In 2009, more than half of all contributions, gifts and grants to environmental public charities went to just two percent of organizations: those with budgets of more than $5 million. Data from the National Center for Charitable Statistics show that, despite never comprising more than 2 percent of all environmental organizations, these organizations consistently received at least 40 percent of all contributions going to environment and climate-focused work from 1989 to 2009.
In the face of ecological damage and catastrophic climate change, this has been the response of the environmental funding community. Two percent of groups receive an outsized share of contributions, gifts and grants while the smaller groups that test and build political will for their initiatives struggle.
Additional data from the Foundation Center confirms this turn away from the grassroots. For our latest report Cultivating the Grassroots: A Winning Approach for Environment and Climate Funders, NCRP examined the grantmaking of 701 foundations with at least some grantmaking in the environment from 2007-2009. These organizations averaged more than 8,000 grants totaling $1.6 billion over the time period analyzed.
Yet, among these grantmakers, 46 percent of average grant dollars went to just 50 organizations. Nearly a third went to just 10 organizations.
For grantmakers seeking to build a broad movement to save the planet, this level of concentration is astonishing and should prompt some urgent self-reflection.
Sarah Hansen, author of Cultivating the Grassroots, argues these numbers reflect the tendency of environmental grantmakers to invest in large, well-known national groups:
“Environment and climate funders tend to favor influencing national policy directly – whether because, in their personal experience, change has always been top-down or because, faced with the urgency of our warming planet, they believe top-down approaches are the most expedient option.
Perhaps this approach has its appeal because of current philanthropic trends whereby the boards and CEOs of large foundations desire big impact, or maybe, especially for large funders, it’s easier to make grants to a small number of top-down institutions than many smaller grants to smaller grassroots organizations or even funding intermediaries that regrant smaller amounts.
Whatever the reason, the tendency toward funding large, national, top-down environmental organizations carries with it the assumption that if we assemble and concentrate resources, we can move the needle.”
When the needle by some measures hasn’t moved in two decades, it’s time to question whether this distribution truly helps or hurts the pro-environmental movement.
On the one hand, there are likely a lot of groups too small to have the kind of impact grantmakers are looking for (in which case grantmakers should consider giving large grants to re-granting organizations who could distribute those grants among smaller grassroots organizations). On the other hand, there are big-budget organizations that already enjoy an ample share of foundation attention and resources.
No doubt many organizations at both ends of the budget spectrum do amazing work, but, in between, there is a nonprofit ecosystem of thousands of groups working on everything from green jobs and air pollution to toxics and climate change.
What could these groups accomplish with foundation dollars? Are environmental grantmakers interested in finding out?
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