How a Green New Deal Backer Supports Movement Building—and How It’s Paying Off

A protest last December at the U.S. House of representatives. Rachael Warriner/shutterstock

A protest last December at the U.S. House of representatives. Rachael Warriner/shutterstock

Two of the biggest success stories in climate movement building—the Green New Deal and the push for fossil fuel divestment—have had relatively little support from foundations. One exception is the Wallace Global Fund, a progressive funder that helped to seed both before they caught fire. 

That’s a pretty enviable track record, even to more moderate members of the climate funding community that may bristle at the strategies themselves. 

Now, with the Green New Deal becoming a rallying cry in the broader escalation of climate change as a political priority, Wallace Global is throwing more weight behind it. The foundation recently awarded the Sunrise Movement its Henry A. Wallace Award, which carries a prize of $250,000, and committed another $750,000 during 2019 to several groups supporting the Green New Deal. Wallace Global is also forming connections across other grassroots movements, and rallying more donors to the cause, and even has a Green New Deal funders group in the works. 

The Sunrise Movement has been working with a relatively small budget so far, and a million-dollar commitment is a lot for a foundation of Wallace Global’s size. That’s indicative of the funder’s rare level of dedication to the idea that, while they may be unpredictable, intersectional social movements can yield profound change.

“Wallace Global's commitment to movement building is unique and special. They understand how movements work,” says William Lawrence, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement. “Through believing in the power of organizing, Wallace Global is getting a far greater return on investment than many larger foundations. We need more funders like them.”

Related: Sunrise Movement is Shaking Up the Climate Debate. Will More Funders Pay Attention?

The foundation’s approach is notably unique in climate philanthropy, which has historically been focused on incremental change, policy and technical expertise, and geared toward more top-down strategies. But Wallace Global’s approach has paid off, with both the divestment movement and Green New Deal impacting the climate debate far more than its leaders could have predicted a few years ago.

“It felt historic to us. Truly historic,” says foundation Executive Director Ellen Dorsey. “Was there any idea that a catalytic moment in Nancy Pelosi's office would take this into the center of the political debate, very quickly? No, that couldn't have been predicted. But the leadership, the strategy, the fertile moment all added up to say, yeah, there's something powerful here.”

A Staunch Progressive Legacy

Wallace Global Fund’s interest in the Green New Deal is programmatic, but there’s also an interesting connection to the foundation’s legacy. Its initial founder Henry A. Wallace was a fascinating political figure who founded a hybrid seed company (the origin of WGF’s $140 million in assets), served as secretary of agriculture under FDR during the creation of the original New Deal, and as his vice president. Wallace would later break from the Democratic Party, running as a third-party progressive presidential candidate with fierce stances, warning about the dangers of nationalism and the growing power of private industry. 

The foundation still hews to Wallace’s core principles, with main priorities of challenging corporate power and saving democracy from the excess of money in politics. It supports grassroots movements around the environment, climate change and women’s rights. 

It’s a small shop with a staff of five, and most grants are in the five-figure range. But it has a strong presence in the progressive community and among funders. For example, Wallace Global has been a vocal advocate for mission investing and foundations divesting from fossil fuels themselves. In 2018, the foundation announced it would put its entire 2017 stock market windfall toward the year’s grantmaking, pushing its payout to 16 percent of its assets with an additional $10 million (a leap ahead of the usual 5 percent for most funders). “It is absolutely unconscionable to be growing endowments right now,” Dorsey says.

Related: In the Era of Trump and Climate Change, Why Stockpile Surging Assets?

The foundation’s approach to movement building, in particular, really came into focus about 10 years ago. As Dorsey says, it sort of shifted the funder away from the frame of just making grants to nonprofits and toward an aspiration of supporting movements, the nebulous uprisings that emerge from masses of people impacted by a problem.

“If you approach your work transactionally as making grants to nonprofits, the lens is not wide enough to see your potential relationship to social movements,” Dorsey says. “It makes your relationship to the nonprofit be, at best, attempting additive work.”

Instead, the team asks how nonprofits can support movements, how funders can support those nonprofits, and how they can directly help the movement by offering things like more flexible funding, leadership development, and forming connections. 

From Divest to Sunrise

A big success story for this approach is Wallace Global’s backing of the fossil fuel divestment movement.

In 2011, coal or fossil fuel divestment campaigns were bubbling up at a number of college campuses, inspired by the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s. Dorsey brought together a group of student leaders from a handful of schools to meet at the foundation and explore how the idea might grow. Wallace Global ended up backing eight field organizers coming out of that meeting, which grew to 40 seemingly overnight, Dorsey says. “It was just so explosive.”

The divestment strategy is still somewhat controversial in the climate community, including among major climate funders, which either question its effectiveness or balk at a possible dip in their own investment returns. But divestment has essentially gone mainstream, with activists citing $8 trillion in commitments to withdraw assets from fossil fuel companies. 

One of the early selling points behind the strategy was that it drew a bright, moral line of opposition to fossil fuel companies, and provided a powerful entry point for emerging activists. That does seem to have played out, as many of the leaders of the divestment movement are now leaders in the Sunrise Movement and the push for the Green New Deal. 

So when those same young organizers were expanding their ambitions to back an idealistic suite of policies that would radically overhaul and decarbonize the U.S. economy, Wallace Global was one of a handful of institutional funders to support the idea. For many foundations, such a seemingly quixotic proposal would have faced major challenges just getting past a program officer, much less a board. 

Movements are unpredictable, and as Barbara Masters and Torie Osborn describe in their great paper on funding social movements, they tend to ebb and flow, either moving very slowly or very quickly. Dorsey says there’s no science to knowing whether some catalytic moment will speed things forward. Instead, the foundation looks for sound leadership, sound strategy, and an opportune political environment, all of which they saw in Sunrise. While facing pushback, the Green New Deal catalyzed a turning point in the climate policy debate, and Wallace Global has now made it a big priority.

The Henry A. Wallace Award will help the Sunrise Movement conduct training and leadership development, giving half the prize to a network of activists and organizations working on the Green New Deal. The award is only the second since the foundation established it; it gave the first to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in 2017 in recognition of the fight to halt the Dakota Access pipeline. According to board co-Chair Scott Wallace, the prize is meant to acknowledge ordinary people doing extraordinary things in the face of power.

“There's always an element here of courage that we seek to reward. These kids are not only standing up for the right thing, but they're getting hauled away in handcuffs,” Wallace says. “In some cases, they’re not even 18 yet, but they believe passionately in something they're organizing.”

The additional $750,000 from Wallace Global over the course of 2019 will support dozens of organizations, including labor, climate justice and environmental justice groups. That spread of funding strikes me as super-important in this effort. The Sunrise Movement is an important player, but there are hundreds of groups of all kinds that are supportive of the Green New Deal, and much of its strength is in its intersectionality.

This another major component of Wallace Global’s funding strategy. The foundation backs distinct issue areas, but Dorsey says the team works seamlessly across them, trying to connect leaders from different movements to advance each other’s goals.

“What Are We Waiting for?”

Wallace Global Fund is a unique foundation, for sure. Very few funders, even small family foundations, have this kind of dyed-in-the-wool vision built into their legacies. And many in philanthropy are simply not sold on the Green New Deal’s idealistic, multi-issue strategy. Which is to say, Wallace Global’s approach will not be for everyone. But any foundation, particularly those working in climate change, could take a page from the funder’s successes. 

For one, it recognizes the importance of people power, an insight sometimes lacking in technocratic philanthropic spaces. Sophisticated policy blueprints and the incremental approaches that characterize past major climate funding efforts “often were devoid of any kind of analysis of power,” Dorsey says. 

Wallace Global is highly cognizant of both the ticking clock of climate change and the enormous political influence of industry, and what it takes to meet that challenge. 

“The only way that we're going to overcome that is through a real vision. It’s people rising in the streets and demanding the change. And anything short of it is not going to get us where we need to go in the 10 years we have remaining.”

The other key lesson here is the foundation’s apparent comfort with risk. Many boards tend to get “bogged down in empirical measurements,” believing such monitoring to be their fiduciary responsibility, co-Chair Scott Wallace says. There are ways to measure progress in movement building, but there’s always uncertainty. “We love risk,” he says. “If a foundation is going to invest only in things that entail no risk, then where is the hope of change?”

And if foundations are hesitant to throw out their existing playbooks on climate philanthropy, Dorsey recommends a solution—increase payout in order to try new things.

“Bank on some new big ideas and put additional capital behind it. Let's see where this goes. Let's try and support this and get it to scale. And if it requires dipping into the piggy bank and paying out 6 percent or 7 percent or 8 percent instead of the mandatory minimum of 5 percent, what are we waiting for?”