In the Climate Change Fight, a Foundation Puts a New Focus on the Role of Communities

As the Nathan Cummings Foundation continues to find its way, its updated climate program couples justice and energy, with a stronger emphasis on supporting communities. 

It’s been a wild few years for the Nathan Cummings Foundation, at least as wild as it gets in terms of philanthropic strategic planning. 

It started when NCF hired social justice advocate Simon Greer as president and CEO. Greer led an overhaul of the foundation’s program that, in late 2013, narrowed its focus to just two issues—inequality and climate change (causing some grantees to freak out about their funding). Later, the foundation abruptly fired Greer, apparently over disagreements about personnel and how the new strategy should unfold.

These days, NCF appears to be getting on track, keeping to the two-pronged focus, but under the leadership of former Surdna Foundation VP Sharon Alpert. As we pointed out at the time, Alpert was a great choice, given her strong leadership record at Surdna, a family-controlled foundation with some key similarities to NCF.

Now that Alpert’s settled in, the funder just unveiled its latest strategic refinement, with four focus areas: inclusive clean economy; racial and economic justice; corporate and political accountability; and voice, creativity and culture. Nathan Cummings has always been a social justice-focused funder, but the letter announcing the changes is pretty bold stuff, referencing institutional racism, the Movement for Black Lives, and even a thinly veiled knock to a certain real estate developer running for president.

On the climate side of things, 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…”

NCF’s been in flux for a while, and we did see this kind of language in a 2015 guidelines revision that focused more on global poverty. So this is definitely an evolution of what’s been happening in the past couple of years. But its pre-2014 Ecological Innovation program was much more focused on the need for improved technology and large-scale clean energy investments.  

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. 

That’s a lot of attention on the shift to clean energy and how it plays out on the ground. There are also a lot of parallels, here, to the work Surdna has been doing in sustainable infrastructure, including work to give communities more control over their energy supplies.  


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.   

That brings to mind another potential influence we highlighted recently, the Chorus Foundation, which last year unveiled its own unique just transition strategy, giving unusually high levels of general support and control to community groups on the ground in four geographies. 

Support for justice and community work in climate change is terribly underfunded, so there’s an opportunity for Nathan Cummings to make a big impact as it expands work in this area. Of course, we’ve also seen how that type of grantmaking can be challenging, with some environmental funders struggling to connect with smaller or unfamiliar players. So there may be more of a wild ride ahead.