How This Justice Funder is Backing Water Infrastructure in American Cities

flooding in louisiana, one of the places where surdna is targeting grants. photo: Allen J.M. Smith/shutterstock

flooding in louisiana, one of the places where surdna is targeting grants. photo: Allen J.M. Smith/shutterstock

Editor's Note: This post has been updated to reflect upcoming changes to the Surdna Foundation's grantmaking strategies, to be announced in the fall of 2018. 

A medium-sized family foundation with big ambitions like the Surdna Foundation has a couple of options when it comes to focusing its resources. It can go deep in a particular geography, or it can hammer down on some key strategies. 

For Surdna’s environment program, that focus has been uniquely all about infrastructure, including sustainable and equitable water infrastructure in American cities, ranging from Los Angeles to New Orleans. Since 2013, the foundation has given about $8.7 million to green infrastructure and stormwater issues. Surdna's currently in the process of updating its grantmaking strategies, and we're told the environment program will be moving away from green infrastructure, but the funder's been an influential one in this field during the past five years or so. The subprogram has focused on some important locations, but grants have gone all over the country, and toward developing national resources and best practices in the field.

While ocean conservation is a real juggernaut in green funding circles, freshwater management has also emerged as a major philanthropic issue in response to the ongoing Flint water crisis, drought in the American West, and flooding related to intense storms and other consequences of climate change.

Of course, philanthropy has a long history of bankrolling water projects overseas. It's been striking to watch the United States emerge as a locus for such funding, although the issues are quite different—and, in many places, present intriguing opportunities. As cities are responding to more runoff pollution, aging water systems, and federal stormwater regulations, all with tight budgets, some funders are trying to steer away from dirty pipes and gutters in favor of “green infrastructure,” like parks and landscaping features that can absorb water in place. 


Surdna first found its way into this realm via its emphasis on social justice and communities. The particular focus on infrastructure came about after a 2012 refinement that targeted these decisions as inflection points for both environmental sustainability and equity in communities. The wrong decisions can simultaneously worsen pollution, and disproportionately harm low-income areas and communities of color. 

So Surnda, under Sustainable Environments Program Director Helen Chin, set out to support community engagement in these decisions, and water infrastructure projects that could counter poverty and create local benefits. Since then, they've built up capacity and innovation in the overall field, while backing actual infrastructure projects in cities and metro areas. 

The foundation has backed a bunch of national groups like the Center for Neighborhood Technology and Climate Interactive to work on best practices and tools for establishing green infrastructure. Local funding is spread around, with grants going to big cities like Los Angeles and New York, but there’s also a lot of interesting work being funded in Pennsylvania and Louisiana.

Pennsylvania’s cities have been fertile ground for freshwater management improvements due to their aging water systems and important connections to rivers and surrounding watersheds. The Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia has received repeat Surdna grants for its work to advance the area’s green infrastructure industry through a network of local businesses. In Pittsburgh, local economic justice coalition Pittsburgh United has received funding for its advocacy related to equitable economic development and green infrastructure. 

Louisiana is another important area for this work, contending with flooding, intense storms, and deep poverty. Surdna grantees here include the Foundation for Louisiana and the Greater New Orleans Foundation, two organizations that have been integral in community engagement and shaping decisions regarding future water management and resilience. 

The Surdna Foundation is currently in a transitional period, as Phillip Henderson announced his departure as president in late 2017, after about a decade at the helm. Surdna's currently in the process of revising its grantmaking strategies, and will say goodbye to the green infrastructure game later in the year. But the funder has been a major presence in innovative areas like this one and impact investing, for example. Surdna's certainly left its mark in the water funding space, and it will be interesting to see where this influential foundation's green giving heads next.