Fresh Takes on Green Philanthropy in 2014

Environmentalism. Snoozeville, right? I mean, I don’t personally think it’s boring. But you know what I mean. Some of the world's most important issues so often sit in the gutter of public opinion polls.

Environmental philanthropy all too often settles into the same old strategies and nonprofit organizations. There were, however, a handful of foundations and donors that rattled cages or had otherwise unique perspectives in 2014. 

Political polarization has put environmental philanthropy in a tough spot. Our editor, David Callahan, made a plea this year for funders to stop being so wishy-washy about their ideals, as did others. Furthermore, climate change has shattered the frames in which we normally examine environmentalism. But so many foundations continue to give to the same nonprofits for the same programs. There are often reasons for such recurring grants, but it can be so unimaginative.

So rather than talk about the biggest or most powerful environmental funders of 2014, we’re taking a moment to talk about the ones that broke out a bit. Either they took a risky stance, or they turned their backs on the same old stakeholders and organizations. Here are some of the green funders that caught our attention. Spoiler alert: It’s heavy on climate and energy. 

Kresge Foundation  

Kresge has always been an interesting environmental funder, in that it is decidedly urban-focused, with an emphasis on its home state of Michigan. But in 2014, it revamped its environment program to shore up dedication to climate resiliencewhich includes reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but also preparing for consequences of the new climate reality. That makes it one of the leading foundations involved in resilience

But the thing that really got our attention this year was an initiative that focuses entirely on low-income communities, granting $1.7 million across 16 community groups that mostly deal with issues like poverty, housing, and human services. It’s exciting to see environmentalism approached primarily as an issue of equity and basic quality of life, and turning to community groups to lead on the issue. And the program is just getting started. 

Rockefeller Foundation  

Rockefeller, the largest of the historic family’s philanthropies, has an approach that tracks closely with Kresge at times, and their names are often found on the same lists of sponsors. But Rockefeller has gone even bigger with the idea that cities must lead the way on climate change, with its 100 Resilient Cities program. 

With the exception of executive orders that Congress is trying desperately to kill, Washington is unlikely to produce any meaningful progress on environmental issues. So cities have to be the real leaders when it comes to climate solutions. We watched this year as Rockefeller rolled out its $100 million in giving directly to city governments to fund staff who will address climate resilience. So far, 68 cities have been chosen, from Athens to Singapore. 

Rockefeller Brothers Fund & Divest Invest

Aside from the fact that it’s not the largest of the family’s foundations, RBF turned heads in the fall by announcing it would abandon its fossil fuel investments. This was a major breakthrough for the divestment movement, both because of the size of RBF and the symbolism of an oil fortune turning its back on the oil and gas business. 

While larger environmental funders continue to drag their heels to protect their endowments, small- and medium-sized funders are joining the movement. Sixty-four philanthropic signatories have joined the coalition Divest Invest and pledged to move away from fossil fuel stocks. This sends a powerful message from foundations acknowledging that their influence goes well beyond the 5 percent or whatever amount they give in grants annually.  

Park Foundation 

Many communities sitting atop underground shale gas formations have allowed energy companies to proceed pretty much unchecked, regardless of environmental or health impacts. Related foundations have come across as either quite welcoming toward gas companies, or adopting a “let’s get everyone to the table” approach. Not the Park Foundation.  

This small family foundation based in upstate New York has always had a clean water program in the state, and it is going up against fracking head on. President Adelaide Gomer wants it flat-out banned. Considering its modest size, the foundation has given millions to anti-fracking campaigns in recent years. The name shows up like a boogeyman on blogs in favor of fracking. Lo and behold, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in December the state would ban fracking.

Regardless of how influential Park is, it was pretty remarkable to see a small, scrappy funder take a hard line, as opposed to larger counterparts that were plagued by mixed signals on the subject.

Sam Simon

On the animals and wildlife front, Sam Simon wins our award for most exciting funder, hands down. We’ve devoted quite a bit of coverage to The Simpsons co-creator, and his philanthropic rampage since his terminal cancer diagnosis. What’s most exciting about Simon’s giving? For one thing, he trusts his chosen champions completely and lets them do what they think is best. But he also wants to see fireworks when he gives money, even if it means he’s going to get sued. Simon used to give a lot to traditional environmental groups, but ultimately gave up on them in favor of animal rights sting operations, tired of seeing middling results over lengthy periods.  

Honorable Mention: Tom Steyer

The narrative that many political writers echoed regarding Tom Steyer in 2014 is that a liberal billionaire took on the Koch brothers over climate and lost. But this is a superficial analysis. First, three of the seven candidates Steyer backed won, in what was mostly a bloodbath for Democrats. Second, Steyer is one of a few big philanthropists to embrace the fact that climate change and the environment are no longer viewed as moderate, bipartisan issues. His NextGen group racked up a list of more than a quarter-million climate-focused voters and an email list of a million. Building a powerful political movement takes time, not a single election. Steyer’s 2014 operation may not have been pretty, and it may not have turned the tide, but at least it was living in the real world.