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The Lack of Diversity in Environmental Philanthropy

June 5, 2021

June 5, 2021


By Kristy Drutman, Read on Brown Girl Green

What is the risk we face worldwide by not funding climate justice initiatives? The threat is in the data.

The United States experienced 22 disasters that exceeded $1 billion each in damages last year. As a response, U.S. President Biden just signed an executive order which directs various federal agencies and departments to analyze the risks of the climate crisis on the national economy and security. 

As we zoom out worldwide, it’s also now estimated that climate change could cut the global economy by $23 trillion by 2050. The compounding economic and social losses that communities worldwide will incur should be enough for all major institutions to respond with urgency. Yet, as those of us who have been doing this work for awhile know, common sense and following scientific reasoning seems to be a scarce resource in today’s society. 

To add insult to injury, when considering world institutions’ negligence on this issue, climate justice does not take the precedence it deserves over other climate-solution discussions.  Black, Indigenous, and People of Color as well as low-income, impoverished communities worldwide are and will be on the frontlines of this societal unraveling.

Ironically, these same communities are the ones who actually hold the distinct expertise on how to protect their regions in times of crisis, yet don’t have the connections or funding to make their ideas viable. 

One particular sector that has a huge opportunity to slow the trajectory our world is headed on is philanthropy.

This lack of diversity is very concerning when we consider environmental justice. If we build a “clean energy” future that does not have BIPOC in roles of leadership, membership, or decision-making, we may seem some very severe trickle-down impacts on communities. BIPOC communities and low-income communities may not be treated as a priority and may instead be exploited or harmed even in the name of creating a “clean” energy future. 

Everyone deserves access to a clean, liveable environment. If the benefits of clean tech can only reach or support those with wealth, time, and resources, we may see the transition to a renewable future leave Black and Brown communities behind. 

So what is the funding from foundations going towards?

Philanthropic dollars are mostly going into technological fixes like shooting dust into the sky or spraying the clouds with some unidentifiable mist, or better yet, planting more trees in places they don’t belong. Meanwhile, communities who are on the ground who actually have a clue about how to best support and prepare their communities for future disasters are left to struggle. They have to market the environmental injustices happening in their own backyards as worthy enough to be supported. 

This is no coincidence- it is a direct result of white supremacy and colonization. The climate crisis is largely fueled by unregulated greed, extraction, and imperialism. The inequities found in the philanthropy sector, a sector that is rooted in the loving of mankind, come from the same systemic issues.

It doesn’t make any sense. Especially, when you consider the conditions that even made this situation possible in the first place; the folks who make up philanthropies come from typically white, intergenerational wealth stemming from colonization and imperialism across the globe. Meanwhile, BIPOC folks who come from generations of genocide, enslavement, colonization, assimilation etc. are forced to jump through hoops to get access to the pool of resources to “fix” their communities that were damaged or destroyed by white supremacy in the first place. 

Systemic barriers breed long term inequitable funding structures

Even though climate justice has gained more visible traction as a rallying cry and talking point by philanthropies, there is scant funding to back this vision. One may hypothesize that this is due in large part to implicit biases in which white-led philanthropic groups may not understand or comprehend the return on investment of climate justice. This may include relationship building, education, protesting etc. which may not be seen as palatable as shorter term fixes. 

The systemic, inequitable distribution of resources within the environmental sector can also be attributed to the lack of leaders of color in the philanthropic sector. According to the Green 2.0 report, out of a sampling of environmentally-focused philanthropies across the board, they only had 25% of their staff identify as a person of color, and only 4% of senior staff identify as a person of color. 

As stated in the brilliant novel, Decolonizing Wealth by Edgar Villanueva, “all of us who have been forced to the margins are the very ones who harbor the best solutions for healing, progress, and peace, by virtue of our outsider perspectives and resilience” (6). So why is there little strategic planning to actually meet the moment that climate justice leaders have paved forward?

And let’s not forget what we’re up against…

Meanwhile, we are witnessing fossil fuel companies like Exxon or Chevron are donating millions of dollars to support low income communities and BIPOC communities with jobs in coal mines or on fracking rigs, education, and other community resources. In turn, the fossil fuel industry, as Villanueva offers, is positioning itself to provision “neoliberal forms of common sense” to communities as their assistance allows them to be viewed as a safeguard for local economic security.

In reality, these companies are invested in profits, not people (i.e. the communities who have to breathe in toxic air or have their water poisoned from pipeline leaks etc). Yet, they are doing something strategic- they are understanding the context of the communities they support and actually work with them to listen and meet their immediate needs. 

Fossil fuel companies have the resources to fund political campaigns, greenwashed programs, and legislation that will continue to prevent us from achieving a clean, livable environment for all that also gets us below 2 degrees warming. The battle on climate storytelling and education is here, and climate justice needs to be at the forefront.

So it’s time for philanthropic institutions to really show up and fund this work

Those of us advocating for climate justice have a long, uphill battle against the amount of funding being poured into PR and influencers promoting the fossil fuel industry.

We need philanthropy to start taking our work, contributions, and long term community building efforts seriously and to put resources behind it if we have a chance to combat that narrative. Climate justice groups need supporters who are not just going to bring diverse voices into the room, but who are going to truly intentionally listen and put dollars behind intersectional movement building, storytelling, and frontline wisdom. 

To meet the urgency of this crisis, we need greater capacity building for leaders and groups who have already been battling these issues for a long time. They hold wisdom that may not be valued by philanthropy – but it needs to be. The shift is long overdue, and it is time that we ask those with the power and privilege to redistribute what they can to meet the call of this time.

Questions for further reflection:

  • What would it look like to have more climate justice funded projects around the world?
  • What does equitable distribution of those funds look like (how can we develop new metrics or conversations around funding opportunities)?
  • How do we shift philanthropy – a historically enshrouded institution that is subliminally tied with histories of white supremacy into a new model that dismantles hierarchies & makes it easier for communities who are/ have been impacted to get access to these funds and opportunities in a more readily and long term manner? 

The answers to these remain an elusive glimmer of hope during these dark times. As foundations continue to tout their commitments to racial and economic justice, we must hold the accountable to ponder these difficult inquiries. The climate crisis is now, the solutionaries exist to address the urgency, and it is time for philanthropy to leverage its resources in order to bridge that gap.