David Hoppe

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:: Investing in the environment

Can money buy enough time?

By David Hoppe

A recent report on environmental grantmaking is bound to have anyone who's ever written a check in support of an earth-saving cause tearing their hair.

“Cultivating the Grassroots: A Winning Approach for Environment and Climate Funders,” is, in spite of its upbeat title, an indictment of green philanthropy. Written by Sarah Hansen for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, the report argues that the environmental movement is not keeping up with the current pace of social change. “At a time when the peril to our planet and the imperative of change should drive unyielding forward momentum, it often seems as if the environmental cause has been pushed back to the starting line,” writes Hansen, noting that that the movement has failed to score any significant Federal policy changes in the United States since the 1980s.

Hansen asserts that this lack of impact has been due to environmental funders' predilection for a top-down approach. “In 2009, environmental organizations with budgets of more than $5 million received half of all contributions and grants made in the sector,” writes Hansen. “In short, environmental funders are expending tremendous resources, yet spending far too little on high-impact, cost-effective grassroots organizing.”

Hansen's solution is for environmental funders to increase funding for “grassroots communities that are directly impacted by environmental harms and have the passion and perseverance to mobilize and demand change.”

History, she says, supports this strategy, and she cites the women's suffrage and civil rights movements. She notes that on February 1, 1960, there were only four African-American students who chose to sit at the “Whites Only” lunch counter of a Woolworth's in Greensboro, North Carolina. “Although those may not appear to be impressive metrics, consider the scale and scope of the movement they helped launch.”

Hansen offers four ideas to correct this top-down bias and “create broad public demand for change.”

She notes that by 2042, a majority of Americans will be people of color; half of all U.S. children today are black, Latino or Asian American. She calls on environmental funders to dedicate 20 to 50 percent of their total giving to these communities.

Hansen thinks a quarter of environmental grants should go “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.”

Hansen also suggests that funders support the creation of a supportive intellectual infrastructure to share strategies, develop leadership and communicate their message.

Finally, Hansen urges funders to take the long view and embrace “the slow, patient process of movement building.”

It is tempting to look away from Hansen's report and say, “So that's why things keep getting worse, instead of better!” Those top-down elitists, with their Patagonia Nano Puff hoodies and their North Face Triclimate jackets are the ones behind our belching smokestacks and fertilizer-engorged water tables. If only they'd learn to reach out to a different crowd, everybody would benefit.

There is some truth in this. Our society is expansive and diverse and, given the magnitude of our environmental problems, the more kinds of people mobilized to effect change, the better.

It is also true that funding institutions are, by their nature, inclined to talk and, yes, give their money to people that look and act like they do. This undoubtedly limits the scope and effectiveness of how monies are used.

But it might also be instructive to take a moment to consider the funding story of a parallel universe — the arts.

The arts and the environmental movement actually have a lot in common. Both have spiritual dimensions and carry hefty cultural freight. They stand for values that transcend market assessments. How we, as a society, treat the arts and the environment says a lot about our priorities, how we relate to time and tradition, and what passes for our collective wisdom.

Twenty or so years ago, the arts were getting hit. The Federal government was cutting funding and, worse, the field was beset by concern about aging and elitist audiences.

Since then, arts institutions and funders have undertaken countless initiatives aimed at reaching underserved audiences, broadening constituencies and building grassroots support. In some cases this has meant reimagining missions and challenging the purpose of art itself.

These tactics have certainly sharpened many individual arts initiatives. Nevertheless, the arts' larger struggle for public relevance continues, with no end in sight.

Concern about the arts' institutional future, of course, lacks the urgency of calculating the likelihood of contracting an environmentally borne disease like lung cancer in a neighborhood down wind from a coal-burning power plant. This is why supporting grassroots efforts like those called for in Sarah Hansen's report make immediate sense.

But what we see in both arts and environmental stories is that a larger crisis is upon us. This crisis is cultural. It has to do with what we consider important and whether we're willing to model our behavior to fit the size of the challenges bearing down on us. While grassroots organizing is necessary and, in specific places, effective, how much time must “the slow, patient process of movement building” take?

What will be standing when it's done?