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Why the Environmental Movement Is Not Winning

A new report places the blame on misguided strategies of environmental funders.
 
 
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A searing new report says the environmental movement is not winning and lays the blame squarely on the failed policies of environmental funders. The movement hasn't won any "significant policy changes at the federal level in the United States since the 1980s" because funders have favored top-down elite strategies and have neglected to support a robust grassroots infrastructure. Environmental funders spent a whopping $10 billion between 2000 and 2009 but achieved relatively little because they failed to underwrite grassroots groups that are essential for any large-scale change, the report says. Released in late February by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, Cultivating the Grassroots was written by Sarah Hansen, who served as executive director of the Environmental Grantmakers Association from 1998 to 2005.

Environmental funders mainly support large, professionalized environmental organizations instead of the scrappy community-based groups that are most heavily impacted by environmental harms. Organizations with annual budgets greater than $5 million make up only 2 percent of all environmental groups, yet receive more than half of all environmental grants and donations.

The report makes the simple but profound argument that the current environmental funding strategy is not working and that, without targeting philanthropy at communities most impacted by environmental harms, the movement will continue to fail. "Our funding strategy is misaligned with the great perils our planet and environment face," Hansen writes.

"Environmental activists and funders all share a gnawing sense that something has to change. No sensible environmental activist would argue that we, as a field, have done what is needed to respond to environmental degradation," Hansen said in an interview.

Instead of funding community-based groups to generate ideas, strategies and political support for transformative change, environmental donors have thrown their weight behind narrow lobbying campaigns in Washington, D.C. -- for example, the failed inside-the-beltway campaign in 2009-2010 to pass "cap and trade" legislation to curb global warming. For their part, mainstream environmental groups hang pleas for environmental change on the apolitical hook of rational appeals, expecting that decision-makers confronted with powerful evidence will do the right thing. But this strategy has not worked because "a vocal, organized, sustained grassroots base is vital to achieving sustained change," the report asserts.

How Does Change Happen?

"In movements throughout history, the core of leadership came from a nucleus of directly impacted or oppressed communities while also engaging a much broader range of justice-seeking supporters." In other words, successful movements for social change -- anti-slavery, women's suffrage, labor rights, and civil rights -- have always been inspired, energized, and led by those most directly affected. Yet these are the very groups within the environmental movement that are starved for funds.

Analysis of environmental grantmaking, 2007-2009, reveals that only 15 percent of environmental grant dollars are classified as benefiting marginalized communities, and only 11 percent are classified as advancing "social justice" strategies, such as community organizing. The report makes a distinction between internet activism or getting your neighbor to sign a petition, and real community organizing. "Community organizing builds power by helping people understand the source of their social or political problems, connect with others facing the same challenges and, together, take action to win concrete change." Community organizing is messy and takes time.

The report also distinguishes between "national organizations that might parachute into local communities for one-time policy campaigns versus authentic, local organizations that not only work on those same short- term campaigns but, just as importantly, build long-term leadership and capacity in the community to amplify change in the future."

The report points out that the U.S. is growing racially and ethnically more diverse each year and by 2042 will be majority people of color. "New immigrants may come from countries with robust histories of social change movements that, combined with the increasing racial diversity of America's communities, provide an opportunity to diversify the ethnic composition of the environmental movement," the report says.

 
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