NEW YORK -- A group of financial donors committed to racial equity plans to announce Tuesday that it has secured at least $100 million annually to benefit minority groups that are disproportionately harmed by extreme weather events.
The group, the Donors of Color Network, will also announce that 10 of the nation's top 40 donors to environment causes have now signed on to at least a portion of a pledge the network established last year. The Climate Funders Justice Pledge commits the donors to make their climate-related grants transparent and to direct at least 30% of their donations to groups that have Black, Indigenous or other people of color as their leaders.
“That’s a great start,” said Isabelle Leighton, the network’s interim executive director. “But there’s still a lot of work to do.”
Twelve national environmental grant makers awarded $1.34 billion to organizations in the Gulf and Midwest regions in 2016 and 2017, according to a 2020 study by The New School’s Tishman Environment and Design Center. But only about 1% of it — roughly $18 million — was awarded to groups that are dedicated to environmental justice.
In its 2020 “State of the Air” report, the American Lung Association found that people of color were 1.5 times more likely to live in an area with poor air quality than white people were.
For this reason, environmental justice groups have pursued solutions with racial equity in mind. If minority communities receive help in achieving long-term solutions to perennial problems like flooding or erosion, for example, the projects can benefit both the environment and the community.
Leighton said donors have sometimes avoided explaining they are underfunding minority groups that are disproportionately hurt by extreme weather.
"We’ve had funders who just really spend a lot of time PR-wise, talking about their commitment to racial equity and racial justice, yet they haven’t been responsive to us at all,” she said.
Mark Magaña, founding president and CEO of the environmental nonprofit GreenLatinos, says the Climate Funders Justice Pledge should be seen as the equivalent of the National Football League’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview candidates from underrepresented demographic groups for all top jobs. By encouraging donors to seek out minority-led environmental groups for their grants, Magaña said, they will naturally find more programs that they want to fund.
“Instead of surviving off of pennies on the dollar and still doing some amazing work, these groups really could thrive off of 30 cents off of the dollar,” he said. “Imagine what they could do, how effective they could be if we were spending hundreds of millions of dollars instead of just playing defense the prior four years. We really could move the ball forward and build a base that is stronger by making the distribution of funds and resources more equitable.”
ClimateWorks Foundation, Heising-Simons Foundation and Energy Foundation all commited to the transparency portion of the pledge on Tuesday.
Lois DeBacker, managing director of The Kresge Foundation’s Environment Program, says the responses often depend on the donors’ strategies.
“There’s been a long history in environmental philanthropy of thinking of climate change as largely a technical problem with technical solutions,” DeBacker said. “As a sector, we’ve underestimated that it’s a social issue as well, that we need to be thinking about political will, that we also need to be thinking more about how to center people in our grantmaking around climate change.”
The Kresge Foundation, among the first donors to sign the Climate Founders Justice Pledge, has already reached the 30% threshold in its giving to minority-led groups.
“We were already on a trend to be doing it,” DeBacker said, adding that Kresge plans to further increase that percentage. “The pledge is on our mind every day as we are making decisions about recommending grants.”
DeBacker and Magaña say they think the new $100 million baseline that the Donors of Color Network has established will help persuade other donors to consider the growing support for environmental justice.
Magaña said major donors should recognize that climate change has already reached many minority communities and that action needs to be taken immediately.
“We’re the most affected by climate change,” he said. “It’s already where we live — Texas, California, Florida, New York, New Jersey. Our workers in agribusiness are so affected by climate change, so affected by extreme heat that it’s costing them their lives, at times, and definitely their health. As we saw during the pandemic, the service industry is extremely affected by weather-related incidents. We are on the frontlines.”
But Magaña said the main reason why funding to minority-led environmental groups should increase is that many are succeeding in their communities.
“The real reason funders should care is because we have the answers, and we have the grassroots power,” he said.
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