Environmental Giving in 2016: Trends and Hot Topics

What a difference a year can make. 

I was looking back at 2015’s green giving wrap-up, and there was definitely this sense that Big Things were happening in environmentalism. We were fresh off of COP21, which, for all its shortcomings, was a big global step in the right direction. Cities were emerging as climate champs with funders dedicating millions. Bill Gates, albeit in his own tech industry way, was finally doing something big related to climate change. 

And just one nightmarish year later, the incoming executive branch is loaded with climate deniers and chums of the fossil fuel industry. 

So that's not great. 

But don’t forget, we did see a lot of sweeping moves from the Obama administration on its way out, some of which had foundation involvement. And we environmentalists have such a tendency to get fixated on the Big Things that sometimes, we miss what’s happening all around us. And it’s here, not in conference rooms or the Oval Office, where the world really changes. 

In the past year, we saw a lot of creative philanthropy for inspiring, grassroots-level work, movement building, and efforts to otherwise drive communities forward. That should give us a lot to be optimistic about. And even a few Big Things. Here are some of my takeaways from the year in environmental philanthropy:

Standing Rock Shows a Path Forward

Against the dreadful backdrop of the 2016 presidential election, we witnessed the power of a diverse, community-powered environmental movement, one that was Native-led, but also highly intersectional and drawing broad support. 

The resistance at Standing Rock was fast moving and complex, and not always easy to grasp from the outside. But a set of funders and individual donors responded quickly and flexibly to fuel the movement. Granted, there weren't enough funders, and it revealed mainstream philanthropy's huge blind spot for Native American communities. And unfortunately, we’re still seeing shortcomings in overall environmental funding and philanthropy when it comes to diversity, justice, and support for underserved communities. 

But there’s a palpable excitement and power surrounding a more diverse environmental movement that’s emerging, and hopefully foundations will follow its lead. 


Water, Water Everywhere

A broader theme in the resistance to the Dakota Access oil pipeline was a merging of movements, with Native leaders, mainstream environmental groups, newcomers like the Movement for Black Lives, and many more converging on issues of justice and the environment. Clean water became a flashpoint for much of that intersectionality, with the crisis in Flint inspiring similar activism and philanthropy.  

Bookended by drought in the West, water quality and supply were thrust into the spotlight in a way unseen in the United States. Funders responded to these acute problems, but there’s also been a general surge of support for water infrastructure, particularly in East Coast cities, and water conservation in the West. A new funder initiative even emerged to chart the best ways for funders to approach some of these issues. 


Food as a Uniting Environmental Cause

Another area uniting funders with diverse interests is sustainable agriculture and food systems, and there was a ton to cover in this arena in 2016. Chances are, whatever comes to mind when you think of ag funding, there’s probably a lot more to it. This realm has lit up with climate, health, conservation and community funders working separately and together. Not only that, some exciting racial and social justice work and funding activities in Native American communities are happening with food as a focal point. 

The USDA’s Food LINC matching grant program and the range of funders it drew is just one example. And when Kresge introduced food into its city placemaking funding, the resulting FreshLo program blew up with eager applicants. This is an issue at the heart of our relationship with the environment, and I’ve become convinced that there’s a ton of potential here for movement building, sustainability and environmental justice. 


Parks Funding Gets Real

Not long ago, most of what we covered in parks philanthropy had to do with huge city projects, questionable private influence on public space, and equitable access to it. And those controversies have not gone away. We’ve not solved the puzzle of where private donors fit into funding of the public commons, and how that affects surrounding cities. 

But I have to say, there were some pretty fascinating parks grants in 2016, and many attempting to tackle some of the larger economic issues involved, including William Penn’s big funding for a city-spanning parks overhaul plan in Philly; the surge in green infrastructure funding; and Knight and other funders trying to use parks and public spaces as paths to fight segregation.


Marine Giving Keeps Gaining Momentum

Growing threats to the oceans and marine ecosystems have galvanized a who's who of billionaire funders over the past few years, with new donors showing up all the time in this space. But several top legacy foundations are pushing hard here, most notably Packard and Pew. Different fronts in this work include protecting endangered fisheries, creating vast new marine preserves, reducing plastic waste, and protecting coastal ecosystems and the animals that live there. The past year saw progress on nearly all these fronts.


Large Foundations Look to Clean Energy in India

India is rapidly electrifying to improve quality of life for millions of people, and how it does so will profoundly affect whether the world can hit necessary emissions reductions to mitigate the worst of climate change. A number of funders, such as Hewlett and MacArthur foundations, have begun to ramp up sustainable development and energy in India as a priority. That included a $30 million commitment in partnership with the Indian government to catalyze private investments.


More Funders Using their Assets

Tapping the strength of endowments to create change is still a relatively limited practice for foundations, and even those pursuing it often do so with small slivers of their assets. But it is catching on, and we saw a lot of activity and research happening around impact investing and climate. Funders like Kresge, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Packard are leading the way, along with smaller funders like Wallace Global Fund, Jessie Smith Noyes, Surdna, and Chorus foundations. And while we’re still waiting on the foundation powerhouses to step up, the divestment movement has become truly massive.