Is the Tide Finally Going to Turn for Green Diversity?

The environmental movement has struggled to diversify its ranks for many years. A new coalition is building up some cold, hard facts on nonprofit and foundation staffing to increase accountability, and five major funders have opted in to the process. Are things turning around? 

It would be a cliché to talk about the lack of diversity in environmentalism if it weren’t for the fact that in 2015, it is both extremely real and a serious weakness for the movement. A study just last year by Dorceta Taylor, a professor at the University of Michigan, found that only about 12 percent of staff at environmental NGOs and foundations are people of color, even though that number is 36 percent in the general population.  

The same initiative that put out that report, Green 2.0, is trying to add some accountability to what, based on numbers, appears to be mostly lip service when it comes to building a diverse, mainstream environmental movement. Green 2.0 is partnering with Guidestar, D5 Coalition, and New America Media to gather better data on diversity at nonprofits and foundations. The idea is to add accountability through Guidestar profiles, but also to create a baseline of data to figure out what exactly is going on here. 

The partnership recently announced that five of the leading green funders in the country have agreed to share their diversity data—Bullitt Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, Kresge Foundation, Meyer Memorial Trust, and Rockefeller Brothers Fund. 

Of those, Hewlett in particular is an impressive addition, given its assets of $8.6 billion and its 112 employees. From standpoints of visibility and leadership and funding, Hewlett putting a stake in the ground is significant. 

These efforts to improve transparency make for a great first step toward accountability, but clearly, there’s still a long way to go. 

We’ve written a fair amount lately about a variety of reasons thqt funders are beginning to focus more on diversity. And there are some green funders and nonprofits that have made the issues of justice, poverty, and equality core to their missions. 


But it needs to work its way to the mainstream, as we’ve written about with releation to tech and diversity. More than a moral or strategic problem, lack of diversity reveals a fundamental flaw in the movement—environmentalism as a niche issue. In other words, the idea that an environmentalist looks like Sean Connery in Medicine Man, instead of a mother in Detroit.  

The Sierra Club learned this lesson the hard way. Still recovering from an embarrassing brush with an anti-immigration stance in the late 1990s, Executive Director Michael Brune has made the organization a vocal and financial supporter of increased diversity and Green 2.0.  

And it does feel like more green groups are recognizing this, especially as climate change thrusts environmental issues into so many other spheres. Consider the show of solidarity from green groups toward communities of color following police shootings in Missouri and New York. Deirdre Smith at made a powerful case for connecting the issues on the group’s blog. 

It’s a cultural shift, but one that foundations can certainly advance, both leading by example, and simply shutting off the spigot for groups that aren’t taking steps. They have the power and the bird’s-eye view to shift support away from a stubborn mainstream and toward more community and justice groups, as NRDC CEO Rhea Suh suggested recently

Hopefully, projects like the one Green 2.0 and Guidestar are taking on will provide more tools for accountability, so funders will lead by example, and with their wallets, to accelerate the process.