Has Green Failed Because Environmental Donors Have Been Giving to the Wrong Groups?

Floating out under the radar about ten days ago was a new report on philanthropy and the environmental movement, which purports to have at least part of the solution to why, by and large, 1) there have been both been so few major political victories on environmental issues (at least the big ones) in the past two decades, and 2) why the bed of grassroots support for real environmental change isn't more lush.

The quick answer: Donors to environmental organizations are mostly neglecting funding anything than the big lobbying groups, ignoring the community-based grassroots organizations needed to build up wide-reaching popular support.

The National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy's Cultivating the Grassroots report says that from 2000-2009 environmental funders gave $10 billion (interestingly, roughly 20% more than BP is expected to payout in the Gulf oil spill civil settlement, for one event, happening in one year). Breaking that down, though green organizations with budgets topping more than $5 million are just 2% of all the environmental groups out there, they received over half of all these grants and donations. Furthermore, using stats from 2007-2009, just 15% of all grant monies benefit marginalized communities, with just 11% going to support "social justice" strategies such as community organizing.

AlterNet sums up why this approach isn't having the desired effect:

Mainstream environmental groups hang pleas for environmental change on the apolitical hook of rational appeals, expecting that decision-makers confronted with powerful evidence will do the right thing. But this strategy has not worked because "a vocal, organized, sustained grassroots base is vital to achieving sustained changed" [...] Successful movements for social change...have always been inspired, energized, and led by those most directly affected. Yet these are the very groups within the environmental movement that are starved for funds.

How best to shift funding?

The report says: 1) Allocate 20-50% of total giving to underserved communities (noting that by 2042 a majority of Americans will be people of color); 2) invest 25% of all grants into grassroots action; 3) build a strong activist infrastructure, much in the way the Tea Party has done; 4) taking a longer view of giving, recognizing that you may not see the change for which you are fighting for 30 years or more.

Both the AlterNet piece I cited and the original report are worth taking a look at. But what I want you to think about is this, two things actually:

First, remember that, like very nearly everything out there, this isn't an either-or situation. Individual, community/grassroots, and national/international political action are all required—and anyone who tries to say that any one, or even any two, of those is sufficient or the most important is likely advocating self-servingly for their little slice of the green pie and not positive environmental change as a whole.

Second, this report is a good jumping off point from some green movement introspection, along the lines of 'where do we go next?'.

The 21st century revitalization of the environmental movement renamed it Green. Cue gazillions of simple green steps articles, vampire power freakouts, Al Gore, Ed Begley Jr, and Planet Green (not to mention, of course, this very site). Somewhere in perhaps late 2008 or 2009, in the run up to COP15, the realization that only international cooperative action between nations was going to bring about a global climate deal, combined with the start of the Great Recession, brought the focus of Green back to the essence of old-school environmentalism. That is political activism—which has failed through a combination of concerted opposition by the polluting class and popular inertia because of the neglect of widespread grassroots activation. Clearly, without popular support, no political change will happen.

If we've all gotten the 7 Simple Green Steps down pat, and we now recognize that the scale of the problem is such that we need big, big political and economic changes to solve it, the next thing, completing the triangle, is the 7 Green Steps to Build Community.

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