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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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And: "Unlike many of the professional advocates in Washington, D.C., people of color, immigrants, poor people and young people often are living face to face with the devastating impacts of environmental degradation. These growing communities have the self-interest to do something and, increasingly, the collective power to potentially make real change but may lack the support or resources to organize."

"In this context, it is arguable that any push for environmental change which fails to prioritize communities of color is a losing strategy," the report says. And, "Until the broader concerns... of all communities are on the radar of environmentalists, it will be hard for environmentalists to be on the radar of all communities."

In a stunning revelation, the report offers evidence that, compared to the average of all philanthropic donors, environmental funders avoid supporting disadvantaged people: "There is a seemingly contradictory correlation: analysis shows the greater a funder's commitment to the environment, the less likely it is to prioritize marginalized communities or advance social justice in its environmental grantmaking."

Advice for Environmental Funders

The report offers a four-point roadmap for "funding the grassroots to win:"

1. Fund work that benefits communities of the future

Environmental funders should earmark somewhere between 20 and 50 percent of their total giving to underserved communities. Nearly half of all children in the United States today are black, Latino or Asian American and by 2042, a majority of Americans will be people of color. This is a powerful new constituency ready to take action on environmental issues, the report says. "Prioritizing funding for lower-income communities of color is not only strategic given that these communities are becoming the majority and support environmental change, but also because change that targets the most impacted populations has a multiplier effect for society as a whole," Hansen writes.

2. Invest 25 percent of grant dollars in grassroots action

Speaking directly to environmental funders, the report says, "We recommend that you allocate at least 25 percent of your grant dollars for social justice purposes, specifically with a focus on grassroots advocacy, organizing and civic engagement led by the communities most affected by environmental ills and climate change."

"The way to build a broad movement around environment and climate solutions is to mobilize diverse communities of people around issues that are much closer to their self-interest (such as stopping toxic pollution, creating viable new jobs and reducing energy bills) and then work intentionally to connect those individuals and campaigns to a larger understanding of communal and global interests. Grassroots groups need resources to be able to engage effectively at all levels (local, state, national and international)."

3. Build supportive infrastructure

As the highly-successful right wing in the U.S. can tell you, social movements grow large and powerful only when they are served by a deep infrastructure of organizations offering technical assistance and know-how. Local groups need to be able to find each other, share strategies, develop leadership, communicate their message, identify allies, and gain a wide range of skills. Such an infrastructure requires sustained funding and without it no movement can succeed.

4. Take the long view, prepare for tipping points

"Supporting grassroots organizing may require a paradigm shift in a foundation's grantmaking strategy. Depending on how your philanthropy currently supports grassroots organizations or does not, this can mean shedding expectations of microscopic, quick deliverables and embracing the slow, patient process of movement building. Legal work to overturn Jim Crow laws began in the early 1930s with Thurgood Marshall representing the NAACP lawsuits in Maryland. Imagine if early funders of the Civil Rights Movement had tried to "evaluate the impact" of their grants in the ensuing 20 years - before the popular movement took hold. Movement building takes time.

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