Nonprofit funding has largely followed a model that is exclusionary, reactive, and elite. But the worsening climate crisis won't be solved if those at the top of the pyramid decide what programs will transform our environment, -and the people that live in them.
In the past two years, the link between environmentalism and social justice has been quickly gaining steam. Environmental organizations are evolving: both at a pace driven by their constituents as well as staff and external pressure. It's clear that it's not just business as usual that needs to change but also the environmental nonprofit sector and philanthropy as a whole; like many industries it is inadequately built to support a rapidly deteriorating climate.
Networks of people around the country have been mobilizing around emerging disasters that COVID has only intensified. The California wildfires, the heatwaves in the Pacific Northwest, and countless others have acutely brought climate change's impact- and its undeniable connection to every aspect of our lives -to reality.
But this crisis isn't affecting everyone equally.
Here in Chicago there's injustices like a MAT Asphalt plant that was just fined after hundreds of complaints and a scrap metal yard proposal on the Southeast Side that has found lead, metals, and particulate matter pollution already in the air from existing industry. These injustices complement each other, and we know those most affected by environmental pollution are people of color and those with the least resources and power in their communities.
The upside is that according to Pew around half of young people are engaging in online activism as of last summer. Often this digital activism translates into an Informal Digital Economy of activism. That is- the mutual aid Facebook and Instagram networks, the Venmo rapid response cries, and the Disaster GoFundMe. Technology has allowed people to respond to pressing community challenges in minutes. COVID and climate change has tested communities' resilience and folks have stepped up to support each other's livelihoods.
But our Formal Activism Economy- the foundations and philanthropic sector as well as the legal nonprofit entities that they support -have not been able to move with such haste. Strict granting guidelines, often at the hands of the wealthy, continue to replicate systems of injustice while small nonprofits at the frontlines of climate change are unable to access these funds.
The dilemma also mirrors history. In the 1920's giving in the United States grew as a result of increasing wealth in society and industrial magnates began to share fractions of their profits. One hundred years later we see history repeating itself as growing income inequality mirrors growing philanthropic gifts. As Jeff Bezos' Earth Fund nears their first Billion in gifts out of 10 Billion pledged, many other Billionaires are giving to their own family foundations and causes they care about. The issue here is that the wealthiest members of society rarely know where money is needed the most.
The professionalization of the philanthropic sector, especially over the past fifty years has led to an insiders club filled with private family foundations and invite-only grants. Doing good has become an exclusive club. In many ways the inaccessibility of the sector is self-defeating. While local networks of people most affected by COVID and Climate Change support each other, philanthropy continues to hold the reins and often prevents the work most needed from happening. Some good news came in September from the McArthur Foundation, as it divests from fossil fuels and reinvests in climate solutions that are community led -but on the whole the sector remains entrenched in an outdated culture of giving. So what to do?
As young people shift to donating funds through decentralized networks and the digital economy, including digital assets like cryptocurrencies, the philanthropy sector can learn a few things about the pressing need for reform.
"It's self defeat because when you're trying to change the world, you don't restrict access to funding groups that can't meet your metrics. Especially metrics established by the exact people most profiting from our world as it exists today.
For established large nonprofits this means committing to take a risk for environmental justice. It means owning their power as 'big greens' and working with both funders to redirect money to groups that need them the most. Then and to start thinking about their own role in uplifting environmental justice issues, commitments to allocating resources to frontline communities, and beginning to live out their values and their mission statements to create a world we can all live in.