmental Network as a youth organizer. But that wasn’t her only responsibility.

“Even when I started, part of my job was to raise money for my own work,” said Yoshitani, who is now the organization’s executive director. “And that’s so true of so many of these grassroots organizations that have an outsized impact.”

During Yoshitani’s time there, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network has joined with other BIPOC-led groups to organize community resistance that contributed, for instance, to a halt on a $1 billion expansion of Chevron’s Richmond, California, refinery, which would have allowed the company to process heavier forms of crude oil, adding to overall pollution in the Bay Area city. But even with wins like that, getting funding has been a struggle.

“It has been one of the huge frustrations of being an organizer in this space in the movement,” said Yoshitani, who is also a member of the Biden administration’s newly formed Environmental Justice Advisory Council. “We’ve historically seen so much willingness of philanthropy to give unrestricted funds, to take huge risks, to kind of shower white-led conservation organizations with funding to address a problem that they’re not equipped to solve.”

State of the pledge

Maxton hopes that whether or not foundations sign onto the Climate Funders Justice Pledge, it will push them to calculate what percentage of their funding goes to BIPOC-led organizations—and reflect on that percentage. 

“Every single one of those 36 conversations forced people to do something they had not done before, and made them ask questions and feel an accountability that I don’t think they have ever traditionally felt,” she said.

To date, of the top 40 funders, only four institutions have signed onto the full pledge (30% in two years): the JPB Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the Pisces Foundation and the Schmidt Family Foundation. Three others—Barr, Hewlett and MacArthur—have agreed to transparency only. (Hewlett recently released a study finding that 41% of its grantees’ staff identify as people of color, including 29% of organization leaders.) Thirteen other foundations with smaller climate portfolios have also signed onto the full pledge.

Five top 40 funders have declined the pledge. According to the network, two of those institutions—the Ford Foundation and the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation—indicated that the reason was that most of their climate grantmaking is outside the United States. The Kendeda Fund said its focus is on fulfilling existing multi-year grants as the institution sunsets over the next three years. No reason was cited for refusals by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation or Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

The network says four other climate funders—the Gates, NoVo, Benificus and Grantham foundations—have not responded to its messages. 

The biggest group of potential pledgers are those who are still “in conversation” with the network. Some 16 foundations fall into that group. It includes funders who have made racial justice spending pledges, ranging from commitments of roughly $1 million from both the McKnight Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation to the David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s August 2020 pledge of $100 million over five years for racial equity and justice. As noted earlier, most funders on the list issued statements on racial equity last year in the midst of a protest movement of unprecedented scope. The relative silence one year on is deafening.

“[Philanthropic funders] really care about their reputation, and I feel like this is honestly an embarrassment,” Yoshitani said. “They both historically and continue to have such a disproportionately low amount of their [grantmaking] go to BIPOC-led communities. I think that these philanthropies understand that it is going against both the great need that’s out there and the things that they claim to care about.”