The Chorus Foundation Looks to Communities to Take the Lead on Climate

The Chorus Foundation has committed to a unique climate program that will divvy up its wealth mostly across four locations—in large part through eight-year general support grants to community and justice groups—and then close up shop after 2023. 

Chorus, the foundation of tech money heir and activist Farhad Ebrahimi, has been funding climate work since around 2007, but toward the end of last year, announced an interesting shift. As it spends down, the foundation is focusing grantmaking on four locations with a few anchor groups in each place leading the way.

Related: The Chorus Foundation's Radical Philanthropy

It’s a bottom-up an approach yielding a lot of leadership to a set of community and justice organizations for the remainder of the foundation’s lifespan. The anchor groups will also coordinate funding to additional groups in their locations. The program is among a set of progressive tactics that Chorus has been pursuing, including fossil fuel divestment, mission-related investing, and dedication to the underfunded branch of climate work that emphasizes movement building and economic justice.  

Ebrahimi sat down with Inside Philanthropy recently to explain how the program was devised and why foundation leaders decided to take the course they did.

“It was just the realization that we really love these groups; we have a lot of confidence in them,” he says. “There are other conversations that I think both the groups, and us as a foundation, would rather have than doing that kind of ritual reapplication.”

Though always a climate funder, he says that when Chorus first set out, the foundation board was pretty open to the kinds of work it was going to support. Ebrahimi has a mathematics and computer science degree from MIT, and others on the board had science or investment backgrounds. 

But as Ebrahimi wrote in a blog post on Medium regarding the announcement:

As we studied what most climate-driven philanthropy was supporting at the time, we saw three major themes: changes in individual behavior, market-driven energy efficiency retrofits, and a Beltway-centric push for policy. Let’s just say that the results were mixed — and that’s being extremely generous in some cases.

As he explains it, it wasn’t that they discovered policy or energy efficiency were not important.  

“What we were seeing with those three areas is that it felt like they were being done in a vacuum,” he says. Campaigns were often disconnected from the public and political landscapes in the places they were trying to change.  

“I think for us, the critical point is really building political power and political will. What is the ability of the people on the front lines of this crisis to influence or control collective decision-making, like, at every level?”

That led the foundation to the environmentalist concept known as a just transition, meaning that as the economy shifts away from fossil fuels, it provides an opportunity to also shift power, economic and political, toward workers and local residents. Otherwise, the move to a clean energy economy could just mean corporations move in and build new infrastructure, but keep consolidating power. This is especially relevant in communities that are or were heavily reliant on a particular industry. 

“We have to come up with answers for that. I think as a society, if we don’t have a soft landing and a sort of way to shift to something regenerative in places like Appalachia, in cities like Buffalo, then we are just leaving a huge number of people behind.” 

That involves change on many levels that a policy win, for example, can’t pull off. Instead, it requires a long-term process of building political power on multiple fronts. For Chorus, that process started in Eastern Kentucky. 

In 2010, the foundation started backing just transition work in Kentucky, which in 2013 turned into a $10 million commitment over 10 years, with long-term general operating support for Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, and the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development.  

Kentucky offers a prime example of what just transition proponents are describing, as rural areas are hemorrhaging coal jobs and need to rebuild their economies. As the greater movement pushes to shut down fossil fuels, consequences in localities like these can be overlooked. 

Chorus’s Kentucky grantees are doing community organizing across a set of issues, including shifting rural electric co-ops to clean power, providing loans to local entrepreneurs, and protecting voting rights.

That kind of grassroots work in Kentucky resonated with Ebrahimi and Chorus, and led the foundation to expand into other places. The foundation, which works with Cuong Hoang at Mott Philanthropic, had a “break the piggybank moment” in which the team tallied up the funds they had to work with, and how many locations they could strategically afford to work in during spend down. 

The call for proposals didn’t preselect locations, but instead looked for organizations that were already doing a certain kind of collaborative community organizing. The foundation's decisions were mostly based on the organizations themselves, combined with other factors like a desire for diversity of places and populations involved.  

The final program settled on three places to add to Eastern Kentucky—Alaska; Richmond, California; and Buffalo, New York. Chorus will direct about 60 percent of future funding to these four communities, with the remainder funding similar work at smaller levels in other locations, and other connected priorities like trainings, funder organizing, and movement support.

In Alaska, Chorus will fund groups like Alaska Center for the Environment and the Native American Rights Fund to manage resources in collaboration with indigenous communities. In Richmond, Communities for a Better Environment and Asian Pacific Environmental Network are organizing low-income residents in the backyard of one of the country’s largest oil refineries. And Open Buffalo and PUSH Buffalo are working to revive their local economy with green jobs and neighborhood development that doesn’t displace residents.

Chorus certainly isn’t the only funder supporting this particular brand of work, and Ebrahimi is quick to credit others that have influenced them, like the Fund for Democratic Communities. Environmental funders like Surdna and Kresge make community and justice-related grants along these lines. But it’s still a small slice of the overall pie. 

Related: For Surdna, Infrastructure is Where Justice and Sustainability Cross Paths

According to the Environmental Grantmakers Association’s latest Tracking the Field report on giving trends among network members, Health & Justice received $85 million in 2013, up by almost $30 million since 2011. But it still ranks as the least-funded issue group among environmental grantmakers. Justice in the context of the environment is trending up, but has a long way to go before it’s a real force in national philanthropy.

It’s Chorus’s full-throttle embrace of this kind of work, combined with the level of general support, and whopping eight-to-10-year grant periods, that makes what they’re doing impressive. 

The approach is not without risk. For one, when a funder from one part of the country puts significant investment into another community, there are all kinds of politics, allegiances, and connections they have to navigate. As a philanthropist, in general, the dynamic of being an outside party, swooping into an arena or a community where he’s not wanted is “one of the things that keeps me up at night.”

One solution is the level of leadership that Chorus yields to the program’s grantees, which in itself carries risk. This is by design, Ebrahimi says. “It seems right to me for a social movement-oriented foundation to assume risk.”

Even if the organizations are not hitting certain benchmarks, the greater goal is to strengthen these communities, and it's one that Ebrahimi hopes will catch on in the environmental movement.

“Regardless of the specific wins, we would like to see the local, political, economic, and cultural power of each of these communities… grow, and we would like to see recognition of this approach both from other field organizations as well as funders.”