Following Devastating Hurricanes, These Funders Get Behind Island Climate Resilience

Sheryl Chapman/shutterstock

Sheryl Chapman/shutterstock

Hurricane Maria was one of the worst disasters in U.S. history, destroying tens of thousands of homes, crippling island infrastructure, and causing nearly 3,000 deaths. It was another example of federal disaster response failing vulnerable communities, and yet another eye opener to the harsh reality of climate change.

For many island communities, every storm is followed by looming concern about the next case of extreme weather. Residents face greater and distinct challenges than those on the mainland, while also being thrust into a position of climate leadership.

With all that in mind, the affordable housing nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners in 2018 set up an effort to help island communities not only recover from past storm damage, but also to strengthen local infrastructure and anticipate future climate impacts. The Climate Strong Islands Initiative is funded by the New York Community Trust, two funds housed at the Miami Foundation, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the nonprofit Unidos por Puerto Rico

The initiative is one example of how funders can back not only recovery, but also climate resilience, and how community funders are engaging with climate change, something we’ll hopefully see a lot more of in coming years.

It’s common to see a surge of donations to aid disaster recovery efforts, but they tend to taper off pretty quickly and there’s less focus on giving toward resilience and preparedness for future disasters. We’ve written previously that the Center for Disaster Philanthropy has been working to support more long-term, sustained recovery efforts. Meanwhile, more funders are prioritizing climate resilience as impacts become more severe. This is especially crucial in island communities, which face unique challenges like geographic isolation and economies that are often heavily dependent on tourism and agriculture, both of which are extremely vulnerable to disruption from natural disasters.


In the case of the Climate Strong Islands Initiative, the focus is going beyond delivering services, and toward building capacity among local community organizations in the form of trainings, tools, program design, and systems improvements. Funds will also establish a resilient building practices manual, support island-centric pilot projects, and build a network of partners across multiple islands. The geographic focus is on Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Florida Keys. Enterprise is a major grantee for sustainable community development and affordable housing efforts, drawing substantial past support from the Arnold, Gates, Kresge, Ford, and JPB foundations, and many more. 

For this particular initiative, funding from the Miami Foundation, which manages over $360 million in assets from more than 1,000 donors, comes from two funds: The Hurricane Relief Fund and U.S. Caribbean Strong Relief Fund. The foundation backs some other climate resilience work, like the Climate Leadership Engagement Opportunities (CLEO) Institute in Miami. 

Funding from the New York Community Trust is kind of a unique circumstance. There are strong connections between New York and Caribbean island communities, and New York is also situated on islands vulnerable to extreme weather, but this grant is outside its primary geographic focus. That said, the trust gives a lot of environmental grants outside of New York, as led by Program Officer Arturo Garcia-Costas. It stems from an endowed fund called the Henry Phillip Kraft Family Memorial Fund, which acts as a kind of mini-foundation focused on the environment, within the community trust. 

Other key backers include NFWF, pairing public and private funds for conservation work, including one focus on Resilient Communities. And Unidos por Puerto Rico is a charity that channels donations to individuals and businesses that were devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. 

This is just one philanthropic program responding to the devastation caused by recent extreme weather, with the Puerto Rico Community Foundation itself channeling millions in relief. And while modest, Climate Strong Islands Initiative hints at a few areas of potential for climate philanthropy. 

For one, there’s a big need to support island communities in general, including for those that are part of the United States, but are often neglected (and insulted, in the case of Puerto Rico post-Maria). You can see how giving like this could build up support of shared resources for many geographies facing this unique set of issues. Puerto Rico’s response to Hurricane Maria also underscored the importance of supporting grassroots groups and local organizations that worked tirelessly on the ground.

Community foundations are also playing an increasing role in climate funding, including the San Diego Foundation, Hawai‘i Community Foundation, NYCT, and a number of local funders that operate on the front lines of sea level rise in the Southeast United States. (See our recent piece on the Bayou Community Foundation in Louisiana.) Collectively, there’s a lot of potential for community funders to become larger players in funding climate resilience and mitigation.