Nexus: What Can Funders do to Connect Equity, Climate, and Water Systems?

photo: Robert Blouin/shutterstock

photo: Robert Blouin/shutterstock

Water systems have emerged as an important focus area for funders in recent years, against a backdrop of flooding, drought, natural disaster, and aging infrastructure. These negative impacts tend to harm low-income people and communities of color “first and worst,” and the deep connections between water, climate change and justice became powerfully clear when both Standing Rock and the Flint water crisis rose to national attention in 2016. 

While foundations interested in water come at it from different angles, Kresge set out in 2017 on an initiative that would focus right at that intersection of water infrastructure, climate resilience, and equity. The foundation recently put out its first outside assessment of this effort—the Climate Resilient and Equitable Water Systems (CREWS) initiative—and found good progress, but a ways to go toward effectively linking the different aspects of a complex issue.


The report is, in one sense, an evaluation of Kresge’s own grantmaking in this arena. But it’s also a look at a field that’s coalescing, and how those involved, including grantmakers, can advance the work. Among other things, the report finds that there’s a need for more education and awareness-building among stakeholders. Groups working on these issues also need more funding to build capacity—particularly community-based leaders.

This is an important new issue for Michigan-based Kresge, as the foundation has been working to center equity in its green giving, which is itself uniquely centered on urban environments. There’s a lot of potential for other funders here, too; those working on stormwater infrastructure, social justice, and climate change don’t necessarily start on the same footing, but they might amplify their power if they could align their work. 

A Fledgling Effort

On the initiative's own progress, the assessment—funded by Kresge, conducted by Meridian Institute, and prepared for grantee American Rivers—found that CREWS is bringing an equity lens to the water sector. It looked at the then-21 grantees in the cohort, which received $7.6 million over almost two years. Grantees are all over the country, and vary in terms of size and how they approach the issues. They are primarily NGOs with national reach, although many partner with community and grassroots groups. 

Grantees are also mostly white in staffing (71 percent) and board makeup (65 percent). The report notes that this is an average and doesn’t reflect the makeup of all grantees—i.e., some groups are mostly people of color and others are almost entirely white—and that Kresge cites increasing diversity among grantees as a goal for CREWS.  

The assessment also highlights case studies of promising work, such as that of the Anthropocene Alliance, a diverse network of flood survivor advocacy groups calling for action on environmental abuse and climate change. Or the Fair Share Housing Center, which is promoting disaster recovery that focuses on equity and resilience, based on its experience with Superstorm Sandy and work with federal agencies. 

Making a Stronger Case

Through interviews with CREWS grantees, the assessment identified a number of needs in the overall landscape of this kind of work. Much of this relates to the fact that work at this intersection is in its early stages, and it's an intersectional topic with players coming from different starting points. 

One interesting finding describes a "research gap" around flooding and other climate impacts on communities, which then translates to a messaging gap in these communities when it comes to water infrastructure decisions. There’s an overall need to raise awareness among decision-makers about disparities in flood impacts on low-income communities and people of color. The assessment also identified a need for education among different partners, whether on water infrastructure, climate science, or equity issues.

Similarly, there’s a need for more research and better information on the effectiveness of solutions. Philanthropy and NGOs have embraced green stormwater infrastructure (using parks and other features to absorb stormwater), based on several simultaneous benefits. But advocates need to be armed with better information to make their case.

More Community Funding is Needed

Another shortcoming, not surprisingly, is a need for more support at the local level. According to the assessment, while local leaders and community-based organizations need training and information, stronger alliances and partnerships—most importantly, they need money. 

Additional funding would allow them to build up institutional capacity to do this work on an ongoing basis. That often means backing for “mundane tasks,” but even small amounts in the right places could have a major impact on communities. 

This is a larger problem in the funding world, so it’s not too surprising to hear it from this assessment. Philanthropy tends to underfund community and grassroots groups, and organizational and capacity-building support is much harder to find than project grants. Kresge itself seems to be relying a lot on national groups partnering with local leaders, which can are often effective and provide support. But according to this assessment, community groups and local leaders need more funding to bring about equitable water systems amid the impacts of climate change. 

See the complete list of recommendations and learn more about grantees and their work in the full report here.