OVERVIEW: The Compton Foundation has a unique approach to giving, making grants to groups based on two categories of work—leadership and storytelling. But giving goes to progressive social change, toward a “peaceful, just, and sustainable world.” Within that goal, a considerable amount goes toward the environment and curbing climate change.
IP TAKE: Compton, even more than most progressive funders, is all about movement building. That means strengthening leadership and inspiring others to take up the cause with powerful stories. Collaboration, capacity-building, and media projects are this funder's bread and butter.
PROFILE: This foundation has a remarkably fresh perspective on social change, considering it’s been around in one form or another since 1946. Compton was founded by Dorothy and Randolph Compton, the latter an investment banker.
The couple first devoted themselves to the pursuit of world peace and preventing another world war, driven in part by the death of their youngest son John in World War II. To them, the way to do so was addressing the causes of war, by protecting human rights and curbing the depletion of natural resources.
The Compton Foundation has evolved over the years, but is a liberal funder, based in San Francisco and giving to a variety of social change issues. The couple’s grandchildren and their families are now active on the board, although the funder employs a small full-time staff and has outside trustees. The foundation has assets of just over $60 million, and makes grants in the neighborhood of $3 million annually. All grants in recent history are below $60,000 each.
Compton’s core issues are the environment, peace, national security, and reproductive health and justice. But the interesting thing about its giving is that since 2012, rather than defining grantmaking by issue descriptions, they split it into two main strategies—transformative leadership and courageous storytelling.
“We feel like issue area silos are often what actually prevent change from happening at the broader social level,” Program Director Jennifer Sokolove told us.
By the numbers, the scales are tipped just a bit toward the leadership category, and while Compton does allow for funding of rapid response programs, most of it is about the broad strength of the social justice movement.
“We arrived at this belief that the business of social change and environmental change is changing. That movement building is an essential element to advancing a transformative action in society,” said Executive Director Ellen Friedman.
That said, a big focus is the environment and within that climate change, with just over a third of recent giving going to green causes. (Although again, giving isn’t super-defined by topic, so that’s our rough count).
As far as what they mean by leadership and storytelling, it varies quite a bit, but does stick pretty darn close to the plan.
First, with leadership, the foundation believes in supporting people with intellectual and political savvy, but also those with emotional authenticity and passion, and who can form strong personal relationships. Here are a few examples of recent environment grants in this category:
- The Center for Whole Communities grew out of Knoll Farm, a sort of headquarters where environmental activists could come together and seek common ground. The CWC is transitioning to take its lessons beyond work at the farm, and Compton granted them $30,000 recently to work on its planning.
- Climate Justice Alliance is a collaborative of around 40 organizations that work in vulnerable communities on environmental issues. Compton recently gave $50,000 to plan a future campaign to engage communities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and take back decision-making power in this arena.
- Forest Ethics received a recent grant of $40,000 for its work to stop the export of fossil fuels in the United States, by aligning the fossil fuel related campaigns on the West Coast.
In the courageous storytelling program, the goal is to disrupt the status quo and how we view the world, and to envision the future and show what a more just planet would look like. The emphasis is on promoting unheard narratives, and using all forms of media to amplify the most important issues. Here are some environment-related examples:
- Climate Desk is a journalism collaborative of Mother Jones, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, The Guardian, Grist, Slate, Wired and the Center for Investigative Reporting, that seeks to fill the gap left in media on coverage of the severity of climate change. Compton recently gave this effort $40,000.
- The funder supported Sustainable Markets Foundation with $50,000 for its work on This Changes Everything, which is a book and film project by Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis that seeks to demonstrate that policies to address the climate crisis also present our best chance to create a more just and healthy society.
While it doesn't give out a ton in new grants, and does try to give multi-year support, Friedman said that Compton is always on the lookout for new organizations that fit its goals. And they have a streamlined, convenient inquiry process online Compton officers regularly review for new grantees.
- Ellen Friedman, Executive Director
- Jennifer L. Sokolove, Program Director