Who’s Funding Appalachia’s Transition from Coal?

A disused coal "washer" located in Clay County in Eastern Kentucky. Credit: Jfacew (CC BY-SA 3.0)While the expected demise of coal has environmentalists rejoicing, what happens to the communities that depend on the industry? Nationwide, energy politics thrives on endless debate between environment and jobs, but in Appalachia, those questions determine the fate of an entire region.

Over the past decade, coal’s share of total U.S. electric power generation has fallen precipitously, and gross earnings by coal mining firms have joined the plunge. With hundreds of coal plants shuttered or scheduled for retirement over the past few years alone, the future of coal country seems grim. Who's watching out for the people are being hit hard by this shift? And what's philanthropy's role?

Late last year, the Obama administration softened the blow of its hotly debated Clean Power Plan (which is still under review) with a series of economic revitalization grants. Those resources, which benefited towns and nonprofits throughout the region, are only the tip of the federal iceberg. As part of FY 2016’s budget, the POWER+ initiative promises to invest roughly $10 billion into a set of coal country goals including economic diversification, environmental clean-up, health, and retirement security for workers.

Philanthropy can't match the government’s numbers, but Appalachia’s troubles have prompted activity from foundations. Previous coverage in IP highlighted Appalachian Community Capital, a collaborative effort between private and nonprofit actors to invest in the region. Its funders include the Calvert Foundation, which raised over $15 million to support Appalachian small business, and the Ford Foundation.

Another foundation that invested in Appalachian Community Capital is the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation (MRBF), based in North Carolina. MRBF supports anti-poverty efforts in the southeastern United States, using grantmaking and mission-oriented investing to advance its aims. The foundation’s Appalachian grantmaking (much of it in the low six figures) centers on a collection of region-specific funds and nonprofit networks devoted to economic stability and family security.

One of them, the Appalachia Funders Network, gathers 80 public and private grantmakers to invest in the region and increase national interest in doing so. Another effort, the Just Transition Fund, is led by Appalachia Funders Network and the Rockefeller Family Fund. This fund appears to be a grantmaking project that helps community organizations in the region take advantage of federal funding through the POWER+ program.

As an interesting (some would say ironic) side note, the Rockefeller Family Fund recently decided to divest from fossil fuels. It has been a prominent player in the Appalachian space.

In each case, we’re seeing public and private actors working together to funnel resources toward the problem. The issue, in this case, appears to be one of scale. Federal resources through POWER+ dwarf private funding, and everyone involved is scrambling to make use of the infusion of cash. But federal funding often comes with many restrictions and is not so nimble.

We'll be watching how efforts like the Appalachia Funders Network play out, and what difference they make in a region that was struggling even before the coal industry began its latest dive.

See more articles by Philip Rojc.