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The Bezos Earth Fund Needs to Stop Shortchanging Environmental-Justice Nonprofits

by Peggy Shepard

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos built his empire on the shrewd use of data and a knack for seizing the moment. We hope he and the newly appointed president of his Earth Fund, Andrew Steer, adhere to that strategy when considering how to invest the balance of the foundation’s $10 billion to tackle the climate crisis.

Steer has promised to “emphasize social justice,” noting that “climate change disproportionately hurts poor and marginalized communities.” Such thinking, however, did not seem to guide the Earth Fund when it announced its first round of grantees last November. The fund offered generous support for many well-resourced environmental organizations working on climate-change policy but shortchanged environmental-justice groups focused on the low-income communities hit first and worst by the climate crisis.

Today, these communities face extraordinary threats. Their predominantly Black and brown residents often live next door to the worst polluters — diesel-spewing bus depots, urban highways, industrial facilities, and coal-fired power plants.

People of color, especially those in low-income communities, have a higher risk of premature death from particle pollution than white people, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Their disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards contributes to glaring health disparities, including a greater incidence of asthma and, most recently, higher death rates from Covid-19. These communities also typically face elevated risks from climate-change disasters such as floods and deadly heat waves.

Hundreds of organizations, operating on shoestring budgets with underpaid staffs, are working to equitably mitigate and adapt to climate change in the most neglected areas of the country. They engage with and reflect the voices and perspectives of community residents, ensuring that those most affected are included in decision making.

Yet they struggle to receive philanthropic support. Just 1 percent of the $2.5 billion granted annually by philanthropy to environmental groups trickles down to these community-based nonprofits, according to Building Equity and Alignment for Impact. And that sliver of funding is usually doled out in $25,000 to $50,000 project grants — not enough to cover a salary and benefits for one staffer, let alone the range of operating expenses required of any healthy nonprofit, including administrative support, evaluation, communications, and development.

Jeff Bezos’s Earth Fund is continuing this trend. The majority of the fund’s initial $791 million in grants was awarded to mainstream environmental organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, and World Resources Institute, which each got $100 million.

This is hardly the type of winning investment strategy we’ve come to expect from Bezos. Helping those most affected by pollution and climate change isn’t only the right thing to do — it’s the surest way to win on climate. The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy explains it this way: “By acknowledging the coming demographic shift in the United States and investing in lower-income and other underserved communities, environment and climate funders can increase their impact and build a movement that is more aligned with the future of our country.”

How Bezos Can Lead the Way

It’s time to realign environmental philanthropy so that the perspectives and expertise of the most affected are heard, respected, and valued. The Bezos Earth Fund could lead the way.

The challenge, philanthropists say, is in assessing the effectiveness of so many small environmental-justice organizations and determining where to put their money. So foundations such as the Earth Fund take a shortcut by funding organizations that distribute the money to small nonprofits. In fact, of the 1 percent in overall grant dollars given to environmental-justice groups, more than a third goes first to big groups to support small nonprofits. As a result, this already thin slice of resources is divided even further, leaving these organizations with barely enough to survive, let alone thrive.

But there is a better option. The Earth Fund could copy the funding strategy that helped the nation’s largest environmental groups grow. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Ford Foundation provided some $5 million a year (the equivalent of $34 million today) in long-term funding to help three major organizations get off the ground and professionalize: The Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. In addition to money, Ford offered expertise and guidance that transformed key environmental groups from grassroots, volunteer efforts to large, stable organizations with professional staffs and sizable budgets. That strategy helped expand the U.S. environmental movement.

The Earth Fund could take a similar approach but on an even larger scale. It should start by identifying environmental-justice groups that foundations and donors could support directly. This isn’t rocket science.

Organizations such as the Environmental Grantmakers Association, community foundations, and state environmental agencies have already identified these nonprofits and often have long-standing relationships with them. Networks such as the National Black Environmental Justice Network work with these groups to strengthen their management and know who needs help. Media coverage is also a good place to spot up-and-coming climate-action nonprofits since local news outlets regularly feature their inspiring work.

They include groups such as the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, which successfully lobbied for the closure of two coal-fired power plants in Chicago, and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network in Oakland, Calif., which is working to protect residents from the proliferation of oil refineries. And they include organizations like mine — WE ACT for Environmental Justice, based in Harlem. Following Hurricane Sandy, we worked with residents to develop a Northern Manhattan Climate Action Plan, which is bringing more solar energy to affordable housing units and helping to lead a statewide campaign to reduce fossil fuels by electrifying transportation and other infrastructure.

Decades of Victories

During the past 30 years, environmental-justice advocates have won passage of important climate legislation in 35 of 50 states, according to the American Bar Association. They have launched environmental-justice programs at universities, published dozens of books and case studies, and created environmental-justice advisory groups in city, state, and federal government agencies. Yet the environmental-justice nonprofits themselves have received minimal philanthropic support for their successful advocacy in the face of powerful interests.

Today we are at an inflection point. During this moment of racial reckoning, the Biden administration and many congressional leaders have committed to making environmental justice a central component of policies and programs. They recognize the imperative to rally people of color to address the climate crisis and ensure the representation and support of those most affected.

Jeff Bezos knows how to read the data and size up an opportunity. And the data are clear: To fight the climate crisis, we must invest in the environmental-justice groups that have been underfunded or ignored for too long. The Earth Fund and other philanthropic organizations should seize this moment to build a diverse, equitable, and powerful movement for climate and environmental justice.

Peggy Shepard is co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice.

This article was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. It was originally published March 23, 2021 on The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project (URP) is committed to a greener, fairer future.

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