Kresge Foundation: Grants for Climate Change

OVERVIEW: Kresge is one of the leading foundations when it comes to preparation for the effects of climate change, especially as they relate to cities and vulnerable communities. Its newly refined environment program focuses on resilient cities, with a combination of curbing the worst effects of climate change, while planning for inevitable consequences. 

IP TAKE: Kresge is a great prospect for organizations that are tackling climate change at the community or city level, especially involving minority or disadvantaged residents. The funder is looking for place-based solutions that can serve as models for other cities as they prepare for a chaotic future.

PROFILE: The Kresge Foundation is a Detroit-based funder that puts a heavy focus on helping communities, including the poor or otherwise underserved. It was founded in 1924 by Sebastian Spering Kresge, the retail giant whose empire started with five-and-dime stores but grew to encompass Kmart and Sears. 

While Kresge has seven programs and directs much of its giving to the revitalization of Detroit, it has a significant environment program — with spending totaling as much as $15 million a year. Kresge's Environment Program has been undergoing an overhaul, so recent funding has been lower than in years past. Now that the new strategy has been unveiled, we expect giving to increase. 

The new program runs along similar lines as its historical giving, but with a finer point and a stronger emphasis on building the resilience of cities in the face of climate change.

Kresge's environmental giving has always stemmed from its broader goal of helping underserved populations in cities. The foundation views curbing and reacting to climate change as a moral issue related to how it will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable people. The program is decidedly urban and focused on humans in its grantmaking. It’s been one of the more proactive philanthropic leaders when it comes to preparing for the inevitable threats climate change poses. 

While the previous guidelines reflected this with subprograms in energy efficiency and adapting to the effects of climate change, the revision meant to tighten up its intentions and fold it more closely within the foundation’s broader goals. 

As Program Manager Lois DeBacker described the program:

Climate change is a systemic problem that will impact built, natural, and social environments in unexpected and uncertain ways. Our aim is to help communities both reduce emissions so society can avoid the worst impacts of climate change and develop the capacity to prosper under a wide range of climate-influenced circumstances. 

The foundation has identified three prongs in the new program guidelines:   

  • Reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change
  • Plan for the changes that already are underway or anticipated
  • Foster social cohesion and inclusion   

And the revised program has prioritized two main strategies under which grantees will fall. The first is to fund place-based initiatives that can serve as models other cities can use. The second is to build the overall field of resilience to effects of climate changes.

To understand what Kresge means by resilience to climate change, we can look at the program guidelines, but also some of the insights from President Rip Rapson that he articulated during a talk in New York about what we can learn from troubled cities like Detroit and New Orleans as the effects of climate change set in. Rapson is calling for a revolution in how cities run, as opposed to short-term steps that will patch problems. 

You can read his full remarks here, but one theme that is reflected in the new program guidelines is that city leaders need to constantly consider how their decisions affect climate and how climate will affect their decisions, while viewing present and future concurrently.

He also highlights the importance of reinventing municipal governing models, since just looking at the city independent of its surroundings is no longer useful. Another resounding mandate from Kresge is that efforts to address climate change must be inclusive, both in terms of being equitable, but also viewing individual local communities as assets that cities can learn from in making larger decisions.  

As for the kinds of grantees Kresge will be seeking out in its new program, time will tell. But we can look to a couple of representative grants, as the same themes will likely apply.

The foundation’s dedication to building efficiency will likely not be as prominent as it has been, but recently, Kresge made a three-year, $3.2 million grant to the Institute for Market Transformation, a nonprofit that works on energy efficiency and green building. The funder also supports Architecture 2030, which enlists the building industry to improve its efficiency standards. Another example has been the Resource Innovation Group, a popular project of the University of Oregon that seeks to help communities prepare for the effects of climate change. 

In the future, we can expect the foundation to get behind promising solutions in specific cities, particularly dealing with coastal cities, low-income communities, and management of water resources. On the other hand, they will be funding efforts to bring such solutions to scale, building up the larger field. 

Regarding the numbers, Kresge’s environment program tends to stay between $10 million and $15 million annually. Recently, the foundation has not made any mind-boggling environmental grants. Most fall into the $100,000 to $400,000 range, with organizations in Michigan leading the pack. But while Kresge's other grantmaking programs may play favorites toward Michigan, especially Detroit, such is not the case with the environment program. In fact, Kresge tends to spread its environment related grantmaking to organizations spread throughout the US. You can see a list of Kresge's previous environmental grants here.

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