More Than an Environmental Issue: One Place-Based Funder’s Approach to Energy

While the environment’s not explicitly in its mission, the Jessie Ball duPont Fund carved out a unique niche in its grantmaking to help small schools and other institutions go green.

The Jessie Ball duPont Fund has kind of a narrow mission, in that it is a perpetually operating, community-focused foundation that’s restricted to awarding funds only to a set of about 320 eligible organizations. 

That said, times have changed since the fund’s launch in 1976, and staff has been creative about how it makes grants, taking on emerging causes like energy conservation from a financial perspective.

The fund was established in the will of the mid-20th century philanthropist, who married a member of the wealthy duPont family and handled his business dealings and estate after he died in 1935. A big part of that was philanthropy, and her will specified that future grants fund organizations she supported during a specific window in the 1960s.

Related: Jessie Ball duPont Fund: Grants for Higher Education

It’s actually a varied lot of groups, ranging from many churches and schools to the Audubon Society. She was also very devoted to supporting communities in the states in which she lived—Delaware, Virginia and Florida. 

These days, foundation leadership doesn’t have much connection to the donor, with a full-time professional staff that oversees the $12 million to $18 million in grantmaking a year. But they face the challenge of carrying out the intent of the donor in a fast-changing world, 40 years later.

It’s focused on justice and building assets of people and communities, but a relatively recent focus on energy efficiency actually sprang out of its organizational capacity-building efforts. 

In 2008, as the foundation’s staff was meeting with leadership on college campuses about the challenges they were facing, both operational costs and being environmentally friendly kept coming up. 

This was around the time sustainability began to surge on college campuses. The American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment launched in 2007 to get university leadership around the country to commit to reducing carbon footprints. By 2014, nearly 700 institutions had signed on, representing more than 40 percent of U.S. students.

DuPont embraced the idea as a way to build the organizational strength of universities it supports by helping schools, and also some of its grantee churches, to reduce energy costs. 

Today, the program is still going strong, with the Fund giving a handful of six-figure grants in recent years. The funder has backed energy audits, educational programs for students and faculty, new energy efficiency staff and training, and seeded green revolving funds that can be used to pay for capital investments that improve efficiency. 

We often write about how climate and energy issues are about so much more than the environment, and how it really impacts every institution and foundation, regardless of mission. Basically, how every funder should be a climate funder on some level.

This is a nice example of a foundation that, despite having no mandate to focus on the environment or certainly climate change, was able to see the way the wind was blowing and figure out how the need for conserving energy fit within its own longstanding mission.