A Partnership Making the Case for Supporting Grassroots Climate Work

 photo: Aynia Brennan/shutterstock

photo: Aynia Brennan/shutterstock

There’s a good argument to be made that communities on the frontlines of environmental protection—especially indigenous people, women and youth—ought to receive greater funding based on significant need and the small amount they currently receive. 

But for grassroots groups to become a larger force when it comes to climate change, proponents will need to bring more and bigger funders to the table. That means making the case that their solutions are powerful on a large scale, and that there are effective pathways to move funds from huge endowments to scrappy activists. 

One of a handful of emerging players trying to do so is the Grassroots Climate Solutions Fund, a partnership of four grantmakers that have been supporting indigenous rights, climate and economic justice, and women’s rights for more than 100 years combined. The intent is to attract and disburse more funding collaboratively than individual partners could on their own, but also to shift some common perceptions about which strategies are effective when it comes to climate change. 

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“I’m really thinking about our success as whether in one to two years, we have a cohort of funders that would not otherwise be investing in grassroots climate solutions,” says Lindley Mease, coordinator of the fund, which is housed at Thousand Currents (formerly IDEX).

“But also, how are we influencing the sector writ large? How much money overall is now moving to grassroots climate work because new funders actually believe in long-term, systemic change as a way to address the root causes of climate change and reduce emissions?”

The fund was launched in 2016 by Thousand Currents, Global Greengrants Fund, Grassroots International, and Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights as a way to rally greater funding, but also to shift the overall narrative about climate solutions and leaders. They’ve currently raised $450,000 from a set of backers that include the Packard, Libra and Swift foundations, and are in “active and advanced conversations” with other funders that have not supported this type of work before.

The partnership arrives amid a couple of important trends. First, we’ve seen a growing concern in recent years about the harsh restrictions coming down on civil society around the world, and environmentalists being killed in record numbers, including the murder of Honduran activist Berta Caceres. There’s also been an increasing, although still relatively small amount of philanthropic attention being paid to movement-building and grassroots strategies in the climate fight, after being focused largely on federal and international policy work or market-based solutions. 

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Proponents of greater grassroots funding argue that there are valuable lessons about resilience, innovation, and the systemic problems at the root of climate change that can be learned from communities most vulnerable to its impacts. There’s also the promise of connecting with people where climate change affects them personally, and organizing a ground-up movement capable of mobilizing a large response. 

Efforts like the Grassroots Climate Solutions Fund aim to deliver a message to the sector that these frontline communities can be a powerful lever in the climate fight, and that their work can add up to a scale that’s underestimated.

So far, the fund has made 19 grants totaling $190,000. Grantees include the Southern Peasants Federation of Thailand, which received support for protesting deforestation as a result of palm oil plantation expansion. The Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras received funding for its movement-building and indigenous rights work. In Nepal, the Digo Bikas Institute received a grant for its Rethinking Development Program to end fossil fuel use and emphasize youth leadership. 

One benefit of being made up of partners with such long track records is that they can divide up funds and then each execute their own specialties, whether that’s rapid response to immediate threats, supporting emerging organizations, or movement building. The idea is that they can work together to create a “continuum of support.” They also plan to coordinate with other intermediaries to avoid creating unintended negative effects for grantees.

Perhaps the partnership’s biggest challenge, however, is to figure out how to rally that larger support from unlikely sources. A big part of that, Mease says, involves having an “honest and raw dialogue” about the different world views of funders. That means grassroots supporters connecting with those that might typically pursue international policy or technology, and moving away from an either/or approach toward different solutions. 

“If we’re not in conversation, and we don’t have a both/and approach, we’re not going to be successful,” she says. 

It’s also about taking the effectiveness the four partners have witnessed in communities for decades, and showing how they fit within the goals of larger funders. They’re working with researchers over the summer to aggregate statistics and stories from grassroots work, and the Packard Foundation provided a grant to produce two videos on the subject. 

“Because these organizations have seen on the ground how these solutions do scale, we see it as a translation problem, not as a ‘where are the solutions?’ problem,” Mease says. 

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