Ben & Jerry's Foundation: Grants for Marine and River Conservation

OVERVIEW: The Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, the philanthropic arm of its ice cream company namesake, is devoted to supporting grassroots efforts for activism and change—with environmental problem-solving and protections at the forefront of its devotion.

IP TAKE: Fitting with the populist perception of the ice cream company’s two founders, this foundation seeks to put power in the hands of the people. So while the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation is unquestionably dedicated to conservation (including that of marine environments, rivers, and other bodies of water), any programmatic work surrounding these issues must flow from an overt, strategic, constituent-led approach. Better yet, connect this work to constituents' health and wellness.

PROFILE: The Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Vermont-based ice cream company, was established in 1985 with a gift of stock from namesake Ben Cohen. The other founder, Jerry Greenfield, was named president of the foundation. It's a post he still holds: he says he was appointed because he missed the first meeting when positions were decided. Jerry’s claim is a light-hearted one, of course, but it speaks volumes to the way the foundation has evolved over the years.

In 1991, the foundation began a transition into an employee-led group, which is fully realized today. The work of “committee members” (Ben & Jerry’s employees who are on the grant selection teams) on foundation activity considered part of their job at the company. As the foundation’s Director of Programs, Rebecca Golden, put it: “Our internal decision-making structure reflects our core commitment to empowering and elevating the voices of those traditionally without power.”

Indeed, the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation mission statement is “to engage Ben & Jerry's employees in philanthropy and social change work; to give back to our Vermont communities; and to support grassroots activism and community organizing for social and environmental justice around the country.”

In that statement, “environmental justice” is listed last, but in terms of the foundation’s giving, it’s a focus that is unquestionably first. Support of organizations and projects that protect marine, river and other water environments are significant areas of the foundation’s giving.

This support occurs through its Grassroots Organizing Through Social Change program, which is the foundation’s key program for distributing U.S.-wide support. Grants come in good-sized chunks. The foundation states it will award grants up to $25,000; in reality, the vast majority fall within $10,000 - $20,000, for both general operating and project support. 

While we’re on the financials: The Ben & Jerry’s Foundation only funds nonprofits with annual operating budgets of $500,000 or less. Related to those operating budgets, the foundation only funds programs that are unquestionably grassroots-driven, focusing “on the types of activities and strategies an organization uses for creating social change rather than on the specific issues the organization is addressing,” with a Theory of Change that “people most affected by a problem are in the best position to determine the solutions.”

Within its environmental giving, the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation is also keenly aware of how environmental protections (or erosions) greatly affect the health of local residents. It is therefore especially keen to support organizations and program work that bridges marine protections with health and welfare protections for local citizens.

These guiding principles are evident in the foundation’s recent marine, river, and other water grantees, including:

  • $20,000 to Communities for Clean Water (Santa Fe, NM) for its "Toxic Cleanup Campaign," a public relations and community engagement campaign to "pressure policymakers" and "expose threats" to regional waters, as well as "propose positive missions";
  • $15,000 in general operating support to the AGUA Coalition (Visalia, CA), a "grassroots coalition of low-income and people of color communities, dedicated to improving water quality in the San Joaquin Valley";
  • $15,000 in general operating support to Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger (Merrimac, WI), which "unifies and strengthens citizens working for a healthy and sustainable future for Wisconsin's Badger Army Ammunition Plant lands and other contaminated military sites";
  • $14,000 in general operating support to the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (Gloucester, MA), whose mission is "to enhance and maintain healthy marine ecosystems by organizing a decentralized network of community-based fishermen, fishworkers and allies";

Not surprisingly, the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation has an open grant application process, with two LOI deadlines each year (typically April and October) for its Grassroots Organizing for Social Change program.


Rebecca Golden, Director of Programs