Where Is Environmental Giving Headed? Here's a (Mostly) Hopeful Look

The Environmental Grantmakers Association just released its latest report on member giving, and it's well worth a read. The report by the funders affinity group shows growing environmental philanthropy and some exciting trending areas like global giving, sustainable agriculture, and transportation. It also reflects some shortfalls—stagnant general support, lopsided giving to large groups, and lacking support for justice issues. 

Since 2007, Environmental Grantmakers Association has released reports based on its members’ giving data, and the fifth edition of Tracking the Field looks at more than 66,000 grants made by nearly 200 members from 2007 to 2013. It’s a sizable chunk of the field, as EGA members’ grantmaking made up 40 percent of all environmental philanthropy in 2013 (note that numbers in this post refer to EGA member giving unless otherwise specified).

So while the report and the data behind it are useful tools that allow EGA members to collaborate and shape future giving, they also offer insight into overall trends in environmental philanthropy.

You can read the full executive summary here, but Inside Philanthropy spoke with EGA Executive Director Rachel Leon and Knowledge and Program Director Franny Chiles Canfield about some of the key takeaways from the report. 

The big numbers show that EGA giving hit a new peak in 2013 at $1.35 billion, with a 19 percent increase from 2011 (and a 31 percent increase from 2007). Based on numbers from the Foundation Center, this tracks roughly with overall growth in environmental giving, which hit $3.42 billion in 2013. 

But Tracking the Field also chops up the data into individual issues, issue groups, and strategies to help foundations understand how they fit in with the greater movement and how issues connect. Here are some of the key points:

It’s a small world after all

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the latest data is the fact that EGA’s members are giving much more internationally. In 2013, international grantmaking hit a record of $495 million, an 74 percent increase in just two years. That made up 37 percent of all EGA members’ giving, also a record high, and notable considering its members are primarily domestic funders. Areas that received the most funding were South America, North America, and Asia, which saw the most dramatic increase in recent years. 

“We can’t draw boundaries. These are global issues, so I think it’s been really exciting to see increased funding in the global arena,” Leon says. “It does feel in some ways like the world is getting smaller, and I think that’s good. Certainly, we need to be focusing and thinking beyond the U.S. in terms of trying to solve these issues.”

Biodiversity funding dominates

In large part a function of that growth in international giving, the biggest issue group for EGA members in 2013 was the “Land” category, which combines Biodiversity & Species Preservation, and Terrestrial Ecosystems & Land Use, with giving surging from 2011 to 2013. 

“Biodiversity and Land gets less attention in the conversations in our community, but if you look at the data, you see that actually, funders are funding biodiversity more than any other issue area,” Canfield says. 

Image courtesy EGA

Within this issue group, Biodiversity & Species Preservation drove the growth, reaching an all-time high of $301 million in 2013, the most of any single issue since EGA started tracking grants. 

It’s understandable given the high profile of species loss, but the dominance is a little surprising considering the conversation in the movement has been moving toward climate, cities, and sustainability. Still, this group of issues is not as old school as you might imagine. 

“When we look at the connection between land and sustainable communities, a lot of the funding for land is going within the cities as well,” Canfield says. For example, many such grants are going to things like city parks or connecting urban populations with nature. In fact, 13 percent of land grants had Sustainable Communities tagged as a secondary issue area. So in addition to the growth in international giving, there’s crossover happening between city funding and land funding. 

This is a common theme in the data identified in Tracking the Field, as so much of giving is woven into multiple interests. For example, 20 percent of grants to Energy & Climate had Environmental Health tagged as a secondary issue. Systems grants and Environmental Justice are similarly connected. And Water and Biodiversity are closely intertwined. Studying that overlap is a priority for EGA, as funders are coming at these problems from many overlapping perspectives.

“Part of us achieving and getting closer to a more sustainable world is understanding how these things connect to each other,” Leon says.

Shortfalls for justice issues, small groups, and general support 

Reflecting a wider discussion in philanthropy these days, this edition of Tracking the Field emphasizes equity, with a novel section called Building Equity and Alignment for Impact, part of a project launched by the Overbrook Foundation. This is also a priority for the EGA board, Leon says. The resulting analysis of grassroots funding, support for justice issues, and the distribution among grantees of different scales isn’t very flattering. 

“Justice and grassroots funding is still a gap. It’s getting more attention and more funding, but it’s definitely still not a major focus of funding,” Leon says.

For starters, among 6,000 EGA grantees in 2013, the largest 3 percent of grantees (200 groups) received 53 percent of EGA funding. A list of 22 major environmental groups like Nature Conservancy and NRDC received nearly 12 percent of EGA funding, despite making up only 0.4 percent of grantees.

Furthermore, while the Health and Justice issue group did see a notable jump from 2011 to 2013, it remained the least-funded issue group with just 6 percent of funding. 

Related: The Chorus Foundation's Radical Philanthropy

One dynamic that surprised EGA staff in this analysis, is that even when funders are giving to Environmental Justice, they are still giving dramatically to larger organizations, with the largest 10 percent of grantees receiving almost half of such funding. 

“So even when philanthropy starts to focus in on equity, they’re tending to give bigger grants to more established groups, and to give general support to more established, bigger groups than they are to smaller grassroots groups,” Leon says.

Finally, while increasing general support is a big discussion point among foundations in recent years, it’s not showing up in 2013 EGA numbers. Capacity Building and General Operating funding has not significantly increased, actually hitting a low in 2012 and rebounding only somewhat in 2013. 

“We’ve certainly heard from the field that general support is one of the ways you can really help in terms of having smaller groups build the capacity that they need, and just giving organizations more freedom to follow their priorities and be flexible,” Leon says. “Certainly, there’s still a gap.”

Climate still significant, and new issues surging

While the land category led in 2013, climate change funding continues to be a top priority among EGA members. Since 2009, the issue group that includes Climate, Energy, and Transportation, has ranked in the top two most funded among EGA members, although it has fluctuated and seen changing priorities within that group. For example, there was a steep drop in 2012, which Leon and Canfield chalk up to the community taking stock in the aftermath of Copenhagen. But it bounced back in 2013. 

“We’re also seeing new folks who never would have used the words climate funding, who are now looking at it, because it’s hitting their communities. And so either their donors are interested in it at community foundations, or they’re just seeing the need to respond to what’s happening.”

Within that issue group, Transportation has been a rising star, growing by 73 percent from 2011 to 2013, and reflecting the increasing attention paid to cities and human environments within the movement. 

Somewhat related, Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems, although not in the climate issue group, grew by 52 percent from 2011 to 2013. This has been a huge topic of conversation among EGA members—whether related to drought, food deserts, urban farms, or obesity—and that’s now showing up in the numbers. 

It’s worth noting that there’s a common theme among a lot of these hot issues, in that they have multiple points of entry for funders with different priorities, and they connect to current events and concerns in many locations. 

Maybe the biggest example of this dynamic is in giving for water issues. This is an hot area among funders right now, and will only continue, Leon says. Funders come at it with a range of concerns like flooding, stormwater pollution, drought, and drinking water infrastructure.

“There’s just so many levels and layers to that increase, and we’re seeing a whole new layer in this Flint crisis that’s a completely different take on water quality. So I think with aging infrastructure, and the challenges ahead of us on water, we’re going to continue to see that one rise.” 

Leon is quick to point out that the goal of the report is not to keep score or to say what’s right and wrong. But they do intend for members to use it to guide funding decisions and have definitely seen that in action. The clarity on certain trends and the surprises, for better or worse, demonstrate the benefits of this kind of collaborative analysis. 

It also makes a strong argument for increasing transparency, a drum we’ve been beating now pretty regularly. EGA is working to incorporate more real-time data as funders make it available, but you can imagine how powerful more live data could be as funders respond to events and define priorities as they develop. 

Related: Darkness Grows: Time for a New Conversation About Philanthropy and Transparency