The Network of Women Environmental Donors Pooling Funds to Fight the Border Wall

 photo: Chess Ocampo/shutterstock

photo: Chess Ocampo/shutterstock

Border walls cause profound damage to the communities and natural landscapes they cut through, and for years, environmental, faith-based, and immigrant and human rights groups have been fighting physical fencing and militarization along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Concerns magnified as Donald Trump made new border wall construction a cornerstone of a campaign and now presidency fueled by anti-immigrant sentiment. The looming threat this posed to both people and natural habitats along the border has led Rachel’s Network, a community of women donors supporting environmental work, to begin pooling funds to oppose such a border wall. 

Inspired by a member’s longtime work in Southwestern conservation, Rachel’s Network in 2017 began a partnership with the Sierra Club, giving $50,000 in support of its work to oppose existing and proposed border walls, and this month, extended that funding with a grant of $25,000 to the Texas Civil Rights Project. The funder network is backing the broad coalition of groups working on the issue, and legal support for landowners along the border. 

It’s the latest in a series of partnerships funded by the network, a nonprofit that brings together women who give individually and through their foundations to green issues. Named for environmental pioneer Rachel Carson, the organization also has an interest in advancing women leaders, as well as environmental health and justice. Their official advisory group includes environmental icons like Jane Goodall and Terry Tempest Williams, and they coordinate with sector leaders like Greenpeace Executive Director Annie Leonard, NRDC President Rhea Suh, and 350.org Executive Director May Boeve. 

There’s a lot of giving power spread across the network’s members, with their combined individual philanthropy totaling around $60 million per year. But the organization also runs its own collectively funded programs and partnerships. It uses a “member-led, staff-supported co-funding model” in which members bring up a potential cause, and Rachel’s Network staff help the group learn more about it and formulate a grant. The organization then raises funds from individual donor members and carries out the grant. 

Since starting this approach in 2014, according to Communications Manager Erica Flock, it’s grown significantly, with member participation tripling and grantmaking increasing 10-fold. In 2017, the organization granted about $98,000, and in 2018, expects to grant more than $150,000. 

Aside from the border wall issue, Rachel’s Network is currently funding the Women, Food and Agriculture Network’s Plate to Politics program to help rural women advance their political careers. The network last year released an updated version of its report “When Women Lead,” which highlights the environmental voting records of women elected officials. It also funds women entrepreneurs through a fellowship with Ashoka, and supports work on preventing antibiotics and pesticides in food supplies.   

The Border Wall program is somewhat unique for the organization, and came about at a Spring 2017 meeting, when member and Southwestern conservationist Diana Hadley discussed the damage she’s seen in fragmented wildlife corridors along the border. Existing border fencing has already wreaked havoc on the surrounding environment, and new walls on the scale Trump has called for would be an ecological disaster.

Trump has made massive border wall construction a top priority (or at least a rallying cry) within his anti-immigration agenda, even using it as a bargaining chip in budget negotiations. The proposal has faced staunch opposition from Democrats. It’s been lambasted as a political sideshow; a threat to local economies, Native American communities and immigrants; a danger to wildlife and freshwater ecosystems; and a massive waste of money

Of course, the environmental and human rights impacts of border militarization and fencing have been a concern long before the arrival of Donald Trump. The problem was exacerbated by the Secure Fence Act of 2006 signed by George W. Bush, which erected more than 600 miles of new barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border, and three major barrier expansions during the Clinton administration. 

Surrounding the 2006 expansion, a coalition of NGOs, municipalities, tribal governments and individuals formed to oppose border walls and the build-up of other enforcement in the region. Rachel’s Network’s initial grant to the Sierra Club is backing work to strengthen that coalition, backing legal challenges, creation of a website, and public education about negative impacts. The coalition currently has over 160 organizations signed on. 

The network expanded its border wall funding this month, with a grant to the Texas Civil Rights Project that supports residents threatened by border wall construction. TCRP is a legal advocacy group with a network of pro bono attorneys who will provide legal defense and inform landowners along the border of their rights in light of eminent domain claims. 

Donor circles like Rachel’s Network fill an important niche within the philanthropic sector, allowing the  exchange of ideas among like-minded donors, and helping small foundations and individuals in particular to access the kind of advising and exposure to causes that they might not otherwise have found on their own.

The Trump administration triggered a flood of small donors giving to nonprofits like the ACLU, and more than a few new initiatives at larger foundations. The border wall project is an example of funders somewhere between the two, who might otherwise be working on their own, finding a shared path for their opposition to the administration's policies that fits within their philanthropic priorities.