Ben & Jerry's Foundation: Grants for Conservation

OVERVIEW: The Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, the philanthropic arm of its ice cream company namesake, is devoted to supporting grassroots efforts for activism and change—with environmental problem-solving and protections at the forefront of that devotion.

IP TAKE: Fitting with the public perception of the ice cream company’s two founders, this foundation seeks to put power in the hands of the people. So while the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation is unquestionably dedicated to environmental conservation, any programmatic work surrounding this issue must flow from an overt, strategic, constituent-led approach.

PROFILE: The Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Vermont-based ice cream company, was established in 1985 with a gift of stock from one of its namesakes, Ben Cohen. The other namesake, Jerry Greenfield, was named president of the foundation--a post he still holds: he says he was appointed because he missed the first meeting when positions were decided. Jerry’s claim is a light-hearted one, of course, but it speaks volumes to the way the foundation has evolved over the years.

In 1991, the foundation began a transition into an employee-led group, which is fully realized today. The work of “committee members” (Ben & Jerry’s employees who are on the grant selection teams) is considered part of their job at the company. As the foundation’s Director of Programs, Rebecca Golden, put it: “Our internal decision-making structure reflects our core commitment to empowering and elevating the voices of those traditionally without power.”

Indeed, the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation mission statement is “to engage Ben & Jerry's employees in philanthropy and social change work; to give back to our Vermont communities; and to support grassroots activism and community organizing for social and environmental justice around the country.”

In that statement, “environmental justice” is listed last, but in terms of the foundation’s giving, it’s a focus that is unquestionably first. Support of organizations and projects that protect and conserve the environment and its resources are primary areas of the foundation’s giving.

This support occurs through its Grassroots Organizing Through Social Change program, which is the foundation’s key program for distributing U.S.-wide support. Grants come in good-sized chunks. The foundation states it awards grants up to $25,000; in reality, the vast majority fall within $10,000 - $20,000. 

While we’re on the financials: The Ben & Jerry’s Foundation only funds nonprofits with annual operating budgets of $500,000 or less, and will give for either project support or general operating support. More substantively, but related to operating budgets, the foundation only funds programs that are grassroots-driven, focusing “on the types of activities and strategies an organization uses for creating social change rather than on the specific issues the organization is addressing,” with a Theory of Change that “people most affected by a problem are in the best position to determine the solutions.”

Within its environmental giving, the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation is also keenly aware of how conservation (or, more aptly, guarding against the loss of environmental resources) greatly affect the health and welfare of local residents. It is therefore especially keen to support organizations and program work that bridges environmental protections with protections for local citizens.

These guiding principles are evident in the foundation’s recent conservation grantees, including:

  • $20,000 in general operating support to the Western Colorado Congress (Grand Junction), for its ongoing work "to protect people's health, their land and the environment from oil and gas impacts; protect communities, lands, and citizens from the impacts of uranium mining and milling; protect threatened wild lands in Western Colorado; and connect family farmers with consumers to keep farmers on their land, provide high quality local foods and build vibrant economies";
  • $15,000 in general operating support to the Western Lands Project (Seattle, WA), whose goal is to "keep America's public lands public" with work that engages in watch-dogging, advocacy, public education/empowerment, and policy reform/legal changes;
  • $10,000 to the Yaak Valley Forest Council (Troy, MT) for its "Three Rivers Challenge/Yaak Wilderness Campaign" to protect over 100,000 acres of "critical wildlife habitat and linkage zones."

Not surprisingly, the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation has an open grant application process, with two LOI deadlines each year (typically April and October) for its Grassroots Organizing for Social Change program.


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