NRDC Chief Encourages Diversity in Green Philanthropy

This month, Rhea Suh became one of the few environment group CEOs who are female or non-white. With a background in big foundations, she shared some great insight on environmental giving in recent public commments.   

Lack of diversity is an ongoing weakness of the environmental movement. It’s no secret, and the problem is regularly lambasted by critics inside and out. The mainstream green groups are disproportionately white, with a comprehensive 2014 report on the subject finding only 12.4 percent of staff at NGOs being people of color. Foundations are also at fault, with only 12 percent. 

Not only that, foundations have a unique ability to challenge or perpetuate the status quo, by choosing who to support and which activities they favor in grantees. 

As we've been writing lately, more funders are attending to issues of race and class in their environmental grantmaking. To some funders, it's about paying more attention to how environmental problems disproportionately inflict harm on communities of color, an imbalance that will be more pronounced as climate change progresses. To others, it's about mobilizing new constituencies to press for green policy changes—an imperative that becomes all the more urgent as America's demographics change. To some funders, it's about about all of the above. 

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That said, we can also think of plenty of environmental funders who don't bring any kind of race emphasis to their work, in regard to either grantmaking or staffing. So I was pretty fired up after reading some recent comments by Rhea Suh, the newly appointed CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council, regarding diversity in nonprofits and in grantmaking. 

That’s because Suh, daughter of Korean immigrants, is making diversity a top priority at what may be the mainstreamiest of the mainstream environmental groups. But she also has a background at the mainstreamiest environmental foundations, having worked at Packard and Hewlett. Even so, she took foundations to task in a recent interview with Grist:

First, when you look at all the different categories that are funded through foundations, [the environment] is a very, very small percentage of the whole pot of philanthropic activity. And then, within the environment, you get another very, very small sliver that’s just directed toward communities of color and environmental justice issues. I think it is both the responsibility of foundations — which have, in some ways, the luxury of thinking about trends, perspectives, and opportunities — to think about where they’re going to get long-term gains and significant opportunities [from community-based organizations].

We’ve criticized environmental foundations for pouring funds into the same big green groups in the past.

Related: Fresh Takes on Green Philanthropy in 2014 

While Rhea Suh, the new head of one of these big green groups, didn’t explicitly say that foundations should stop doing that, she kind of did. Of course, she also said that green groups should take it upon themselves to partner with community groups. 

One of the best parts about her rationale for more diversity in the movement is that it’s not only the right thing to do, but it also will make efforts more effective. First, by helping to “amass the army” it will take to post big victories, and also by improving creativity and vibrancy. And by clinging to immediate deliverables tied to grants as an excuse for not pursuing diversity, environmentalists are being “enormously short-sighted.”

I know, I know, talk is cheap. But it's pretty cool that someone at the NRDC, hailing from Hewlett and Packard, is starting her new job by calling out the establishment.