Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) leaders of environmental and climate nonprofits experienced a surge in support from US foundations in response to COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd. But that tide of funding may already be receding, according to a report released last spring from the InDEEP initiative.

The Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity in Environmental Philanthropy (InDEEP) initiative interviewed 14 BIPOC nonprofit leaders for the report (Conservation, Environment, and Race: Implications for Funders). The scope of the work of the leaders we surveyed was broad and included people working in the fields of climate justice, food justice, energy advocacy, clean water, conservation, and biodiversity. The scale of the groups surveyed ranged from local organizations to national ones. Additionally, we incorporated data from InDEEP’s fall 2020 virtual learning series for funders.

The report aims to help funders engage more with BIPOC leaders, center BIPOC leaders and communities, challenge funders to advance racial equity, encourage funder engagement with BIPOC communities, build an equitable funding culture, and improve collaboration with BIPOC leaders and communities. InDEEP team members wrote the report in partnership with the Institute for Strategic and Equitable Development and the William and Flora Hewlett, David and Lucile Packard, and Doris Duke Charitable Foundations.

Many interviewees expressed concern that conservation and environmental funders could not recognize the connection between current crises—the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on BIPOC communities and the murders of Black people by police—and the endemic crises faced by Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities.

BIPOC leaders also worried that current levels of funding would drop significantly and that funding for projects focused on racial equity might disappear completely. A particular concern was a potential return to pre-COVID grantmaking practices, many of which were prohibitive to BIPOC-led groups receiving funding.

“Everybody got caught up in the sensationalism of Black Lives Matter this summer with George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the police. And all of a sudden, Black lives were put at the forefront,” said one BIPOC nonprofit leader.

“But as soon as they got tired, they started to digress, and now we’re back to the same old thing.… It’s going to perpetuate the same nonprofit industrial complex where 80 percent of funding goes to white organizations and 20 percent is given out to BIPOC leaders.”

These fears are hardly unfounded. BIPOC leaders have been discovered—and then forgotten—by philanthropy before. As Will Cordery wrote in NPQ, after the death of Michael Brown in 2014 at the hands of Darren Wilson of the Ferguson, Missouri police, a similar rush to fund BIPOC leaders occurred. But as Cordery reminds us,

It did not …take long for philanthropy to begin to shift its priority from funding Black-led movement to funding specific interventions it thought were best for Black communities. This distinction may seem minor, but it has proven to be critical in how resources would flow to Black-led organizing work and who determined what was ultimately the best approach. Less than three years after Mike Brown passed, the philanthropic commitment for Black-led movement work had largely unraveled.


BIPOC Communities and the Climate Emergency

One area that the interviews surfaced was funders’ difficulty applying an intersectional lens to conservation and environmental work concerning BIPOC communities. An intersectional lens marks an ability to draw connections between needs connected to personal identity and societal needs (e.g., a majority-Black community concerned about the school-to-prison pipeline and climate justice).

Climate justice is not a standalone issue; it has many layers and often affects majority-BIPOC communities far more harshly than predominantly white ones, due to a long history of environmental racism. Especially with the long, racist history of redlining in the US, Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities suffer the most.

Meanwhile, philanthropic work in the environmental sector can often be relegated to silos, obscuring the ways that people show up in the world—complex and as a sum of multiple identities. In the broader field, funders often see issues in black and white—emphasis on the white—and impose their own solutions on what they perceive to be the most important problem to address.

“Funders are not seeing the relationship between the work that we do [in connection to the field],” said one of the interview subjects. “I think part of combating anti-racism in the food system or in everyday [climate and environmental] issues is being able to see the interconnectedness of anti-Black racism, police brutality, and food access.”

“Funders like to think that they listen to us, but I really think that they have already decided what they want us to do,” another of the report’s interviewees said. “And we try to make our work fit [their priorities]. It would be nice if they just acknowledge they have a lot more power, influence, and control.”

This funder mindset is a barrier to addressing the climate crisis with the speed that is required. BIPOC leaders need funders to think outside the institutional box and engage in cross-movement, intersectional work if they want to solve big, thorny environmental justice issues in ways that are holistic and responsive to the lived experiences of Black and Brown people.


Working Together Yields Better Results

BIPOC leaders recommend that funders talk with BIPOC-led organizations to find out community needs, build trust, and make room for more meaningful collaboration.

“[The relationship between funders and grantees] shouldn’t be just about them giving us money,” one BIPOC leader said. “It should be more about, ‘how can I help you sustain yourself outside of this foundation funding?’ [And saying] ‘here’s some additional funds so that you can spin up a fundraising program.’”

These conversations also increase the likelihood of achieving environmental justice by expanding both the perspectives involved and overall support of the movement. That includes switching from looking at funding from a lens of scarcity and deficits to one of abundance and assets.

Interviewees were also asked to suggest actions funders can take to achieve these goals over the next five years. Key ideas that arose include:

  • Cultivate relationships and networks (including shared power, accountability, trust, and [dismantling white normative] perceptions of leadership).
  • Implement nontraditional funding policies, including collaborative funding opportunities.
  • Simplify reporting processes.
  • Support community-led needs assessments to identify community priorities.
  • Provide rapid response investments to enable nimble community responses to immediate needs.
  • Make funding commitments that involve multiyear general operating support.
  • Be transparent and accountable, including by engaging in sustained outreach and development of BIPOC leaders and BIPOC-led organizations.
  • Work with legislators and decision-makers by advocating for BIPOC-led movement work.
  • Invest in the development of BIPOC leaders and BIPOC-led groups’ capacity.
  • Foster donor affinity groups to accelerate learning and transformation.
  • Develop external grantmaking processes with community advisory boards.

Some good news: the current political climate in the US creates new openings. The Biden-Harris administration acknowledged the need for more diverse voices and a more holistic approach to environmental issues when it announced the members of the newly formed Environmental Justice Advisory Council in March.

The council, which includes volunteers from across the United States, will provide recommendations to the administration on a wide range of connected subjects, such as fighting environmental racism, reducing pollution, and creating jobs. The administration also made an historic hire of Michael Regan, the first Black director in the US Environmental Protection Agency’s 51-year history.

“We know that we cannot achieve health justice, economic justice, racial justice, or educational justice without environmental justice. That is why President Biden and I are committed to addressing environmental injustice,” Vice President Kamala Harris stated in a press release.

Despite the move toward diversifying the federal government’s approach to environmental issues, funders must remember that while some of the recent challenges faced by BIPOC leaders and communities may have eased, the resource need has hardly diminished.

“There are plenty of ongoing crisis situations in BIPOC communities that need attention all the time,” a BIPOC interviewee said. “So some of these protocols about flexible funding that were special for COVID should be considered for [BIPOC] communities as the norm in the future because the emergency didn’t start this year and it’s not going to stop [after] this.”

If funders want to make a difference in the communities that are most impacted by the effects of climate change, they must listen to community leaders and let them lead.

“[I need funders to recognize] that there’s a whole relational component that is critical to making those funds be manifested in ways that are really mutually beneficial,” one BIPOC leader said.

Another chimed in: “Just start having conversations about what folks need and what they don’t need. I’m sure if a donor had a conversation with a BIPOC leader about what the needs were, they might say, ‘Oh, well, we didn’t realize that you just need, you know, extra access to vehicles, we can do that.’ I think there’s just this idea that the only way to support is to give money.”


A Path Forward

Fortunately, environmental philanthropy is growing more aware of the need to fund BIPOC-led organizations in the climate justice space. Fourteen US foundations have signed on to the Donors of Color Network’s Climate Funders Justice Pledge, promising transparency in their grant reporting and committing to “direct at least 30 percent of all climate giving to organizations run by, serving, and building power for communities of color” within two years. Two other organizations pledged to transparency only.

Seventeen foundations have also signed up for InDEEP’s latest offering, the Closing the Gap initiative, which aims to narrow the funding and resource gap between BIPOC-led and white-led organizations focused on fighting climate change. Attendees from each participating organization will engage in a six-month learning journey to gain a greater understanding of how climate and environmental grantmaking practices can be more inclusive.

The NGO Green 2.0 also offers a glimpse of accountability around staff and leadership diversity for the 40 largest nonprofits and foundations in the US with its annual Transparency Report Card. In 2020, Green 2.0 said several foundations outside of the top 40 volunteered their information so they could also be scored, with a total number of 13 foundations participating. Green 2.0 does this by gathering data submitted by the organizations to Guidestar by Candid.

Other individual foundations have made their own commitments and created programs designed to increase funding to BIPOC-led groups. The type of collective action seen in the Climate Funders Justice Pledge and the Closing the Gap initiative will hopefully lead to lasting equitable funding practices throughout the sector.

“You know, trying to foster a mentality of abundance, sharing, and of collaboration is going to be some big work for foundations,” said one person interviewed for the report. “The funders who have all the money and all the power, ultimately, have to say [they] want to foster collaboration. [They must] want to foster teamwork between organizations that have an affinity for each other as opposed to, you know, ‘y’all duke it out, and we’ll pick the best organization.’”

In the end, environmental philanthropy’s work is not just about climate justice. Leading with a people-first mindset instead of prioritizing policies allows funders to flip from an issues-based perspective to a values-based one.

“This is not about one particular issue,” Color of Change CEO Rashad Robinson told attendees of a two-day convening hosted by The Presidents’ Forum on Racial Equity in Philanthropy in late 2020. “People don’t experience issues, they experience life, and the forces that hold folks back are deeply interrelated.”