When the Solutions Project officially formed back in 2014, it was an unlikely team-up of a Hollywood A-lister, a businessman, and a Stanford professor built around the catchy and ambitious rallying cry of 100 percent clean energy.
As the Mark Ruffalo-founded outfit brought that target into the mainstream in the following years, it also emerged as an influential intermediary grantmaker, championing grassroots activists and frontline organizations, along with responsive, grantee-friendly giving practices.
Now, the organization’s doing something of a relaunch after a 2018 shock to its funding base and a changing landscape prompted its leaders to ask tough questions about the organization’s future. One big result is a commitment to a new 100 percent target—to devote all its resources to climate justice, and overwhelmingly to organizations led by women and people of color.
“When people who live every day with the effects of dirty energy and a changing climate draw on that experience to create solutions and drive change, the results can be game-changing,” actor and Solutions Project board member Don Cheadle said in the announcement.
Solutions, which does communications and capacity building work along with its grantmaking, has always supported grassroots groups and frontline leaders, much more so than mainstream climate and environmental philanthropy. But this is still a big step, even for a small grantmaker—by next year, it plans to give 95 percent of its support to groups led by people of color, and 80 percent to groups led by women. In 2018, those figures were 53 and 56 percent for the organization, respectively. Solutions has also been diversifying its own leadership and working to make its grantmaking more democratic, and hopes it can influence the field by elevating its grantees’ success stories.
This heightened focus comes at time when big climate pledges are coming from city, state and business leaders, and leading climate funders are working to rally more philanthropic dollars. At the same time, a growing climate justice movement is challenging top-down approaches to the issue and emphasizing needs and leadership in communities that are impacted the most. Climate philanthropy, in particular, has been criticized (including by me) for being top-heavy in its grantmaking, and underfunding grassroots and social justice strategies.
“We challenge our fellow grantmakers—especially climate and clean energy funders—to join us in making philanthropic funding reflect the diversity of American leadership,” Executive Director Sarah Shanley Hope says. In addition to their own pledge, Solutions is challenging other funders to pledge at least 10 percent of their giving to groups led by women of color.
To illustrate the need for this commitment and challenge to the sector, the Solutions Project paired the announcement with a report on 2018 media coverage of renewable energy that found women and people of color were greatly overlooked. The review of 2,300 articles found that only 7 percent of coverage about renewable energy referenced communities of color, only 10 percent referenced equity or justice, and 21 percent referenced women.
There are lots of climate and energy success stories in frontline communities, Hope says, they’re just underrepresented and underfunded. Supporting them not only leverages the expertise of lived experience, but also engages people in climate action in ways that directly impact their lives.
“I think that's the missed opportunity of this overemphasis within climate philanthropy on the top-down, perfect-policy-centric approach,” Hope says. “You miss what's already happening all around us, which is communities coming together to implement the solutions that every American wants.”
One vivid example of this type of work is happening in New York, where Solutions grantee PUSH Buffalo has taken the lead in what’s become a national model of community-driven climate action. A housing group at heart, PUSH has developed a “green development zone” in a diverse, low-income neighborhood on the West Side of Buffalo. Guided by hundreds of community members, the 25-square-block area is now the site of green affordable housing, infrastructure and renewable energy projects, with much of the work done by local residents using skills acquired in PUSH’s job training program.
“The people that are closest to the problem actually have the best solutions, and they're involved in the planning process, from A to Z,” says PUSH Executive Director Rahwa Ghirmatzion. “What's great about those outcomes is they think of things that we would never think of.”
The result is a multi-issue approach that takes on health, food, housing, water, labor and more, along with climate and energy, reflecting the way people actually experience these problems. “They give us a pretty holistic view and kind of challenge us to implement as many of those as we can into all of our housing projects,” Ghirmatzion says.
PUSH’s biggest accomplishment to date is the repurposing of an abandoned public school, School 77, into a space for senior housing, community programming, a theatre company, and more, generating power with a large rooftop solar array.
Meanwhile, Sarah Shanley Hope says, PUSH Buffalo and its members are also a recognized force in climate policy, showing up at hearings and town halls around energy issues, informing statewide decisions. She also cites 12 of its grantees that contributed to nearly $2 billion in combined public investment wins across four states.
From New York to Standing Rock
The Solutions Project has operated, in part, as a sort of bridge between community grantees and philanthropy. That includes its communications work. Rahwa Ghirmatzion notes that Solutions has helped PUSH Buffalo hone its messaging, which has been tough to explain to funders that tend to slot intersecting issues into siloed programs. But much of our interest in the organization concerns its innovations as a passthrough grantmaker, which developed as it picked up more financial backing.
To date, the Solutions Project has invested $4.2 million in grants, not including media services, which Hope puts at as much as $2 million. Initially focused only in California and New York, it stepped up grantmaking between 2016 to 2018, giving between $1 million and $1.5 million annually across 22 states.
During that time, the organization set up a rapid response grantmaking program called the Fighter Fund, focused on frontline leaders and funding things like fossil fuel infrastructure resistance. While it certainly didn’t invent the idea of rapid response funding, the Fighter Fund predated the spread of rapid response funds that we’ve seen during the Trump administration.
The Solutions Project was also an integral funder of the Standing Rock water protectors and the fight to block the Dakota Access pipeline, which became a huge rallying point for environmental activism. The group won a 2017 Impact Award from NCRP for its own rapid response grantmaking and its role in organizing other funders seeking to direct money to the movement as it grew.
The organization’s also been working to democratize its giving, subscribing to an approach called trust-based philanthropy, as outlined by the Whitman Institute. That includes relying on a separate board of philanthropic trustees—none of whom are the donors—to make grant decisions over $25,000.
Crisis Brings Clarity
The fact that the Solutions Project has always acted as an intermediary and never a source of its own wealth has likely helped it to play that liaison role. But that model also presents an obvious challenge, in that they experience the same kinds of funding uncertainty as their grantees.
In 2018, that challenge became very real, as three of the group’s funders decreased their investments within one month of each other, by happenstance, Hope says. That included one of its largest supporters, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.
LDF still funds the organization, and Executive Director Justin Winters serves on the Solutions Project’s board, but the foundation has been undergoing staffing and program changes. A statement from Winters didn’t give a specific reason for the decrease, but pointed out that LDF has given Solutions Project $3.25 million in grants to date, helping them get off the ground and secure other funders.
"As is common for foundations, budget priorities and needs evolve, and so has the level of financial support from LDF. We look forward to continuing our dynamic and deep partnership with the Solutions Project as they continue to forge a bold and just approach to solving the climate crisis, and we hope that other funders will join us in this commitment.”
Solutions has several other backers—current major funders also include the 11th Hour Project, Surdna, JPB and Nathan Cummings foundations—but the combined drop in funding was a blow. The staff and board made a “very difficult decision” for the organization to absorb the losses rather than pass it on to grantees, Hope says, and with additional fundraising, maintained its commitments of $1.3 million in grants for that year.
The organization now has a smaller team, all based in California, and this year, anticipates a total of $1.5 million in media work and grants combined. They also used the opportunity to evaluate how the organization could best focus the resources it has.
“We had the chance to really look at that and say, OK, whether… our financing was changing or not, the world is a lot different now than it was when we started five years ago, so where can we go next?” Hope says. “We got really clear that if equity was not at the forefront, the success that we've had to date would be undermined.”
The organization turned to its grantees to determine the group’s next phase, interviewing about 25 of them in a process that led them to the current commitment.
“It is in moments of crisis that you often arrive at clarity,” Hope says.
They’ve also merged communications and grant programming, now pairing each grant with media support to boost grantee stories—shifting culture and narratives around climate and energy remains a major goal. And Solutions is now focusing less on organizing other funders (which they learned was difficult to do without an endowment), and more on sharing lessons from their own grantmaking and grantees.
It sounds like it’s been a challenging year for the organization, but the Solutions Project has come out on the other side.
I think there’s always some question about a nonprofit that starts out as a celebrity’s passion project, and whether it can develop into a sustained force, and in this case, a lasting conduit for climate funding. The Solutions Project definitely made a big splash in its first years, and you might think of this as the next step along that development, trying to settle into the role it’s going to play in the field. Whether this heightened focus will contribute to shifts in the sector is to be seen.
In judging the group’s success, we could certainly discuss the spread of the 100 percent clean energy goal, still debated but widely embraced. But we might also look at the spread of the intermediary concept itself. Hope points out that since it started its grantmaking, at least six other intermediary funds have been organized with similar or complementary approaches.
While it’s hard to say how much direct influence Solutions has, the point is that today, there are many options for moving money to the grassroots, all of which are capable of moving a lot more money.
So maybe success for a group like the Solutions Project is less about being a funding powerhouse itself (although I’m sure they’d be perfectly happy to do so), and more about the spread of this network of hubs around the country, allowing donors big and small to connect to ground level climate work.