"We Get the Crumbs." How Foundations Overlook Climate-Vulnerable Communities in the South

 flood damage at a mobile home park. photo: Roschetzky Photography/shutterstock

flood damage at a mobile home park. photo: Roschetzky Photography/shutterstock

Resilience is a growing interest among a set of foundations, and it’s a topic that’s becoming more pressing in the face of natural disasters and rising waters. At the same time, according to one recently released report, some of the people best demonstrating what resilience looks like—marginalized communities in the Southern United States—are being overlooked by funders.

In “As the South Grows: Weathering the Storm,” a joint publication by the National Committee For Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) and Grantmakers for Southern Progress, the authors spotlight communities in Southern Louisiana and Eastern North Carolina that are coming together to handle these threats, but with insufficient backing from philanthropy. The report points out disproportionately low per-person funding in these regions over a five-year period ($31 and $67, respectively, compared to $451 nationally) and only a small percentage of that funding going to strategies like community organizing and policy change. The Louisiana figure excludes Orleans parish, where philanthropy has focused since Hurricane Katrina, but far less so in surrounding areas.

There’s certainly a lot of philanthropy happening in the South, right now. As we recently reported, grantmaking in this region is surging. But large swaths of the population aren’t seeing that support. And national funders have often been MIA—an absence documented in other areas, like LGBTQ rights, where some foundations are now scrambling to make up for lost time. This new report points out that bypassed areas include communities of color in coastal regions that show resilience in the face of environmental and economic threat, but are frequently left out when it comes to funding and decision making. 

Related:

“Just as these vulnerable communities have for centuries made a way with what they have, Southerners are on the leading edge of developing new ways to live together with each other and with our changing climate,” the authors state. 

The release is one in a series of reports focusing on funding and nonprofits in the region. Earlier this year, we reported that NCRP and Grantmakers for Southern Progress are drilling deep into the philanthropic issues at play in the South. As part of this work, NCRP has conducted over 100 interviews with nonprofit and community leaders across the South and surfaced both challenges and opportunities for grantmakers. One takeaway so far is that it can be difficult for community-based groups in the region to hook up with funders who are used to dealing with more polished nonprofits in major coastal cities like New York or Boston. Southern organizational capacity can often be found in places where philanthropoids don’t think to look.

Some of the most pressing environmental challenges can also be found in these places. Overlooked, marginalized communities are not only often prone to flooding, they’re also subjected to pollution from extractive industries, and, as diverse communities with significant black, Native, and Hispanic populations, they experience institutionalized racism and poverty. The South is expected to suffer some of the worst economic impacts of climate change in the United States. People in these at-risk areas often have a head start and a unique analysis when it comes to understanding how to adapt to a changing climate. 

“Any funder concerned about health, economic prosperity, access to opportunity or the physical and spiritual survival of coastal communities can and must find a way to invest in Southern climate resilience,” the report states.

While it outlines some concerning numbers, the heart of the report comes from dozens of interviews with people working hard in community groups and foundations, who don’t hold back in their critiques of mainstream environmentalism and philanthropy. 

“Funders say they want to fund social change, but if they’re not putting the money where the problems are, they must not really want to fund that kind of change,” says Naeema Muhammed of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN). “The big green groups can get any amount of money that they request, but the groups that are on the ground—the ones that are down in the trenches—we get the crumbs off the table.”

Muhammed and others point out that grassroots groups and groups led by people of color are often not included in discussions about disaster recovery and resilience. But the report also outlines how such groups achieve outsized results, thanks to powerful support networks, understanding of the intersectional nature of these problems, and an ability to rally together across divisions.

While critical, the report features plenty of inspiring information about funders and nonprofits that are seeing success—along with advice for newcomers. The authors give points of direction, like seeking to “understand the holistic history of Southern communities’ relationship to the land,” and not relying on well-resourced organizations and established funding streams. Authors recommend looking to intermediaries to gain access to the right grantees, and point out a number of local foundations and nonprofits as starting points for those interested. 

Check out the full report here