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Funding BIPOC-led Climate Power is a five-part NPQ series produced in partnership with the Donors of Color Network that explores the progress and impact thus far of the Climate Justice Funders Pledge. The pledge highlights aims to change the fact that philanthropies only give 1.3 percent —a tiny fraction—of their US climate dollars to BIPOC-led environmental and justice-focused organizations. Some philanthropic organizations have started shifting their funding to support climate justice and building a more effective movement,  while others still have work to do. The series explores the progress of the pledge since being launched in 2021, highlights the work of BIPOC-led organizations that have received funding because of the pledge, and features the voices of donors of color on lessons learned. Finally, the series analyses new funder diversity data and does deep dive into accountability and transparency to see why some big philanthropies are remaining silent, or refusing to participate in the pledge.

Started in March 2019, the Donors of Color Network is an organization working to support powerful climate solutions. They recognize and bolster the effective efforts put forth by the Black, Indigenous and People of Color-led environmental justice groups who are on the frontlines fighting climate change. The network has been able to increase its funding pool to $120 million in the last two years alone and is continuing to expand on its mission.

Philanthropy often funds organizations working on climate change solutions, but only a tiny fraction of those dollars—just 1.3 percent—go to BIPOC-led climate organizations.

“DOCN was looking around and seeing the death of George Floyd, seeing other racial justice issues flare up around the country—but also noticing a systemic underfunding of movements led by people of color,” recalls Abdul Dosunmu, campaign manager of the DOCN’s Climate Funders Justice Pledge. “So as donors of color who are positioned both financially and socially with meaningful capital, they decided to organize themselves and their money.”

In 2021, DOCN started the Climate Funders Justice Pledge, which calls on the top 40 climate funders in the United States to increase their funding of BIPOC-led organizations to at least 30 percent of their portfolios within the next two years—all while providing transparent reporting of their grants.

The Origins of the Pledge

Philanthropy often funds organizations working on climate change solutions, but only a tiny fraction of those dollars—just 1.3 percent—go to BIPOC-led climate organizations. BIPOC-led organizations are often working for and in the communities most impacted by climate change and environmental racism with the least amount of resources. As a cross-racial organization made up of movement leaders and donors, DOCN was born out of the idea that BIPOC communities fighting for climate justice can be more impactful by jointly leveraging their knowledge and resources. The Climate Justice Funders Pledge was partly a response to the lack of follow-through from philanthropists that promised to invest in racial justice.

Dosunmu reports that they have 33 pledgers who, at minimum, have committed to transparency in their funding. Such pledgers include the Pisces Foundation, the Libra Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Meyer Memorial Trust, Seventh Generation Foundation. He notes that there are other funders who have said that they want to support climate and racial justice, but say they don’t know where to begin or haven’t held true to their promises.

During the Black Lives Matter movement protests in 2020, many companies and philanthropies made large-scale commitments to fund BIPOC movements. However, in many cases, those commitments have not been followed through on, explains Dosunmu. One common excuse BIPOC-led environmental and racial justice groups hear is that companies, organizations, and philanthropists don’t know who to support.

Here’s where DOCN steps in, highlighting the important work that movement leaders and organizations are doing on the ground. The pledge exists as a call to action from donors to fund these groups and be transparent while doing so, challenging donors to live up to their self-stated commitments and support the BIPOC-led organizations working toward an equitable and sustainable society.

If funders want to be at the forefront of fighting the climate crisis, they must fund BIPOC-led movements.

Philanthropic institutions are often opaque about their grantmaking process and operate from a top-down approach. Meaning that the people in power can be extremely particular about what an organization decides to fund and this is something that the DOCN is radically trying to shift. But some philanthropic organizations saw the value of the pledge from the start.

For example, the Pisces Foundation—which provides grants to address issues related to climate and energy, water, and environmental education—knew that taking the pledge made perfect sense. The pledge aligns with the foundation’s evolving grantmaking process that seeks to strengthen equity and better support large-scale social changes.

“The only way to build strong, healthy communities and a planet is through a holistic strategy—both in who we fund and what approaches we fund,” says David Beckman, president of the Pisces Foundation. “When we have a systemic array of investment—across policy, movement building, mitigation—the environmental field’s ability to secure key victories is amplified exponentially.”

“What I have learned to be true in all iterations of my environmental advocacy is that complex challenges necessitate good policy and the power to turn those good ideas into real solutions; our strategy relies on equipping a diverse and far-reaching ecosystem of advocates to take on these challenges at scale,” Beckman shares.

The Pisces Foundation is just one of many to join the Climate Funders Justice Pledge who understand that funding in the space is about equity but also efficacy. If funders want to be at the forefront of fighting the climate crisis, they must fund BIPOC-led movements and organizations. As Beckman puts it, “How can we acknowledge that many Black and Brown communities have more than their fair share of climate-induced challenges and less than their fair share of resources?”

Each year, climate change causes more extreme weather. A review published by the National Library of Medicine in 2022 confirms that the consequences of climate change, such as deadly flooding, extreme heat, and air pollution, result in higher risks of death for African Americans and low-income individuals compared to White and wealthier people.

Yet people of color are on the front lines leading the way in climate solutions. “We’re going to fund our own movements,” said Dosunmu. He points out that the United States is in an important moment where the Biden administration has committed historic amounts of resources to climate justice through programs like the Justice40 Initiative and the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s new Environmental Justice office. The push for the current administration to embrace environmental justice initiatives like these exemplifies how necessary it is to fund groups that drive climate solutions into action.

“It’s time to land on the right side of history. We know the climate crisis will only continue to grow, and the people who have already been living its impacts have developed tools and innovation out of necessity,” says Carmen Llanes, executive director of Go! Austin/Vamos! Austin.

How the Pledge Supports Climate and Racial Justice

“It’s time to land on the right side of history. We know the climate crisis will only continue to grow, and the people who have already been living its impacts have developed tools and innovation out of necessity,” says Carmen Llanes, executive director of Go! Austin/Vamos! Austin (GAVA), a coalition of people breaking down barriers to healthy living while strengthening neighborhood stability in Austin’s Eastern Crescent area. Llanes has been working in the neighborhoods of Austin for over a decade and says that the people on the ground and the communities that they serve are the “true tactical leaders” of their work.

The Kresge Foundation, which started funding GAVA through DOCN, was the first funder to support its efforts in both climate resilience and anti-displacement. GAVA was addressing issues of flooding and much-needed improvements to infrastructure and disaster response when Kresge got on board. “Today, we have two full-time organizers and a project manager dedicated to our climate work. We’ve engaged over 100 community climate navigators from the neighborhoods and schools who teach their communities how to anticipate, prepare for, and respond to climate shocks and stressors including heat and winter storm events,” says Llanes.

GAVA’s work is an example of how impactful changes can be propelled by funding activists and organizations of color through the Climate Funders Justice Pledge. When DOCN was able to increase its funding pool to $120 million, they directly supported life-saving initiatives, and GAVA was able to push its city departments to prioritize critical infrastructure improvements in their neighborhoods. City departments had to adapt their scoring systems to take into account health and income equity factors in the neighborhoods most impacted by flooding.

Llanes notes the amplifying power of these investments: “Kresge’s explicit support of our anti-displacement lens—which is also a racial and economic justice lens—has given us strength to be louder about these priorities and attract more funders who are either coming around or forming anew to prioritize environmental and climate justice with these aligned values.”

The Way Forward

The pledge will continue its work by following up with foundations and closely tracking where foundations are putting their dollars. “It’s the longitudinal aspect of the research that keeps people on their toes,” says Mark Magaña, founding president and CEO of GreenLatinos, a DC-based environmental justice organization, in an article for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Some foundations, such as Kresge, Schmidt Family Foundation, and Pisces, have already surpassed the pledge’s 30 percent grant goal.

“It makes sense to invest in these communities and their leadership, fighting the staggering inequality that has deepened over the last decade,” says Llanes, urging anyone who is still on the fence about joining the Climate Funders Justice Pledge to secure their commitment.

“From a stance of pure practicality,” Llanes continues, “the people who have already had to grapple with climate shocks and stressors are best positioned to lead the way to our collective resilience in each US city and region.”