For Surdna, Infrastructure is Where Justice and Sustainability Cross Paths

Infrastructure. It's not exactly the first word that comes to mind when you think of environmental grantmaking. But as the Surdna Foundation sees it, future metropolitan infrastructure decisions go beyond which bridges and roads to fix; they determine how equitable and sustainable a city is for generations.

Surdna is a medium-sized, national foundation with assets of just over a billion and annual giving of $46 million in 2014, derived from the wealth of the Andrus family (Surdna, get it?). 

Helen Chin, Surdna’s Sustainable Environments program director, recently shed some light on the foundation’s green giving in an interview with Inside Philanthropy, including the thinking behind this unique approach to sustainability. 

“The reality is that there have been many systems or infrastructure decisions that have been put in place that adversely impact communities and actually create barriers for opportunities for some communities,” Chin said, citing highways built mid-century that isolated or divided neighborhoods, for example. “They actually create disparities.” 

Those decisions also impact environmental sustainability, built and natural, for decades to come. That intersection of justice and sustainability is where Chin’s program has put a stake in the ground.

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The program has four main elements—transportation and development, energy, water, and food—all focused on infrastructure in cities, particularly large cities (a bang-for-the-buck decision). 

Surdna arrived at this current incarnation of the program when it made a foundation-wide refinement in late 2012. As a program officer, Chin was key in the development of the new environment program, and took the helm in 2013. Prior to Surdna, she worked for West Harlem Environmental Action, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and other environmental nonprofits. She holds a master's in urban environmental policy.

Surdna, similar to larger kindred spirits Kresge and Rockefeller, is a decidedly urban funder, with an underlying drive to improve conditions for low-income people. Its three programs address sustainability, culture, and local economies—and often some combination of the three.

“Much of our grantmaking is really trying to work at the intersection of weaving these things together as we think about how to make just and sustainable communities,” Chin said.  

Why Infrastructure?

During the refinement, the infrastructure focus emerged as a natural way for the environment program to make an impact on both equity and sustainability. The systems that provide transportation and food, for example, determine whether communities have access and control of resources, and impact the long-term environmental footprint.  

“What we’ve been trying to think through and apply our grantmaking toward is… how we can democratize the process by which infrastructure decisions are being made.”

Decisions such as where highways are built, or who gets a transit station can affect outcomes 50 or even 100 years down the road, but they aren’t driven enough by citizens, especially those in lower-income communities and communities of color.

“The end users or the ones that something is happening to usually are not the people that are helping to define and to shape an agenda,” Chin said. There may be a superficial town hall meeting, but underrepresented communities have little actual public influence. “The role that philanthropy could be playing is carving out a space by which there is authentic engagement.”

Surdna is pushing more creative infrastructure decisions, too, including a more distributed energy utility system and creative uses for stormwater that can revitalize blighted areas while reducing environmental impact. For example, Surdna helped a San Francisco neighborhood that ends up with much of the city’s wastewater to capture it and convert land into open space.

A newer component of the program involves making sure more food is coming from local and regional sources. Funded projects include support for farmer’s markets and getting schools to purchase more food from local sources. 

Where funding goes

Surdna is a national funder, but most of the innovation they support is happening at local and state levels. Chin said this has really always been the case with creative approaches to sustainability, but the effect is now heightened by lack of federal funding. 

“States and cities are now realizing that they have to take the lead, but the challenge for them now is that those dollars to fund innovation and move opportunities are almost nonexistent.”

Chin said around 95 percent of grants happen through their existing relationships, especially in areas like energy and transit, where Surdna has been working for many years. New grantees tend to be related to their stormwater and local food systems work, two of the newer initiatives. 

Surdna also has some refreshing approaches to grantmaking that set it apart, especially for a foundation of its size. 

For one, it doesn't give to many of the usual large environmental groups. NRDC is on the list, but mostly, its grantees are community, local, or state organizations. “The decision to fund groups that don’t look like your historical, traditional environmental organization is that they are usually siloed and working on some discrete activity or entity.”

Similarly, Surdna almost always funds coalitions. One group can never win on their issues, so the foundation typically wants to back a diverse coalition of individual players that can offer either technical expertise, ability to organize the base, or work directly with cities.

Chin’s program also gives almost half of its funding toward general support. This is because many of their grantees either have longstanding relationships with the program, or are just starting up and need flexible funds.  

Flexibility is another trait Surdna prides itself on, and one that philanthropy is not generally known for. Following Hurricane Katrina, the foundation set up a flexible pot of funds for quick access by all three programs. The fund is meant for breaking events, such as disasters or movements like Black Lives Matter.

Maybe the most refreshing thing about both the foundation and Chin is that neither pulls any punches, especially when talking about inequality. Hints of outrage come through her encyclopedic descriptions of the foundation's program. In a Q&A from an upcoming annual report, she describes being on the front lines of protests by age 10. It's clear that she sees a fostering a healthy environment and tipping the scales of power as one and the same thing. 

The word "infrastructure" may evoke town hall meetings and bids from contractors, but Helen Chin's and Surdna's take on it is anything but stodgy.