A Global Green Funder Tries its Hand at Community-Level Climate Justice

The growing Oak Foundation has been on the move this year, making big shifts within its environment program. The latest development sets aside $20 million for the underfunded cause of climate justice. 

While climate change is arguably the biggest global threat we currently face, less than 2 percent of philanthropic dollars go toward the issue. At the same time, there are some persistent shortfalls in environmental grantmaking, including a significant gap in giving for grassroots and justice work, disproportionate funding going toward large groups, and a stubborn lack of general operating and capacity building support. 

So it’s heartening to see a major player in global environmental philanthropy take a big step toward funding these areas, with a new initiative that shows a lot of promise. 

The Oak Foundation, an international funder that gave more than $200 million in 2015 across a whopping 10 program areas, recently made a big move in advancing a new climate justice program. Oak has launched a $20 million Climate Justice Resilience Fund to operate over the next six years, focusing on East Africa, the Bay of Bengal, and the Arctic, with an emphasis on problems facing women, youth and indigenous people. 

Related: A Top Conservation Funder Shifts to Give New Attention to Fisheries and Plastic Trash

The environmental movement is definitely evolving, but large funders and the big national organizations they often back have a lackluster record when it comes to both diversity and support for justice issues. Even U.S. foundations that do give to equity issues have tended to support bigger, more established groups, one recent EGA survey found.

Aside from the overall focus of Oak’s new fund, there are encouraging signs that it's on the right track. For one, Oak has long been concerned with justice issues and capacity building for organizations. A recent outside evaluation of the foundation’s environmental giving found its funding for capacity building to be a key strength. Among climate mitigation funders, Oak was the largest contributor for capacity building, the evaluation found. The strategic framework for the new fund prioritizes local, community-driven initiatives, and developing emerging leaders among women, youth, and indigenous people to build the climate justice movement. It also singles out providing general operating support to community organizations. 

In a recent Alliance magazine interview with Oak’s leaders on the direction they were headed, Program Officer Anne Henshaw emphasized that, “Oak operates largely on the model that we ‘lead from behind’. We really work through our partners and we value the work they do.” Part of the geographic selection process depended on the existence of local intermediaries they could back. 

In terms of execution, the fund is housed within the New Venture Fund, a philanthropic intermediary that sets up donor-driven programs. It will be run by former World Resources Institute staffer Heather McGray, who will join New Venture Fund solely to oversee the Climate Justice Resilience Fund in coordination with foundation staff. Program staff indicated that they hope other partners will pool funds behind the entity. 

While it can be challenging for a large foundation to truly yield funding and power to marginalized communities, it’s something we’re seeing more of them tackle, with philanthropies like the Ford Foundation prominently shifting attention toward inequality. It’s also something we need to see a lot more of in environmental circles, and if this new fund effectively boosts its grantees, here’s hoping it will point the way for other funders to follow suit.  

Related: Oak Foundation: Grants for Marine and River Conservation