Where Does the Money Go in Environmental Grantmaking?
A new study by the Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Sustainability Initiative (JEDSI) at the Yale School of the Environment examined nearly $5 billion in grants awarded by 220 foundations in 35 states and found that several of the largest mainstream environmental organizations received more funding individually than did all the environmental justice organizations combined.
The study’s authors, YSE Professor of Environmental Justice and JEDSI Director Dorceta Taylor ’85 MFS, ’91 PhD, and JEDSI Program Manager Molly Blondell say that over the past decade, there has been some research on disparities in grantmaking, including on how organizations led by people of color were less likely to be funded than other kinds of organizations. However, they wanted to determine if such disparities existed in environmental grantmaking specifically and, if so, what factors contributed to the outcomes.
Taylor and Blondell surveyed more than 30,000 environmental and public health grants, with a mean grant size of $160,650, over a three-year period from 2015-2017. They found that organizations’ revenues matter in their ability to attract funding, with more than half of the grant dollars going to organizations with revenues of $20 million or more. Organizations with revenues under $1 million received less than 4% of the grant dollars.
Although environmental organizations working on “core” environmental topics, such as conservation and energy, were funded more frequently, foundations also funded organizations working on issues such as social inequality, justice, empowerment, Indigenous rights, environmental justice, disaster preparedness and relief, housing and homelessness, food assistance and food insecurity, faith and religion, movement building, voter mobilization, workplace and workforce issues, and institutional diversity.
Several of the largest mainstream environmental organizations, however, obtained more funding than all the environmental justice organizations combined, according to the study’s findings. The Sierra Club, for example, received more than $200 million in grants, almost five times what all the environmental justice organizations combined received, while the Monterrey Bay Aquarium Research Institute received about $140 million in grants, over three times what all the environmental justice organizations combined received.
Such disparities can, in part, be explained by advantages in size and staffing. Mainstream environmental organizations often have robust funder networks and in-house grant-writing teams that apply for numerous grants. In contrast, smaller organizations may have fragile funding networks with few funders.
However, Taylor notes that commonly cited arguments that environmental justice organizations tend to be relatively newer and smaller don’t account for all the disparities in funding. “If we take the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), for instance, this organization is older than The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC),” she says. “Like EDF and NRDC, the NAACP relies heavily on legal strategies to achieve its environmental goals. However, the funding the NAACP receives is much less than it is to the other organizations named.”
Disparities also are related to whether an organization is run by people of color, whether they focus on people of color, and whether they are female-run, Taylor says, noting that “most environmental justice organizations are female-led, have a person of color as the chief executive, and focus on people of color.”
Among the most striking findings, she adds, is that although more than half of the foundations surveyed, 56%, funded organizations primarily focusing on people of color, less than 10% of the grants and grant dollars were awarded to these organizations.
“Foundations are hesitant to fund organizations that focus their work on people of color,” Taylor says. “When foundations fund grantees to work on issues focused on people of color, they tend to make small grants. This bias has been found in other studies. It is an entrenched pattern that activists try to highlight and change.”
Other key findings include:
General support grants, highly coveted by grantees, were awarded frequently. However, over 80% of the general support grants went to white-led organizations. Additionally, less than 10% of the general support grants go to organizations focused on people of color.
Male-led organizations obtained about 54% of the grants and more than two-thirds of the grant dollars. White-led organizations obtained more than 80% of the grants and grant dollars. Hence, white-male-led organizations received the most grants and grant dollars. White male-led organizations obtained about 48% of the grants and roughly 61% of the grant dollars awarded.
Approximately 46% of the foundations supported environmental justice organizations. Environmental justice organizations led by people of color obtained 71% of the grants and about 77% of the grant dollars.
The study’s authors say that foundations must identify inequities, including conscious and sub-conscious biases, in their grantmaking processes and provide more general support grants to organizations focused on people of color, environmental justice, and diversity activities.
In the future, they hope to do a more comprehensive assessment of environmental grantmaking that spans a longer timeline.
“Some of the communities that are most in need of funding are the ones getting the least funds to do environmental work.," Taylor says. "We hope that foundations recognize this fact and use our findings to evaluate their grantmaking processes and develop more equitable grantmaking strategies. Greater equity and transparency in grantmaking will further the overarching goal of improving the environment.”