Centering Climate Giving in Frontline Communities

Crystal Hayling and Angie Chen

It takes boldness to bring big change in philanthropy. Our colleagues at Donors of Color Network recently put that boldness into action by launching a national campaign calling on funders to commit to giving 30 percent of climate-related funding to BIPOC-led groups, and to speedily make their grantmaking more transparent. As their pledge states, this “is how we will win the existential battle for the planet that we are running out of time to save.” Our organization, the Libra Foundation, has signed on to this powerful pledge. We’re also going further and putting frontline communities at the heart of our environmental and climate justice program.

Beginning in 2017, we shifted the Foundation’s environmental grantmaking to focus on lifting up solutions determined by communities on the frontlines of environmental injustice and climate change. Our underlying philosophy is based on the assumption that the people closest to the problem are the ones best equipped to design the solutions. We prioritized multiyear, unrestricted grants to community-based organizations and networks led by women and people of color. We approached this evolution of our environmental and climate justice program in a spirit of open-minded inquiry and built relationships with grassroots organizations that are giving voice to the priorities of their communities.

This focus on grassroots and frontline organizations quickly shifted the balance of our funding. This is reflected in the numbers: by 2019, 78 percent of Libra’s U.S.-based grants to organizations that work on environmental and climate justice went to BIPOC-led groups. In 2020, when we doubled down on power-building grants to existing grantees, that share went up to 91 percent.

Supporting a Network of Community-Powered Organizations

On the local, regional, and national levels, Libra’s grantees are in deep partnership with one another, collaborating on campaigns addressing the greatest threats BIPOC communities face and lifting up community-powered solutions. Climate Justice Alliance, for example, houses the Our Power Campaign, which develops and advances economic solutions based on healthy work that serve communities, heal the planet, and preserve culture.

One of the first Our Power communities was launched in Richmond, California by Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) and Communities for a Better Environment (CBE). These organizations are working together to tackle the oil and gas industry’s cumulative health impact in the area, along with high rates of unemployment that disproportionately hurt low-income BIPOC communities in Richmond. These groups are stewarding brilliant grassroots initiatives — like standing up to big polluters and working towards alternatives to corporate energy — that are reimagining the city and bringing forth a Just Transition.

Similarly, the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ) is reducing health and economic disparities and improving access to clean air, water, and soil in marginalized rural communities. Catherine Flowers, CREEJ’s founder and the author of Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, sat on President Biden’s unity task force and brought her lived experience to the new administration’s climate policy agenda.

Beyond frontline-led organizations and alliances, Libra also prioritizes support for BIPOC-led regranting organizations like NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led organization dedicated to building Indigenous power. By giving through NDN, we are trusting Indigenous leaders to redistribute resources and make progress toward decolonizing philanthropy. Intermediaries also make it possible for foundations to support climate and environmental justice organizations by bridging the gap between foundation staff (often located in coastal cities) and community-led organizations around the country. The Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund, for example, builds power to stop climate change and foster an equitable energy future by investing in leadership and organizing through a multi-state model.

An Invitation and Challenge to Climate Funders

Donors of Color Network has illuminated what BIPOC-led groups have always known: if philanthropy wants to save our planet, then we need to fund those who are being disproportionately harmed. They cite a recent New School study, which finds that of the roughly $1 billion awarded by a dozen national environmental grantmakers, only 1.3 percent went to environmental justice organizations.

Let’s be honest: structural racism and bias within the philanthropic sector has long kept climate funding in the hands of a few white-led organizations. As Donors of Color points out, failing to fund frontline groups is not a formula for victory against the climate crisis.

Encouragingly, more foundations are heeding this call. Since the campaign launched, several prominent new foundations have joined the pledge and committed to its key step of transparency — revealing what proportion of their grants have gone to organizations “run by, serving, and building power in communities of color.” That kind of truth-telling can be tough, but these foundations know it is required as an initial step to galvanize deeper change.

“BIPOC communities are in a historic moment, and the core mission of the pledge is to re-organize and re-center the conversation of what a winning climate movement looks like with communities of color that are on the frontline,” said Ashindi Maxton, executive director of the Donors of Color Network. “We have already helped move millions of dollars to groups and programs that will play a central role in hitting our ambitious climate goals.”

Racial justice and fighting climate change are inextricably entwined. At the Libra Foundation, we have removed the silos in our own work and are bringing together strategies that cross portfolio lines and serve the needs of the communities we seek to reach.

Such an intersectional approach is achievable for all funders. We call on the biggest climate funders who have not yet made a decision on the pledge to step up, commit to transparency, and increase their investments in BIPOC communities. If that happens, we can look forward to seeing essential new dollars flowing to the groups most invested in building the political will to save our society and our planet.

That is our way to win.

Crystal Hayling is executive director of The Libra Foundation. Angie Chen is senior program officer and community engagement director of The Libra Foundation. Follow the Foundation on Twitter at @thelibrafound.

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