You’ve heard the saying, “Change moves at the speed of trust.” In the climate movement, we have serious trust issues. Frontline, community-based organizations—often with leaders who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC)—are at the forefront of movements on climate, racial justice, and more. But too often, funders do not trust these groups with the resources they need. And this limits our ability to achieve transformative change.
As a Black woman who cares about the environment, humanity, and the healing of all people, my work at the intersection of social justice, racial equity, and environmental protection has never been easy. I have fought enough battles to understand that change takes time, but I am at a breaking point.
I am frustrated, saddened, and increasingly impatient with the pace of change—and with the lack of trust that holds us back.
Most climate victories have been won with BIPOC-led frontline groups at the center. We simply cannot succeed without the authentic leadership of these groups. And yet, about half of philanthropic funding on climate issues goes to 20 national organizations, 90 percent of which are led by white people, 80 percent by men.
It’s not just climate. Frontline groups are responding in real time to many of the most urgent issues facing our communities. And, while women of color are the backbone of frontline groups, only 0.6 percent of US philanthropic dollars go to women-of-color-led organizations. Overall, organizations led by people of color receive less grant money, with more strings attached, than white-led groups.
The historical and systemic racism that infects every part of our society is certainly to blame. Despite countervailing evidence, many funders do not trust BIPOC leaders to be strategic problem solvers in their own communities. Too often, funders take a top-down approach that centers technical expertise, misdiagnosing the root of the problem, and creating narrow solutions that diminish community voice and leadership.
If we want to take on the crucial issues of our time, funders need to trust—and support—frontline leadership.
The ecosystem of change
Change looks different on the frontlines. Rather than focusing on a single issue—climate change, say, or housing—frontline groups confront multiple problems at once. They take a holistic, “ecosystem” approach that acknowledges connections among issues like racism, climate impacts, and health disparities.
Because they are rooted in the community, frontline groups respond quickly to emergent concerns. Consider PUSH Buffalo, a community organization in Buffalo, New York, that works on affordable housing, energy efficiency, and job training. When COVID-19 hit, PUSH met the moment. Street teams already in place to educate neighbors about free energy-efficiency upgrades helped deliver groceries and medical supplies. Existing grants for affordable housing were redirected to rent relief. And School 77, an abandoned campus that PUSH renovated and converted to solar-powered affordable housing, became a mutual aid hub. These solutions were launched as soon as the crisis hit, weeks before Congress passed its first stimulus bill.
In California’s Bay Area, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) also pivoted, preventing evictions and utility shutoffs, providing PPE (personal protective equipment) to essential workers, and organizing protests against police violence. Like most frontline groups, APEN keeps its eyes on the long-term prize while responding to immediate needs. “We know we need to transition away from an extractive economy based on profit and pollution,” says APEN executive director Miya Yoshitani. And, because APEN works in communities that are economically dependent on fossil fuels, “we need to do it in a way that centers the people who are most impacted.” That’s why APEN is working to build locally controlled clean energy resources and strengthening the social safety net for workers and residents.
Meeting community needs is the key to truly transformative change, says Nathaniel Smith, founder and chief equity officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity. “Revolutions are usually seeded and supported by the folks who are suffering the most. But the people who are suffering aren’t usually the ones that design or create the theories of change,” says Smith. “Why is that? It’s not because they’re not brilliant or because they don’t have the answer. It’s because they are hungry.”
The Partnership is working with neighbors suffering from the current crisis, launching a COVID-19 fund to support basic needs, and leading a campaign to prevent utility shutoffs. “By ensuring that people are in the position to feed their families, that they have shelter, that their utilities are on, we give them a chance to think bigger than just about survival,” says Smith.
In addition to seeing the connections between immediate needs and long-term transformation, many frontline groups see themselves as connected to a larger movement. Take, for example, Black Visions Collective, a Minneapolis-based community group. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, Black Visions held trainings for medics and protesters, hosted marches and meetings, and organized mutual aid efforts. This work caught the attention of media, and donations poured in. But Black Visions’ staff were not aiming to build a large, well-heeled organization. “We see ourselves as a part of a larger ecosystem of organizing,” they explained in a letter to supporters. So they urged potential donors to give money to other underfunded groups, instead. Now, they are working to give away some $200,000 to a broad range of allied projects and groups.
This is how we win
Working from a carefully built foundation of trust, BIPOC-led frontline groups punch above their weight.
In the state of New York, frontline groups—including PUSH Buffalo, ALIGN (Alliance for a Greater New York) and the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance—were central to the passage of the 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. Widely hailed, the Act calls for the state to get 70 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2030, and to go carbon-free by 2040. Frontline groups won important environmental justice provisions, including a target for disadvantaged communities to receive 40 percent of the benefits from state climate programs.
And in Portland, Oregon, BIPOC-led community groups prevailed when voters resoundingly approved a measure to create the Clean Energy Fund in November 2018. The fund imposes a surcharge on retailers with more than $1 billion in annual sales, generating $30 million a year for renewable energy, job training, local food production, and green infrastructure. The fund directs resources to Portlanders impacted by climate change but excluded from the emerging low-carbon economy.
Even when high-profile policy victories remain elusive, organizing and movement-building can prove transformative. Two years ago, in the state of Washington, frontline communities of color came together with labor, environmentalists, public health leaders, and others to draft a carbon tax initiative. “It was the largest and most diverse coalition that had ever come together on climate,” says Aiko Schaefer, former director of Front and Centered, “and it produced the most groundbreaking, most innovative policy proposal.”
Although the ballot initiative was defeated (after unprecedented spending by fossil fuel interests), that coalition has changed the conversation about climate in Washington and beyond—from a technocratic approach centered on reducing emissions, to a more reparative focus on helping impacted communities. As a result, when Governor Jay Inslee (D) signed a bill the following year that requires 100-percent renewable energy by 2045, the coalition won provisions that ensure equitable benefits for low-income households.
Funders: Follow the frontline leaders
There are many reasons for the success of frontline groups and coalitions. First, their holistic approach aligns with people’s lived experience. Most of us care about more than one issue; we want good jobs and a livable planet, for example. That’s even truer for those living with the compounding, intersectional harms of racism, poverty, and environmental injustice. Community-led problem-solving is tailored to the local context and garners more buy-in. And the “ecosystem” approach enables community groups to broaden their base of support, nurture reciprocal relationships, and build a stronger, more adaptable movement ecosystem.
Unfortunately, these approaches put frontline groups at odds with prevailing philanthropic culture. Foundations typically segment giving by issue–for example, viewing climate change, poverty, and health as separate concerns. Even when they are seen as intersecting issues, funding priorities most often are not aligned to support a holistic, multi-issue frame. Moreover, most funding comes in the form of support for specific projects. This leaves community groups with little financial flexibility.
I entered the field of climate philanthropy in 2014, and I am pleased to say that a lot has changed since then. There is greater awareness, at least, that the environmental movement has a problem with diversity, equity, and inclusion, resulting in notable shifts among climate funders and more equitable approaches to grant making. This is progress, but it is insufficient.
Some funders are taking bold steps. The Solutions Project—for which I serve as a philanthropic trustee—made and delivered on a commitment last year to direct 95 percent of grant dollars, technical assistance, and other resources to support leaders of color; 80 percent of the project’s funding goes to women-of-color-led groups.
Amid the current crises, trustees (predominantly women of color in philanthropy and frontline communities) did away with grant reporting and traditional proposals. As executive director Sarah Shanley Hope observes, “Frontline leaders have been doing the work for hella long and often times for free. We can break that extractive cycle and move money, media, and momentum behind their leadership with trust and speed.”
The Kresge Foundation, where I work, offers another great example. Since 2014, Kresge’s Environment Program has helped cities combat and adapt to climate change while advancing racial and economic equity. To that end, Kresge makes investments that help elevate the leadership, inclusion, and influence of people of color, people with low incomes, and equity-focused organizations in climate-change-related decision-making. A milestone $29 million investment made during my first year at the foundation helped “flip the frame” of Kresge’s climate investments. Rather than fund mainstream environmental groups, hoping they might strengthen their competency around equity, Kresge funded frontline leaders whose work was already grounded in equity, to deepen their climate engagement.
More work ahead
Yet there remains much more that philanthropy must do.
Funders must rebuild trust with frontline organizers and believe that those closest to the problems have the solutions. This does not mean that we do not need technical solutions or deep collaboration across multiple sectors. But the urgency of the moment, and the needed pace of change requires shifts in thinking and culture, as well as new tools and strategies that elevate, support, and celebrate BIPOC communities.
Here’s how to start:
- Support BIPOC leaders. Funders must correct the longstanding bias against supporting leaders of color. We can start by listening to the recommendations—on strategy, on organizations to support within the ecosystem, and on processes like metrics and evaluation—of those rooted in the communities we seek to impact.
- Use intermediaries to invest in frontline groups. For large foundations without relationships on the ground, it is certainly easier to make a few big grants. Funders who can’t give directly to frontline groups can make grants to intermediary funds that do the work of managing relationships and grants. Recent years have seen a growing number of intermediary funds that focus on supporting local, grassroots, and frontline BIPOC leaders. These include national funds such as The Solutions Project, the Climate & Clean Energy Equity Fund, the Fund to Build Grassroots Power, The Building Equity & Alignment Fund, and NDN Collective; and local/regional funds such as Regenesis and the Hive Fund for Climate and Gender Justice.
- Be flexible. Support frontline groups’ holistic, multi-issue approach by providing general support whenever possible, and by allowing grantees to repurpose project funding in response to emerging needs and opportunities. Especially in times of crisis, funders can rethink burdensome reporting and evaluation requirements. For example, The Solutions Project realized its media tracker, which was already a part of its technical capacity programming for frontline grantees, could also serve as easy documentation of grantee outcomes.
- Support the ecosystem. Recognize that movement-building requires time and resources by providing support for coalitions and alliances, as well as individual organizations.
- Offer support beyond grant dollars. Unlike their well-resourced counterparts, frontline groups typically lack specialized staff for communications, technology, development, and more. Funders can fill these gaps by supporting ecosystem-level fundraising, peer-learning opportunities, capacity-building, and technical assistance. At this time, when grantees aren’t able to meet and convene in person, funders can support virtual gatherings and online learning.
Meet the moment
Change moves at the speed of trust. But BIPOC and poor communities have always borne the burden of proving that they can be trusted.
It took decades of cries from Black mothers—who knew for certain that there were links between their sick or dying babies and the environmental hazards in our neighborhoods—before our government agencies took action.
It took all of America to witness the public murder of George Floyd on television to trust that when Black people say I CAN’T BREATHE, we aren’t overstating the facts.
It took thousands of deaths in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to spotlight Black communities’ outsized vulnerability to climate hazards.
And it has taken COVID-19’s disproportionate toll on Black and Brown people to bring widespread attention to our nation’s glaring disparities in health care and employment.
Although often ignored by philanthropy, BIPOC-led frontline groups have spent years building trust and making change in their communities. Today, they are leading movements that are filling the streets and making the links between short-term needs and long-term transformation. And they are radically rethinking energy and economic systems to prevent climate chaos and build shared prosperity. “This moment is what our movements are built for,” says Miya Yoshitani of APEN.
Philanthropy can help meet this moment—but only if we trust the visionary leadership of those on the front lines.