Nathan Cummings Foundation: Grants for Climate Change

OVERVIEW: The Nathan Cummings Foundation’s climate-related giving looks at the issue from an equity perspective, through its Inclusive Clean Economy focus. The funder is looking to support a transition to clean energy, with an emphasis on communities.  

IP TAKE: NCF has been through some big changes in recent years, evolving from a more technology-based approach to its current focus on local action and equitable and sustainable growth of clean energy. There’s also a focus on helping those already feeling the impacts of climate change, and developing resilient communities. Potential grantees must have a strong justice aspect to their work.

PROFILE: Endowed by the fortunes of the Sara Lee Corporation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation (NCF) is a progressive funder that has a two-pronged focus—climate change and inequality. Its latest iteration has amped up the interest in racial and economic justice and a “just transition” frame to clean energy. 

It’s impossible to talk about NCF’s current program without discussing the changes it’s experienced on the way there. A family foundation with a lengthy list of 14 trustees mostly from the Cummings clan, the funder did an overhaul starting with the hiring of a new president and CEO Simon Greer. Prior to that, the main force behind the climate program was Peter Teague, now head of think tank The Breakthrough Institute, which had a big influence on NCF’s climate giving. Priorities included advancing clean energy technology and large-scale investments in clean energy. 

In 2013, Greer’s changes resulted in the current overall strategy that boils down all giving to just inequality and climate change. Shortly after, Greer was let go by NCF and the foundation went into a transitional phase before hiring former Surdna VP Sharon Alpert.

Alpert is now running the show, and in 2016 the foundation released its latest set of guidelines, which have more of a community and grassroots feel to them, not unlike what’s been happening at Surdna’s environment program. Racial justice has also taken more of the spotlight in the latest iteration. 

Keeping that context in mind, the focus area that is specifically devoted to climate (the four areas are meant to overlap some) is Inclusive Clean Economy

The updated guidelines put a big emphasis on supporting underserved communities, and what sounds like a more grassroots philosophy than we’ve seen in NCF's climate funding in the past, encouraging “creative leadership in communities on the front lines…” We saw them headed this direction for a while, with a short-lived interim strategy that had similar language but more of a global poverty focus.  

In the foundation’s new climate focus, activities include: 

  • making underserved communities safer and more resilient; 
  • spurring more democratic and localized clean energy; 
  • supporting religious, cultural and community leaders to revitalize community spirit in the face of climate change; 
  • holding policymakers and corporations accountable to the public;
  • and investing in local economies and solutions that can scale up nationally or globally. 

That’s a lot of attention on the shift to clean energy and how it plays out on the ground. There’s also kind of a catchall category to develop a range of policy solutions to reduce emissions and improve equitable and sustainable growth in the U.S. 

Notably, the new guidelines also reference “just transition,” a framework that seeks sustainability in a way that builds wealth and power in communities instead of further concentrating it, emphasizing protection of local jobs. The concept grew from environmental justice and labor activism, and has been especially relevant in communities that have been impacted by closure of coal plants.   

One last thing to note about NCFs climate-related giving is that it's historically placed an emphasis on getting the progressive movement to think outside of its usual approaches, and it still seems to embrace that spirit, although that’s looking a little different these days. For example, in its earlier Ecological Innovation program, there was a big push to break energy issues out of left vs. right frames. NCF has also signaled a past friendliness to fracking that has rankled allies.  

It’s a little early to tell how this plays out in the current program, but it’s clear that without a strong justice and equity outlook, an environmental group doesn’t stand much of a chance of finding funding. In fact, community groups that are not even primarily dedicated to the environment may stand a better chance in many cases. It's also worthwhile to check on the grants given out by the foundation to see who they've been funding lately.

As the foundation continues to implement its revamped climate program, spending is subject to change. But in the past, Cummings grants ranged from $50,000 to $250,000, with a choice few hitting the $400,000 to $600,000 threshold. NCF currently accepts unsolicited letters of inquiry.

PEOPLE: 

  • Sharon Alpert, President and CEO 
  • Loren Harris, Vice President of Programs

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