The Environmental Movement’s Unfunded Army

Why fostering diversity among senior leadership at environmental organizations is important to the success of the environmental movement.

If you were fighting a war against a well-funded opponent and trying to save civilization as we know it, would you leave any combat units underfunded?

Not likely. And yet this is the environmental movement’s puzzling state of affairs. Diversity among the senior ranks of its largest funders and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) remains scarce.

The working group Green 2.0, created by leaders of color who have experience across various sectors of the environmental movement, has examined diversity efforts in the environmental sector over the last two decades. Unfortunately, despite the stakes—as we face extreme weather impacts and climate disruption, and warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, The World Bank, and Federal Emergency Management Agency—progress has been glacial. The inconvenient truth is that we need to tackle low diversity among the pool of funders and NGO executives making decisions about who and what to fund and prioritize if we are to win more battles.

As alumnae of the philanthropic corps, we raise this wearily and warily. Funders typically agree that against the backdrop of a rapidly changing America and powerful opponents invested in the status quo, it is imperative to make environmental efforts relevant and welcoming to all walks of life. (People of color currently constitute one-third of the US population—a number that’s expected to climb to 50 percent by 2042. In many cities and some states, they are already the majority; last month, California Latinos became the largest ethnic group in the state.) But consensus among funders breaks down on solutions, particularly when it comes to looking inside their organizations. To address this problem, we must look at the complete ecosystem—all the decision makers—and make structural changes.

We need to pay attention to the composition of leadership among those that are deciding how to spend billions of philanthropic dollars. People of color care deeply and frequently poll higher than whites in their support for environmental issues—not surprising, as environmental ills fall disproportionately on them. And if anyone needs for the green economy to deliver, it is those from black and brown communities where employment rates are worse than average.

We need a more comprehensive approach. We won’t solve the diversity challenge just by asking friends and colleagues of color to help with an open job position. (We frequently get these calls, happy to help). And we won’t solve it just by tweaking messaging about how to mobilize “them."

Funders play an important role in holding organizations accountable and setting priorities, and they need to push for systematic solutions without and within. This means funneling resources and attention toward increasing diversity as they would toward any other issue they value: hiring experts to survey solutions, assigning staff, developing strategies, aligning resources, sharing best practices, and tracking progress. They should also share results so that others can benefit, just as foundations often do with impact on other issues. We measure what we care about, and we value what we measure.

Experts tell us that everyone has some level of unconscious bias, just to different degrees. It’s why voters support taller and better-looking, but less-qualified candidates, and why resumes for people with white-sounding names get 50 percent more callbacks than ones for people with black-sounding names, even if the resumes have no other differences. We must create systems that help us make fairer decisions. There is no one-size-fits-all formula. Not all funders are in the same boat. Foundations like Ford and Kellogg ask grant applicants to share the demographic composition of their staff and board. To get beyond just numbers, the Kresge Foundation requires that applicants answer a comprehensive number of questions on diversity efforts. The Noyes Foundation has published the demographic breakdown of grantees’ leadership—a model of transparency.

Despite a lot of hand-wringing and statements saying that its leaders value diversity, the environmental sector is behind on diversity efforts compared to other sectors. Overall, environmental organizations underfund, under-engage, and under-hire the very constituencies they say they need. Funders need to address the issues that lead to their own ranks lacking the diversity that they want their grantees and the movement to have. Both they and leaders of NGOs should leave no stone unturned in the effort to foster leadership that better reflects the troops and funds all our units—because civilization as we know it is at stake.

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  • BY Mama Hadija

    ON April 23, 2014 11:14 PM

    Its unfortunate that the most important things in life are usually free and not well funded i.e air, water (technically free), sunlight and then important workers who do work that is the most impirtant are unrecognized and unpaid or underpaid ie mothers, teachers and environmental conservationists (planet savers.)

  • BY Audrey W Peterman

    ON April 25, 2014 06:54 AM

    From our book, Legacy on the Land: A Black Couple Discovers Our National Inheritance and Tells Why Every American Should Care, (2009!)

    “At the heart of the problem is the control of money and power, as white environmental groups compete with each other for funding. Where logic would demand a unified approach in addressing the most fundamental problem of our times, non-governmental organizations are often locked in competition and pursue programs that will help their group raise the most money. ...A 1999 study of foundation grants showed that less than half of one percent of the multi-million dollars they give to environmental groups each year goes to groups of color. ..p.177-78

    I just keep wondering if people have another planet they’re planning to move to? How else could we risk losing a human-life-supporting environment on Earth?

  • BY Mama Hadija

    ON April 27, 2014 12:35 AM

    why do you have to racialize the issue by saying white environmental groups is there a fundamental difrence in approach between white environmental groups and black environmental groups. do these even exist i.e are there white and black environmental groups.

    i just see environmental groups

  • I think lets not base our reasoning on the color/race because despite the skin color the other values must be received in equal share, the racial bit of the story will rob us all our resourceful opinions

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